Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Skip to main content

Peter Schwartz Pinpoints Ten Areas to Make a Global Impact, Find Success

May 16, 2009

Peter Schwartz Pinpoints Ten Areas to Make a Global Impact, Find Success

Futurist and author addresses nearly 1,900 graduates at Rensselaer’s 203rd Commencement, President Jackson urges graduates to shape the 21st century

Realizing the vision of a peaceful, prosperous world of 2050 will require monumental innovation, collaboration, and leadership, Peter Schwartz ’68 told the Class of 2009 at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. The futurist, business strategist, alumnus, and author of The Art of the Long View addressed nearly 1,900 graduating students and their families at Rensselaer’s 203rd Commencement on May 16 on the Harkness Field.

“Of the many millions of young people on this planet only a relatively few get the opportunity for the kind of education you and I have had,” Schwartz said. “So you are free to pursue your interests wherever they make take you. But you have an obligation to pursue that interest in such a way that you make the world a better place than you found it.” 

Schwartz said he believes the world of 2050 will be one of clean and sustainable energy production, transportation, and manufacturing. He imagines much of the world being lifted out of poverty, education being elevated to a global priority, and advanced medicine unlocking vast new powers over the functions and capabilities of the human body. But this vision is far from certain, Schwartz said, noting how the last two eras of rapid technological advancement yielded drastically different results — the technological advances of the early 20th century were followed by the Great Depression and a pair of world wars, while the technological boom following World War II resulted in 50 years of growth and progress. 

“Whether the next half-century resembles the first half or the second half of the last century is very much in the hands of your generation,” he told graduates. “Is the future chaos and war, or peace and prosperity? Your capacity for innovation and leadership will largely determine which scenario actually unfolds.”

Schwartz identified for graduates “10 things worth doing with your life,” or 10 key areas he deems ripe for growth and advancement, a topic he encounters often in his position as head of the forward-thinking strategic consulting firm Global Business Network, a Monitor company. In addition to making the world a better place and helping to realize a positive vision for 2050, each of the 10 areas is a channel with the potential for fortunes to be made and Nobel prizes to be won, he said.

“The first and most important challenge is energy for the long term. That means it must be non-polluting and inexhaustible,” he said, citing the combination of today’s solar and wind power technologies with tomorrow’s potential energy sources including fusion and gasoline-excreting molecules. “We need something new for the long run, and it will require new physics, new chemistry, new materials, new biology, or likely some combination … We need more elegant solutions to producing energy to meet humanities long-term needs.”  

Following energy on Schwartz’s list is a “bio-industrial revolution,” which calls for the new field of synthetic biology to inform a reassessment and adjustment of manufacturing, so that production of items and goods is far more energy efficient and environmentally sustainable. “If we succeed in these first two challenges then it is likely that another three to four billions of people can live well and sustainably on this planet,” he said. 

The third item on Schwartz’s list is the human brain, and developing new means to reduce the loss of faculties that come with aging. Agriculture is another endeavor worth devoting one’s life to, he said, as we critically need new solutions to make feeding the world less expensive and less water- and energy-intensive. With population growth on a steep trajectory, urban planning, civil engineering, and smart architecture will be necessary to build new sustainable cities, he said.

Business and management majors must look to drive economic growth and create jobs, Schwartz emphasized, while artists, scientists, and engineers should try to further fuse technological, spiritual, and aesthetic dimensions of human culture, such as what Rensselaer is pursuing with its Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC). A related item on Schwartz’s list is building the next generation of great scientific and technological instruments. Just as the Hubble Space Telescope and Large Hadron Collider have been constant sources of major new discoveries, he encouraged graduates to develop the tools that will lay the foundation for future knowledge creation.

Another cause worth dedicating one’s life to is using increasingly powerful biological tools and knowledge to help humankind guide its own future evolution. For example, he said, it may soon be possible to extend youthful human life by decades, or regenerate parts of the body that need repair. The final item on Schwartz’s list is discovering new ways to radically lower the cost and environmental impact of space flight, and developing new ways, such as a space elevator, to get into space. 

“Our knowledge of the mysteries of the universe and our ability to explore it both from the vicinity of the earth and deeper into space will still be a source of challenge and inspiration,” Schwartz said. “And of course our knowledge of human biology has given us vast new powers over the human future. What to do with that power will be central to the debates of your time.” 

If humanity meets these 10 challenges, Schwartz said, the world will almost certainly be vastly improved when the Class of 2009 reaches his age. He challenged students to live a life from which they can look back and feel a sense of satisfaction and profound accomplishment.

