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The CEO agenda for an era of innovation without borders

February 20, 2022
Diversity & Inclusion

Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming.
— David Bowie

This article is part of a series that explores the innovative potential arising from the global movement of skilled workers. It examines the implications for CEOs and policymakers.

David Bowie had a rare gift: the capacity to sense the future and bring it into the cultural fabric of the present. Visionary business leaders have achieved similar feats for society—from Henry Ford anticipating mass mobility, to Yvon Chouinard at Patagonia pushing for sustainability and climate action years ahead of others, to Elon Musk spearheading not just an e-mobility revolution but also the dream of humanity as an interplanetary species.

In the first article of this “Innovation Without Borders” series, we showed that people crossing borders are not only generating trillions of dollars of innovation and growth benefits for destination and origin countries but also spreading ideas, knowledge, capital, and even human rights. Yet migration remains a hotly debated topic and a source of political gridlock in many countries. As a result, firms, societies, and individuals are not fully capturing its promise:

While the absolute number of globally mobile people now stands at about 200 million, the corresponding numbers for skilled people remain significantly lower at roughly 52 million.1
In fact, migration rates for skilled people actually seem to be in decline: In 2000, 7.5% of all skilled talent had moved across borders. Today, the rate is close to 6.4%—this gap translates into 10 million skilled workers who stayed home.
We argue that there is now a window of opportunity to build bridges into opportunity for skilled global talent that would ignite innovative growth. It’s not politicians but business leaders who hold the keys to make this happen. We lay out two reasons why forward-looking CEOs and aspiring founders should care, describe four strategies that they can pursue to drive firm-level advantage, and show what specific actions look like.

A Human Cause Meets Its Business Case
Close your eyes and fast-forward to 2050. In what world will our children and grandchildren live? With the benefit of hindsight, how might they look at the decisions we take today? Is there a chance they will call some of our actions morally questionable or even economically stupid?

We hope they will be gracious enough to say: “Your generation finally turned the corner on climate change, and you started addressing the persistent injustices of discrimination.” Yet we can’t help wondering if they’ll continue: “But there were still massive differences between people. A bright-eyed, aspiring student from Lagos or Lahore simply did not have the same opportunities as you. How could you live in such an unfair world?”

Your grandchildren might have a point. Of all the differences between two randomly chosen human beings, 66% are due to one factor only: where they were born.2 Righting this wrong by building bridges into opportunity for the world’s most curious talents might soon be seen as a significant human achievement of the 21st century—a moral cause that also had a clear business case. The bridges to opportunity are already partly in operation but not yet scaled up to full potential. Globally remote teams, global freelance platforms, and global hiring are some of these bridges.

In our conversations with executives and startup founders, we sense a nascent excitement for the bigger cause and a clear awareness of the business case of “innovation without borders.”

Why the Time Is Now
There are two basic reasons why now is the best time to act. First, talent is now truly universal. Just twenty years ago, global talent was relatively scarce. The world had roughly 420 million skilled people and about 70 million recent college graduates (age group 25-29), but nearly 60% of them graduated from schools in the United States, Europe, China, or Japan. Fast-forward to 2020: the world now counts roughly 840 million skilled people and about 140 million recent grads (twice as many as 20 years ago).3 What’s more, the ratio has flipped: now, young students from all other countries are in a clear majority, and on path to represent 66% of all college graduates in 2050. READ MORE

By Johann D. Harnoss, Anna Schwarz, Martin Reeves, and François Candelon


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