Parag and Ayesha Khanna foresee a hybrid future, and it’s great

The Washington Post |

By Chris Schroeder

"Globalization” isn’t a popular word in political circles these days, but authors Parag and Ayesha Khanna are making it their life’s mission to change that. In their new e-book, “Hybrid Reality,” the couple argue that the burgeoning forces of worldwide connectedness and shared innovation will open opportunities to all who understand and embrace them.

Look at it this way: We already make decisions based on the experiences and expertise of other people. We shop, plan trips and pick restaurants based on the advice of people we’ve never met. We manage our health care, sharing our conditions with others who have “been there.” We form our opinions about the world based on blogs and videos posted by everyday people reporting from the ground. And we supplement our children’s education with tips, classes and tutoring posted on YouTube.

And these, the Khannas say, are just the early steps in an unprecedented process of creating human connections — what they call “hybrids” — through technology.

The result, they argue, will be that “a balance of innovation” will define a nation’s future more than military power and GDP size. “When technology so permeates our physical and social lives,” Parag says, “we cannot make policy about education, health care, the economy, security without taking it into account as the driver.”

It would be hard to find two people better equipped to prepare us for these changes.

Parag is a leading expert in global affairs, having worked for influential think tanks and as Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s only civilian adviser “down range” in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Ayesha is a sought-after adviser to major financial institutions and urban planners, to whom she explains the role of technology to improve lives and make them more secure. He has a PhD in political economy from the London School of Economics; she is studying for hers in information systems and innovation at the same school. He emigrated as a boy from the Punjab area of India, by way of the United Arab Emirates, to Chappaqua, N.Y. She came from a similar middle class background, also Punjabi, but from the other side of the border in Pakistan.

A chance meeting in New York City in 2005 turned into hours of conversation on how the world was changing. “At some point we realized that we understood our own worlds better in the context of the other’s domain. That’s when our friendship turned into an intellectual partnership,” Aye­sha recalls. Now married with two young children, they have logged hundreds of thousands of miles together, traveling nearly 300 days last year alone, paying their way through extensive consulting and writing. They interview, write about and advise some of the world’s leading thinkers, scientists, innovators, entrepreneurs and policymakers. Among those they have advised: Alvin and Heidi Toffler, Nicholas Negroponte of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Jeremy Bailenson, who runs Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab.

Over a cup of tea in a D.C. hotel restaurant before sprinting to his next plane, Parag speaks quickly about his travels as if everyone leads his life.

A self-described “adventurer-scholar,” his eyes lock in closely and his words slow as he articulates how predictions he has made in recent years — including in “The Second World,” a book in which he foresaw the rise of emerging markets and the shift in economic and political power — are becoming a reality.

Parag has long envisaged a world governed less by superpowers or even by the uneasy post-Cold War standoff between states and terrorists than by individuals empowered by technology. For the first time, he believes, great economic and market influence is rising bottom-up from expanded access to the creativity and innovation of the best minds and rapidly growing businesses throughout Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe and Latin America. “What so many fail to understand,” Parag says, “is that psychological barriers are dropping all over the world. When you no longer think of yourself as just pawns in a superpower battle, or playing in a rigged game, you want to step up.”

From London, over Skype and e-mail, Ayesha expands upon the idea. When individuals emphasize their own personal responsibility, she says, and hold institutions to the same — as we’ve recently seen in the Middle East — oppressive regimes will eventually fail to dominate. “One key message of this book is that the superpowers of the future won’t be a China or even an America,” Parag says, “but Technology with a big T. And that T also means an unquenchable demand for transparency. The question is who will use it more quickly and wisely.”

“Hybrid Reality” is critical of political leaders’ inability to embrace the hybrid age. “The Internet is clearly creating more jobs than it destroys, but politicians won’t say this,” Parag says. “Every ‘universal utility’ like electricity could be blamed for loss of jobs in, say, coal mining. Was that a bad thing overall?”

Governments, the Khannas say, should eliminate regulations that interfere with innovation, such as visa laws that keep the best and brightest talent from easy access to nations’ markets. And they should support localized efforts at problem solving, including allowing cities to conduct their own trade and investment promotion. “People realize down at the community level their great needs and capabilities,” Ayesha says. “This devolution of power also leads to healthy competition to generate the best ideas. We have to embrace local potential.”

How are the Khannas preparing their children for the hybrid world? For Ayesha, the future of learning is, well, a hybrid — combining traditional education with home schooling, supported by resources available on and offline. “Our kids are very little, but we regularly join other parents either in groups or online to compare notes on parenting. The key is to use technology to help children creatively understand and create new knowledge.”

With their e-book and recently launched Hybrid Reality Institute — a virtual research and consulting nonprofit organization to attract innovators — the Khannas’ pace, if anything, is increasing. And they are about to pack up and move to Singapore, “the world’s foremost place that is relentlessly seeking to incorporate new technologies,” Parag explains. Ayesha adds, “I hope our kids will see the world as one of opportunity in which they are free to be creative and experiment and to be adventurous. I hope that they will be empathetic and nonjudgmental, because life is more fun when one is open to different people and adventures. And I hope that they will learn to be responsible with technology, to respect it, but also to realize its potential.”

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