“Despite being an aging hippie and seriously concerned about the environment, I have come to learn that there are no limits to growth other than human creativity,” he said. “We live in a knowledge economy — in fact knowledge has exceptional value in nearly every realm. It is new knowledge, creatively applied, that is the source of human wealth. Every knowledge base is needed, everyone here, from engineers to scientists to architects, artists, managers and entrepreneurs ... so sign up for one the challenges.”

When pursuing a life of excellence and global impact, however, graduates should not assume they can do it alone, Schwartz said. Collaboration is a key ingredient of progress.

“At some point in the next few years, probably by the time you are 30 ... you will have to make a life trajectory decision that no one tells you about: Are you mainly going to work on your own or work through others?” Schwartz said. “Many engineers, scientists, artists, poets, writers have great lives working mostly by themselves. But there are many things you cannot do on your own. If you want to lead research teams in larger organizations, or design and construct new buildings, or make movies or start new businesses, the skills of human collaboration are essential to success.”

In Schwartz’s case, he recounted stories of three major influences and collaborators from his time as a student at Rensselaer who helped shape his future, and whose friendship and guidance were integral parts of his success. He and Herb Hodgson, the Protestant chaplain on campus, got to know each other though civil rights and peace activism, and then after graduation at a residential education experiment in California. These experiences, Schwartz said, honed his ability to be a leader. 

The second major influence on his life was Merritt Abrash, or Mickey, a professor of history who opened Schwartz’s eyes to the history and evolution of ideas, and how short-sighted humanity can be in its decision making. The third individual was Joe Duffy, professor of aeronautical engineering and astronautics, whose lessons informed Schwartz’s early studies into climate change.

“Duffy not only gave me the tools to gain insight into the complex dynamics of the climate, he gave me two important threads in my life ever since. Because of that early work on climate change I continue to be heavily involved in the issue and currently spend a great deal of my time on it. And it gave me a real appreciation for complexity, which continues to serve me very well,” Schwartz said. “ Herb, Mickey, and Duffy gave me the tools to build a successful business, take the long view, and appreciate the complexity of reality.”

After graduating from Rensselaer in 1968, Schwartz went on to co-found and become chairman of Global Business Network, a Monitor Group company, and a partner of the Monitor Group, a family of professional services firms devoted to enhancing client competitiveness and growth. Schwartz specializes in scenario planning, working with corporations, governments, and institutions to create alternative perspectives of the future and develop robust strategies for a changing and uncertain world. His first book, The Art of the Long View, is considered a seminal publication on scenario planning and has been translated into multiple languages. 

Jackson urges graduates to transcend global crises, shape the 21st century
Rensselaer President Shirley Ann Jackson charged the Class of 2009 to be bold and innovative, even in the face of global turbulence and uncertainty, as they venture forth to into the next chapter of their lives.

“A Rensselaer graduate should never be afraid, because it is well understood that this university enrolls the best of the best, and that it takes a great deal of intellectual vigor and hard work to succeed here,” Jackson said. “If your abilities have not yet been noticed, they will not go unnoticed for long,”

Graduates pursuing jobs and entering the workplace, as well as those who will continue onward in academia, are proceeding into uncharted terrain, Jackson said. The reigning generation of leaders in science, engineering, industry, and art are struggling to create new platforms to solve current and future global problems, which range from energy supply and climate change to international poverty and the possibility of a worldwide influenza pandemic. These efforts continue, she said, and must persist despite the current backdrop of an international financial crisis.

“The world is facing enormous, even critical challenges, and they lend certain urgency to the idea of progress. However, all of you find yourselves in the fortunate position of having been educated to contribute to that progress — indeed, to direct and to shape it,” Jackson said. “Times like this, also, are liberating for the world at large, as we shake loose outmoded ways of thinking ... which have caused our current crises. Fortunately, we are also in the midst of a great new age of discovery, as thinkers across a broad milieu work to solve the large problems that confront us — thinkers like you.” 

Jackson urged graduates to remember that an individual is never defined by a first job, particularly when today’s employment landscape is necessarily impacted by the current economic situation. Instead, she said, the Class of 2009 should concentrate on factors within their power to control, and seek out meaningful endeavors such as volunteering, traveling and living abroad, or continuing their education.

“Above all, be willing to take a risk and enjoy the freedom offered even by a moment of upheaval. Times like this one can be liberating. Things may not proceed according to plan, but an unplanned move can help you discover talents you may not yet know that you possess,” Jackson said. “A little bit of well-placed struggle is all it takes to draw out extraordinary courage, discipline, and resourcefulness in talented people.”

Recounting the inspiring example of Schwartz and this year’s other honorands, Jackson encouraged students to keep focused on a strategic goal, yet remain nimble enough to recognize when a tactical shift is necessary to best tackle the challenge at hand. Optimism in the midst of adversary is another key virtue, as is not being intimidated to pursue an idea that has never before been attempted or accomplished.

