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Industry leaders gather at ASU to address state of U.S. competitiveness

Top experts gather at ASU to brainstorm ways to increase U.S. competitiveness.
January 21, 2020

CEOs, university presidents, researchers brainstorm ways to promote innovation

Many of the country’s top experts in technology and business met at Arizona State University last week to address the urgent issue of enhancing the United States’ competitiveness.

The group, which included CEOs, university presidents and accomplished researchers, was meeting for the first time to launch the National Commission on Innovation and Competitiveness Frontiers, part of the National Council on Competitiveness.

The daylong conference Thursday on the Tempe campus was the first step in a brainstorming process to tackle problems that have allowed the rest of the world to catch up with, and in some cases surpass, the structural competitive advantage of the U.S. Among the critical issues discussed were the decline of manufacturing in the United States, climate change and the rise of China on the global stage.

The commission members must come up with applied solutions, said Mehmood Khan, chairman of the commission and the CEO of Life Biosciences Inc.

“We’re not here to do hypothetical thinking around the distant future of a policy that might change things,” he said.

Khan said that the U.S. rose to dominance for two reasons: embracing immigrants and sharing its innovations.

“Federal investment and research into agriculture was responsible for the single biggest innovation in terms of lives saved. The dwarf wheat program saved a billion lives from famine and not one of them was American.”

mehmood khan

Mehmood Khan, CEO of Life Biosciences and co-chairman of the National Commission on Competitiveness, speaks at the National Commission on Innovation and Competitiveness Frontiers’ Launch Conference at ASU. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

But American dominance is waning, Khan said.

One reason is demographics: A shrinking pool of young people is expected to support a huge generation of old people.

“Our entire infrastructure assumes a large, youthful base to support an older base. However, that system is not viable financially, operationally and most important from a manpower point of view,” he said.

ASU President Michael Crow is university vice-chair of the Council on Competitiveness. In his opening address to the group, he cited ASU as an example of an institution that improved by embracing systemic change.

“We decided that most universities were archaic, bureaucratic structures incapable of serving the United States to the level they needed to serve,” he said.

“More than half the people who go to college in the United States never graduate. Half the money that’s been spent on Pell grants has produced nothing.”

Video by Ken Fagan/ASU Now

After Crow became president in 2002, ASU eliminated 80 academic units, restructured 30 transdisciplinary entities and embraced hundreds of technology partnerships. The four-year graduation rate doubled.

Crow described how the engineering school was reinvented.

“We had a terrible weed-out culture we could not get rid of,” he said. “It was, ‘If you don’t have an A in calculus, too bad for you.’ You could be the greatest dreamer of something that could solve some huge problem but your calculus score was too low.”

So 11 engineering departments were eliminated and five “grand challenge” schools were created, along with the Polytechnic School.

“Ten years later we didn’t have 6,000 engineering students on campus with a 68% freshman retention rate, we had 17,000 engineering students on campus with a 90% freshman retention rate, from a broader spectrum of families. We’ve added thousands of women and thousands of minority students,” he said.

The transformation at ASU is important because it’s a microcosm of what the country needs, Crow said.

“What we need is more innovation, more innovators, more perspectives, more solutions, more energy,” he said, as well as an attitude that extends beyond wishing for more money from the government.

“This is our opportunity to do a reset.”

During the conference, the members divided into working groups and came up with several key issues for further work. Among them was concern about the rise of China. Long a hub of cheap manufacturing, the country is heavily investing in research and development of its technology industry.

Jennifer Curtis, dean of the College of Engineering at the University of California, Davis, said she’s seen a change in the students who are getting PhDs.

“I would say the U.S. is still preeminent in attracting international students to come here, but the big change was that, early in my career, those students would stay in the U.S., but now they are going back for great research and development positions. It will have a huge impact,” she said.

Some members worried about the technology supply chain.

“What China is doing is claiming a lot of territory in that area — not just manufacturing but materials. They’ve cornered the rare earth market,” said Edlyn Levine, lead physicist of the Emerging Technologies Group at the MITRE Corp. and a research associate in the Department of Physics at Harvard University.

She said that the American system isn’t always efficient for innovation.

“When you talk about prototyping or commercializing, if I have something I want to sell to you that I built, what is the barrier of entry in terms of the tax structure, environmental regulations, privacy regulations?” she said.

“Our government is never going to be China, but we should look at what’s hampering us.”

Education and training was another area of concern.

“The innovation engine needs fuel and the fuel is talent and it’s evaporating at the high schools. They don’t understand why it’s important to study calculus and math,” said Andre Doumitt, director of innovation development at the Aerospace Corp., who created an internship for high-school students at his company.

“You can tailor programs and link them to the opportunities that math and science bring because in the aerospace industry, we’re losing these kids to Google and Facebook.”

Deborah Wince-Smith, president and CEO of the Council on Competitiveness, said the new commission draws from all sectors of American business and is a “call to action” to transform the country’s innovation’s capacity.

“We have big challenges around our economic growth numbers,” she said. “Unless we return our productivity levels to historic standards of up to 1.5% to 2% or more per year, we will see, over time, a decline in our standard of living,” she said.

The experts on the National Commission on Innovation and Competitiveness Frontiers are expected to not only contribute their expertise, but also to leverage their powerful networks, Crow said.

“We should just get stuff going,” he said. “Figure out if there’s some way to get something going now — form a network or an alliance, or a new kind of business development methodology, or think about educational progress in a new way.

“We have to find a way to make innovation and competitiveness more egalitarian across the entirety of our society.”

