WASHINGTON--To start a green revolution, "change your leaders, not your light bulbs," the New York Times' columnist Tom Friedman said Monday.
If the United States wants to lead the next technological revolutions, Friedman and others said at the Freedom to Connect conference here, the right leaders are needed to establish the proper incentives, along with smart regulations.
"Elect the right people--there's really no substitute for that," said Chris Savage, an attorney for Davis Wright Tremaine who specializes in Internet and telecommunications. "If that doesn't happen, you're hosed. That said, it is going to take a certain amount of time (to challenge) the orthodoxy of the market."
Now is the time for regulatory reform, both men said at the two-day conference about the emerging Internet economy.
The recent collapse of the financial sector has seriously challenged the Chicago economic school of thought, which advocates for minimal government intervention in the market, giving policymakers a rare opportunity to institute regulations that favor consumers over business interests, Savage said.
"We have on the order of six to 18 months to figure this out," he said. "Timing matters--over time, any regulatory agency will come to be highly adapted to the large, rich interests it regulates."
Friedman said it would take government intervention in the form of carrots and sticks in order to develop a lead in the energy technology sector. He described the state of innovation in the United States as a spaceship.
"In our case, the booster rocket, Washington, D.C., is cracked, and the pilots are fighting over a flight plan," Friedman said.
Unlike the information technology sector, he said, the energy technology sector faces competition from cheaper, dirtier energy alternatives.
"When Marc Andreessen invented the second browser, there were not dirty browsers already in existence," he said. "That is not true with the ET revolution. Without a price signal, we will not get a green revolution."
Fostering growth in that sector is critical, he said.
"Energy technology is, I am sure, going to be the next great industrial revolution," he said.
Among other things, clean energy technology will be sorely needed to bring the world's poor a reliable, sustainable source of electricity.
Without electricity, people are prohibited from performing a variety of regular tasks, "but most importantly, you can't get to Google," he said.
Acquiring electricity is the first step to accessing information and an education, the speakers at the conference agreed.
As Internet access increasingly empowers people, the rules regulating the Internet should be adjusted with the input of the public, some speakers said.
"Reaching the most democratic solutions will require making the Internet policy process as interactive as the Net," said Nathan James, the program and outreach manager for the Media and Democracy Coalition, an affiliation of consumer, public interest, and labor groups."If we don't hear from a diversity of perspectives now, how will we ever know we charted the best course?"