Looking toward the Future in a Rear-view Mirror

Fifty people who shaped a decade” appeared in the  Financial Times Friday. It was an engaging year-end feature, headlined “Politicians, business leaders, economists, activists, artists and sports stars who changed the world around them in ten years marked by austerity, populism and the march of technology.”

At the end of the online version, the editors asked, “Who did we miss? Who would you add?” Two names immediately came to mind: Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist, and Jair Bolsonaro, Brazilian president and despoiler of the Amazon rain forest.

That got me thinking about the ways in which looking back can systematically cause us to overlook clues to the future. I proceeded to rearrange the FT’s list in the following way. You can read their original treatment here, along with eighteen mini-essays by staffers who participated in the selection.

Nationalist politicians: Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkish president; Nigel Farage, Brexiter who changed Britain; Mohamed Bouazizi, Tunisian street vendor whose death in 2010 set the Arab Spring in motion; Emmanuel Macron, French president; Narendra Modi, Indian prime minister; Sérgio Moro, anti-graft Brazilian judge turned politician; Vladimir Putin, Russian president; Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s Quds Force; Mohammed bin Salman, combustible Saudi crown prince; Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader; Donald Trump, US president; Xi Jinping, Chinese president.

Regulators: Mario Draghi, European central bank president, 2011-2019; Larry Fink, BlackRock’s dealmaker; Haruhiko Kuroda, Bank of Japan governor; Christine Lagarde. IMF managing director, 2011-2019. European Central Bank president, 2019-; Margrethe Vestager, EU commissioner for competition.

Technologists: Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder and chief executive; Tim Cook, Apple chief executive; Reed Hastings, Netflix co-founder, chair and chief executive; Travis Kalanick, controversial co-founder of Uber; Jack Ma, Alibaba co-founder; Sergio Marchionne, Italian business leader and automotive executive; Elon Musk, Tesla founder and chief executive; Susan Wojcicki, YouTube chief executive; Ren Zhengfei, Huawei founder and chief executive; Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder, chairman and chief executive.

Corporate chieftains: Jamie Dimon, JPMorgan chair and chief executive; Bernard Arnault, LVMH luxury brands chief executive.

Crooks: Elizabeth Holmes, founder of Theranos; Aubrey McClendon, shale revolutionary.

Entertainers:; David Attenborough, British natural historian and broadcaster; Kevin Feige, Marvel movies mastermind; Kylie Jenner, Gen Z make-up entrepreneur; Lionel Messi vs Cristiano Ronaldo, battlers to be football’s goat; Taylor Swift, the world’s most powerful pop star; Serena Williams, US tennis superstar.

Thought leaders: Jennifer Doudna, American biochemist and genetic engineer; Koch brothers, mega-donors to the US right; Bill and Melinda Gates, US philanthropists; Rose McGowan, campaigning #metoo actor; Rupert Murdoch, News Corp, founder; Thomas Piketty, economist, authority on inequality; Grigory Rodchenkov, whistleblower on Russian sport; Edward Snowden, US intelligence whistleblower; Joshua Wong, Hong Kong political activist; Malala Yousafzai, Pakistani feminist activist and Nobel laureate;

Peacemakers:  Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopian prime minister; Angela Merkel, German chancellor; Barack Obama, US president 2008-16.

Of the peacemakers, two are Nobel Peace Prize laureates and Angela Merkel is a plausible contender. The Norwegians who vote the award have a pretty good record of identifying the leading edge of long-term global change.

All good wishes for the Twenties!


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