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David Robinson: Economist visiting Buffalo foresees a new global model

French economist Philippe Dessertine is convinced big changes are coming to the global economy.

Dessertine, a University of Paris professor and a member of the panel that sets economic forecasts for the French government, recently came to Buffalo on the invitation of M&T Bank Chairman Robert G. Wilmers to share his economic vision with a group of top local business leaders.

His message: The world is on the verge of a new economic model, based on new science and technology, and shaped by growing concerns about climate change.

"This is one of the most important turning points in human history," Dessertine said in an interview. "We have to consume and produce differently."

The type of radical change that Dessertine predicts is possible because of the sweeping changes in technology and data analysis.

  • New technology and Big Data that allows medical experts to analyze the human genome and come up with new treatments that have a better chance of succeeding because they are based on a patient's individual genetic patterns.
  • The development of artificial intelligence, which at some point could create a next generation of machines that can think, comprehend and learn on their own.
  • Advances in additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing technology, which could turn the manufacturing process on its head. Instead of making products by taking raw materials and shaving them down to their desired shape, 3-D printing builds them from the ground up, adding layer upon layer in a process that allows manufacturers to produces intricately designed parts and eliminate waste in the production process.
  • Hanging over it all are growing concerns about climate change, which threatens to disrupt the environment and create potentially catastrophic shifts in weather patterns and sea levels. Stopping it requires more renewable energy and less reliance on fossil fuels, like coal, oil and natural gas.

"You can use new technologies to invent a new model," Dessertine said. "Everything comes from mathematics."

Those changes now are only in the early stages, but their impact is being felt already. Mostly in a growing sense of fear – the fear of the unknown and the fear of being left behind by the sweeping changes that are coming, Dessertine said.

"When you've got a very big technology revolution, you've got a very big fear," he said.

That fear, Dessertine said, manifested itself in the Brexit vote, where Great Britain decided to split away from the European Union and leave a gaping hole in the common economic market that had shaped Europe for more than a decade.

"Brexit was a vote for fear," Dessertine said. "Fear for the lives of our children and our own position in society.

"It was not a good vote for anyone," Dessertine said. "It was close to an absolute disaster."

But not quite. The victory in this spring's French election of Emmanuel Macron, who defeated a conservative candidate on promises of non-partisan rule and an end to traditional Left-versus-Right politics, may stave off further erosion, Dessertine said.

"After the Macron election, it was quite different," he said. "The rest of Europe will maintain the link and reinforce it, maybe."

In some ways, Dessertine is the mirror image of President Trump. With immigration a controversial issue in both Europe and the United States, Dessertine said the best way to stop an exodus from poorer countries is to invest heavily in them, creating economic opportunities that allow people in impoverished nations to better their lot without uprooting their families.

"We have to invest; invest a lot," he said.

But that will take billions of dollars and a huge political change, Dessertine concedes.

"We have a big distance to go to create a new model," he said.

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