Additive manufacturing technology is just one that is radically reshaping the way products are made, manufactured, distributed and sold. Artificial intelligence, robotics, blockchain, autonomous vehicles and many other technological advancements are reinventing trade—with the potential to disrupt supply chains around the world.
The good news is that trade policy (as opposed to trade politics) is beginning to take notice. The new trade agreement between the US, Mexico and Canada (“NAFTA 2.0”), as well as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership between 11 Pacific Rim countries, both have significant chapters dedicated to e-commerce and digital trade. In January of this year, over 70 nations decided to start negotiations that will establish new global trade rules on electronic commerce, under the auspices of the World Trade Organization.
While the trade debate between the US and China appears to be about things like soybeans, steel and shoes, it’s actually about the next economy. Intellectual property is at the heart of the dispute, specifically Chinese efforts to use technology developed in the US and elsewhere to power their own technological leaps in areas critical to the new economy, such as artificial intelligence, batteries and robotics. Policymakers in the US fear that intellectual property theft could force investors to transfer technologies to their Chinese partners, not only fueling Chinese economic and technological dominance, but undermining US national security now and into the future.
Trade politics in America and around the world have focused for years on the plight of workers and farmers in the American heartland who are displaced by changes in trade, be it in steel, textiles, autos or agriculture. But the new economy is powered by services that are enabled by technological advances that are radically changing how things are made and where they are made.
What should governments and businesses in the US and around the world be doing to equip workers for these changes? The challenge is not only to transition older workers displaced by technology and changing supply chains, but to prepare a global workforce for a future where fiber optics, not shipping lanes, are the thread that knits the world together.