President Obama’s final State of the Union address is currently trending on Medium, which is pretty much what you might expect given Medium is where the White House decided to release it (take that, Facebook! — though a piece about building Instagram has about twice as many recommendations, but I digress…).
I watched the speech last night while at a company retreat with 18 of my colleagues from NewCo. Over and over, the President hit on trends consistent with our thesis of fundamental change in business and culture. For example, he spoke of decoupling benefits such as healthcare from employers, because in the NewCo era, people move between jobs a lot more (or are self employed, or want to leap into a startup). Obama spoke of living in a time of extraordinary technological and social change, of a deepening and troubling social inequality, of optimism and hard work and a right to thrive in “this new economy.”
But what really got my attention was when he addressed innovation and coupled it to climate change, about halfway through his speech.
“We’ve protected an open internet,” he said, “We’ve launched next-generation manufacturing hubs, and online tools that give an entrepreneur everything he or she needs to start a business in a single day.”
A very NewCo sentiment. But then he turned his focus squarely on climate change, which I believe will be the defining issue of both business and culture over the next 40 years. First, he set up those who would deny that climate change is real (pretty much the entire Republican establishment). Making a direct reference to the era of Mutually Assured Destruction — which until climate change marked the only time mankind created an existential threat to humanity — Obama ridiculed climate deniers:
“When the Russians beat us into space, we didn’t deny Sputnik was up there. We didn’t argue about the science, or shrink our research and development budget. We built a space program almost overnight, and twelve years later, we were walking on the moon.”
Jabbing further, Obama continued:
“Look, if anybody still wants to dispute the science around climate change, have at it. You’ll be pretty lonely, because you’ll be debating our military, most of America’s business leaders, the majority of the American people, almost the entire scientific community, and 200 nations around the world who agree it’s a problem and intend to solve it.”
And then he landed a devastating left hook (the President is left handed, after all):
“But even if the planet wasn’t at stake; even if 2014 wasn’t the warmest year on record — until 2015 turned out even hotter — why would we want to pass up the chance for American businesses to produce and sell the energy of the future?”
BAM! Nothing like turning the single biggest threat to humanity into a massive business opportunity with one rhetorical flourish! It was almost laughable to watch the gallery respond to that one, as the Democrats applauded thunderously, and the climate-denying right wing struggled to figure out if they just missed something important.
Because, truth is, they are missing out. If the United States doesn’t lead in the transition to a business culture that values sustainability, clean energy, and a work ethos that views people not as replaceable “human resources” but rather as invaluable creative assets, well, the rest of the world will lap us within a generation.
In my travels to NewCo festivals in Barcelona, Amsterdam, Istanbul, London, and soon Mexico City, I’ve seen the future, and it couldn’t care less about our internal debate about climate change, sustainability, and work culture. The future’s already happening. We can either lead, or get pushed out of the way. What excited me about last night is that for the first time, I heard a sitting President say exactly that. And once again, it gave me hope.