January 14, 2011| 0

A New Decade: What Can Marty McFly Teach Us About Change and Global Poverty?

My wife and I recently channel-surfed upon Back to the Future Part II, televised on AMC. This second installment of the blockbuster series, released in 1989, found Marty McFly and Doc Brown time traveling to 2015. With a fashion sense resembling a melted, multi-color box of highlighters and nifty hoverboard technology that would make our daily commutes a lot more interesting, the film’s depiction of the future is somewhat comical. While four calendar years remain before we join McFly and Doc Brown in 2015, it is clear that predicting what will happen in the future is difficult work.

Recently, Time Magazine published some reflections of the past decade. Just like the off-based predictions in Back to the Future Part II, recent years have exposed similar misfires. Remember Bill Gates’ statement in 2004 at the World Economic Forum: “Two years from now, spam will be solved.” If only we were so fortunate.

Perhaps humanity as a whole is prone to think too highly of its capacity to project progress. We’re finite, for sure, but looking back and understanding where we’ve been helps us set a course for the future.

Studying economic metrics can be insightful, especially when revealing where we are falling short as a culture. On a global scale, the number of billionaires is on the rise from 306 in 2000 to 1,011 in 2010. The increase of the world’s richest individuals coincided not only with increasing luxury markets (in Russia, 0 Bentleys were sold in 2000 compared to 103 in 2010), but also with escalating wealth in Brazil and China.

At the same time, poverty — defined as people in a state of undernourishment — increased from 857 million to 925 million in this decade. On a U.S. level, Reuters found that the poverty rate rose to 14.3 percent in 2009, a 15-year high. While the last decade signified many positive results as the worldwide middle class grew, it is important to temper this information with the growing disparity between the rich and economically impoverished.

It's estimated that more than 3 billion people live on less than $2.50 a day. Research by Paul Collier and others indicates that as many as 60 nations have seen little to no income growth since the 1980s. These billions of people around the world could benefit through sustainable frameworks that allow for the fair exchange of goods and services.

The "Bottom Billions/Bottom Line" conference (April 1–2 at SPU) will welcome business and thought leaders from around the nation to explore ways in which we all can change how business does business and contribute to human flourishing. It's open to anyone interested in innovative, practical ways to help the world's poor — from within "big business" or smaller start-ups.

A new year prompts new hopes and new commitments. Imagine reviewing trends 10 years from now and seeing some of these statistics on global poverty changing for the better.

Although Back to the Future and Bill Gates missed the mark in predicting the future, there is value in imagining what is to come, especially when it prompts hard work for the betterment of others. How might the world look in 10 years if we really decide to chip away at global poverty? What have been the biggest changes for you in the last decade? What historical metrics do you watch in thinking about the future? Are you pessimistic or hopeful? When will we finally develop hoverboard technology?

Donovan Richards is the graduate assistant for the Center for Integrity in Business at Seattle Pacific University.

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