“Always be skeptical, graduates, of any argument that threatens to rob you of a dream,” Jackson said. “I believe we have given you roots, and we have prepared you well to grow, to flourish, and to succeed in your chosen professions, in your continued education, and in your personal lives. Be proud of what you have achieved. And remember, this is just the beginning of a lifelong journey.”

Class President David Drew commends classmates for meeting, surpassing expectations
Class President David Drew congratulated the Class of 2009 on their shared accomplishments, but said an even longer path ahead of them will be living out the character and quality that is expected of Rensselaer graduates.

“As we depart today with these official doctrines, I cannot believe the amount of responsibility that will be carried with it in the oncoming years,” said Drew, of Freeville, N.Y., who graduated with a major in biochemistry and biophysics. “We are Rensselaer graduates. In the world that we are all about to enter, we carry the name and reputation of 185 previous years of excellence. We will go on to change the world, to innovate society, and to progress science and technology. But it’s not just that we want to and will do these things, it is expected that we will do these things. Reflecting on these past years I realize that this education has given us much and in its giving it has also prepared us to successfully meet these expectations.”

Citing an ancient Greek proverb, Kalepa Ta Kala, or “naught without labor,” Drew said a university diploma is only worth the accumulation of effort a student puts forth over his or her undergraduate career. In addition to doing homework and cramming for tests, Rensselaer students live life adventurously and productively through participating in clubs, athletics, sororities and fraternities, and networking with alumni, he said. 

“Those things that we enjoy and love to do are, in fact, the very foundation for which we will start to meet those expectations the world has of us,” Drew said. “I guarantee that the connections we’ve made and the skills that we learned outside the classroom will come in handy just as much as the fact that we know how to take the derivation of the natural log of X raised to the umpteenth power. We would have nothing if it weren’t for the labor we poured into making this degree count.” 

Drew thanked his classmates for four years of friendship, and urged them to remember Kalepa Ta Kala

“As we move on to our new professions or our graduate studies, remember all of the work we have done in laying this foundation for our future.  From this point we can only progress, building a sturdy structure on top of it,” Drew said.

Celebrated guests awarded honorary degrees
In addition to delivering the commencement address, Schwartz received an honorary doctorate of humane letters. Rensselaer also bestowed honorary degrees upon Kenneth I. Chenault, Samuel Josefowitz ’42, and Robert C. Richardson.

Chenault, the chairman and chief executive officer of American Express Company, received an honorary doctorate of laws. A groundbreaking global business leader and mentor, he joined American Express in 1981 after a distinguished career as a consultant and attorney. Chenault is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and currently serves on the boards of American Express and several other corporate and nonprofit organizations. A wide variety of civic, social service, and community organizations have recognized him for his public service leadership. 

Josefowitz, an industrial and chemical engineer and one of the world’s most influential collectors of Post-Impressionist art, received an honorary doctorate of engineering. As a businessman and entrepreneur, Josefowitz built some of the world’s largest record and book clubs, pioneering new ways of delivering culture and entertainment. In 1980, Josefowitz sold his business in order to concentrate on art, where his interests include Polynesian, Indonesian, and Pre-Columbian art, as well as Post-Impressionism. In 1998, Josefowitz, who had always generously lent and donated his art to museums, was honored with a gallery for his Pont-Aven collection in the Indianapolis Museum of Art. In 2005, he was made an officer in the Légion d’honneur by the French government in recognition of his extraordinary contributions to French culture.

Richardson, who received an honorary doctorate of science, is the F.R. Newman Professor of Physics and senior vice provost for research, emeritus, at Cornell University. Richardson’s collaborative research in low-temperature physics has been recognized with numerous prestigious prizes and awards, including the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1996. Richardson is a fellow of numerous professional societies and his service on many national governing boards has helped set research and higher education policy. Of his many accomplishments, Richardson often highlights his 30 years of teaching college physics.

Contact: Michael Mullaney
Phone: (518) 276-6161


For general inquiries:

About Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Founded in 1824, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is America’s first technological research university. Rensselaer encompasses five schools, 32 research centers, more than 145 academic programs, and a dynamic community made up of more than 7,600 students and more than 100,000 living alumni. Rensselaer faculty and alumni include more than 145 National Academy members, six members of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, six National Medal of Technology winners, five National Medal of Science winners, and a Nobel Prize winner in Physics. With nearly 200 years of experience advancing scientific and technological knowledge, Rensselaer remains focused on addressing global challenges with a spirit of ingenuity and collaboration.