Top image: Edlyn Levine, lead physicist of the Emerging Technologies Group at the MITRE Corp. and a research associate in the Department of Physics at Harvard University, speaks at the National Commission on Innovation and Competitiveness Frontiers Launch Conference at ASU last week. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU Now


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Celebrated author speaks on reclaiming the fantasy novel at ASU

January 21, 2020

Marlon James, author of "Black Leopard, Red Wolf," touched on Afrofuturism, transcending timeworn mythologies

Marlon James is a writer for a few reasons: It brings him joy. It allows him to address cultural erasure. It quiets the characters in his head who won’t let him sleep until he brings them to life.

But mostly he writes because he doesn’t know what else he’d do with himself.

“This is my vocation and my job,” James told the crowd packed into Old Main’s Carson Ballroom on Arizona State University’s Tempe campus Friday night. “And what I do in the world, what I see in the world — I want to make sense of it. … But also, there’s a lot of (stuff) I need to get off my chest.”

The celebrated author, whose New York Times best-selling novel “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” was recently optioned for the big screen by “Black Panther” star Michael B. Jordan, was at ASU in advance of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday to participate in a dialogue called “Reclaiming the Fantasy Novel” as part of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies’ Race Before Race symposium.

The annual symposium brings together medieval and early modern race scholars, students and community members for two days of presentations and discussions that consider the study of race through the framework of classical texts and inspire cross-temporal dialogues about race. 

Center Director Ayanna Thompson introduced James on Friday, saying that while questions of appropriation, adaptation and authority of narratives swirled in attendees’ minds after last year’s symposium, “a creative genius plunged headlong into the same waters but through a work of stunning complexity and beauty: the 2019 novel ‘Black Leopard, Red Wolf.’”

Who better to discuss “power, history, knowledge and ownership than Marlon James?” Thompson asked the audience, and was met with widespread applause.

A native of Jamaica, James is the author of four novels. His novel “A Brief History of Seven Killings” won him the 2015 Man Booker Prize for Fiction, making him the first Jamaican author to take home the U.K.’s most prestigious literary award. In the novel, James explores his country’s history through the perspectives of multiple narrators and genres to shed light on the untold history of Jamaica in the 1970s, touching on the assassination attempt on reggae musician Bob Marley, as well as the country’s struggles during the Cold War.

He cites influences as diverse as Greek tragedy, William Faulkner, Shakespeare and Batman.

At the event, James chatted with Michael Bennett, an associate research professor with appointments at ASU’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society and Center for Science and the Imagination, about everything from why he writes, to how he writes, to the role of music and violence in his work, to what it means to be a queer person of color writing fantasy.

It all started with some great advice from Toni Morrison: Write the novel you want to read.

James has always been a lover of the fantasy genre, calling himself a “fantasy geek,” but said he rarely — if ever — saw himself in the stories he read.

“Reading these novels, as person of color, you double read them,” he said. “Part of it is feeling (like you’re) not part of this world. … So I’m inspired by responding to erasure.”

Several attendees submitted questions for James ahead of time, many of which asked about his writing process. After addressing what inspires him, he talked about the importance of creating a routine and a defined space to work, even if it's just at your local Starbucks.

Though James is a huge music fan and music plays a big role in his work, he said he doesn’t listen to it while he writes, because it would be too distracting. Rather, he listens to it on the way to his writing space.

“One of best things you can do for yourself as a creative person is will this kind of synesthesia,” he said. “A lot of fearlessness I get inspired by is from listening to jazz. … There’s something about listening, seeing, hearing, reading artists pushing the boundaries of their own time.”

He’s also a fan of reggae (“It’s music that deals with very complicated, political situations,” he said), Prince and even some metal.

“The musician is a historian,” James said of his respect for practitioners of the art form and the reason it looms so large over his own work. “The person who keeps truth from generation to generation.”

The auditory quality of words is something he said he’s constantly considering as he writes, wanting to be sure what he has written sounds just as good spoken aloud as it looks on the page. He stops short of reading his entire novel out loud, though, joking that it would be “very painful.”

When Bennett brought up the topic of violence, James replied that he doesn’t actually think there is a lot of violence in his books.

“There’s not a lot of it, but it resonates,” he said. “If it doesn’t resonate, then you’re numb.”

On the subject of mythology and its influence on the fantasy genre, James pointed out that what J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis had that many writers of Afrofuturism don’t is an abundant and well-documented canon.

“One thing I bring up about Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and others, is what it must feel like to take your mythologies for granted,” James said. “The average British person doesn’t realize how much they’re still clinging to Arthur and Camelot.

“But for me, trying to write these stories and not having that mythology … Some survived but a lot didn’t.”

Bennett commented that it must be fascinating to go through the experience of creating your own mythologies and then watching them become a new resource individuals can use to “frame events in an increasingly chaotic world.”

“Yeah, especially if you’re black and queer,” James replied.

At that, Bennett parlayed the conversation toward the buzz surrounding a film adaptation of “Black Leopard, Red Wolf,” for which Barry Jenkins, who wrote the script for “Moonlight,” has signed on.

“That makes me very happy because I’m a big fan of ‘Moonlight,’” James said. “It’s also a sign that he’ll keep the queer elements in.”

He’s not worried about Jenkins adding to the story, though:

“I’m not interested in something that follows the novel to a T. Bring something else to it!”

Top photo: Marlon James (right) speaks to a crowd of scholars, students and community members at ASU's Tempe campus Friday, Jan. 18. Photo by Megan Potter/ASU Now