Dr Arunabha Ghosh delivered the convocation address "The Silent Call for Leadership" at the 11th Convocation of NIIT University on 9 October 2021. The video and the complete transcript are below.
Watch the convocation address from the 1:13:26 mark onwards
Arunabha Ghosh's NIIT University Convocation Address
Mr Rajendra Singh Pawar, Chairman NIIT Ltd and Founder NIIT University
Mr Vijay Thadani, MD NIIT Ltd and Co-founder NIIT University
Prof. Rajesh Khanna, President NIIT University
Members of Leadership Team of NU
Faculty and Staff of NIIT University, the so-called Nurturers
And the NUtons
Thank you for extending this warm welcome to me to deliver the annual convocation address to the graduating class of 2021. I feel humbled that you considered me for this role.
Let me start by offering my sincere congratulations to the faculty, administrators and visionaries behind NIIT University. I had an opportunity to learn about NIIT University at length from conversations with Mr Pawar. I had, in fact, looked forward to visiting the campus in person. But due to some personal challenges at my end, I was unable to do so. That is my regret. But I hope to visit in the near future.
I have, however, discovered through documents and short films that your beautiful campus is a labour of love — and a work in progress. You have taken a desert and started growing a forest. You have conserved the soil and fertilised it more. You have recharged the water and reused the waste. You have channelled the air and filled your lungs.
When we think of a campus, what comes to mind? Open spaces, a syncretic relationship with nature, and an ecosystem to think — and to act. It is evidently clear that you are, indeed, making that imagination become real.
Several years ago, one January, I was running along a frozen canal within the Tsinghua University campus in Beijing. I came upon a clump of trees, young, dry and mostly leafless. A plaque marked it as Centennial Garden. The trees had been planted by more than 100 university presidents from across the world in 2011, to mark the 100th anniversary of Tsinghua University, now ranked as the best in China. On the plaque was a Chinese proverb, “It takes decades for trees to grow but a century to nurture talents.”
I would like to imagine what NIIT University would be like a hundred years from now. When these trees that you have planted would be ancient living beings giving shade to burgeoning young talents.
So, let me also extend my congratulations to the class of 2021. You are graduating not just from a university but can claim to be the defining class that graduated out of a pandemic. So many of you must have struggled with deep anxieties, personal challenges, loss of loved ones. Yet, here you are, certifying your individual success, celebrating your fellowship with each other, and commemorating just being here.
The ritual of an annual graduation ceremony has become so routine that we forget that during the last global pandemic a hundred years ago, this was not a privilege for most humans. Getting a higher education degree is still a privilege for the few but the world is infinitely different in 2021 than it was in 1921.
You are the chosen few, however, who stand at the inflexion point not just for your generation but for several generations past and many that are yet to come. That is because you are graduating with a degree in Life. What we have all been through for the past two years was not part of your curriculum when you signed up. But what better education could you have received than living through a period that showed the best and the worst of humanity — and its place on the planet?
What is a university? Why is it called a university? Because this is where you contemplate your place in the universe.
I often turn to Meditations, a book written by the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius almost exactly 2000 years ago — in the 170s of the Christian Era. Here is a passage that appeals to me a lot.
Not to know what the world is is to be ignorant of where you are.
Not to know why it’s here is to be ignorant of who you are. And what it is.
Not to know any of this is to be ignorant of why you’re here.
And what are we to make of anyone who cares about the applause of such people, who don’t know where or who they are?
- Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, Meditations, Book 8.52, C.E. 170s
My wish for all of you is that you seek less the validation of people who don’t know where or who they are. Instead, may you become conscious and contemplative about the world you are in, why you are here, and what legacy you will leave behind.
These themes will be the subject of my address.
Describing the world is a fool’s errand. Each one of us will have our own perspectives. Nevertheless, from what I see, I can outline five trends that are defining the world in which we live.
Age of the Anthropocene
Our natural ecosystems are under unprecedented pressure. As any forensic investigator would comment, the imprint of humans is evident enough to make our species outright culpable. Three-quarters of the land-based environment and about two-thirds of the marine environment have been significantly altered by human activity. Our food demand alone has ensured that more than a third of the world’s land surface and nearly 75% of freshwater resources are now devoted to crop or livestock production. Our insatiable appetite as a species is crowding out space for others with around one million animal and plant species now threatened with extinction. This pace of species loss has no parallel in human history.
This is not all. The safe operating space for three planetary boundaries – climate change, biodiversity loss, and biogeochemical processes – have already been breached. Others, such as consumption of freshwater, might be well below the threshold but water stress (and in some cases, scarcity) is a reality in populous (and fast-growing) Asia.
If you had any doubts about climate change, lay them to rest. Global surface temperatures are 1.09°C higher in 2011-2020 than in 1850-1900. The world will breach 1.5°C of warming within the next two decades with extreme events rapidly rising.
Many scientists now argue that, since the industrial revolution, we have entered a new planetary epoch, the Anthropocene. Replacing the stable interglacial period of the Holocene (about 11000 years), humans are now the key agents of change for the Earth system and the main driver of disruption in the Earth’s resilience.
Seemingly faraway events will impact us. In the last 30 years, the Arctic region has warmed at 0.81°C per decade, more than thrice as fast as the global average of 0.23°C per decade. Melting ice is now the most important cause for sea-level rise — and revised estimates predict over one metre rise in global sea levels by 2100. This is not the Arctic’s problem alone, but would severely impact coastal and low-lying areas all over the world. Arctic heating and changing weather patterns could impact the severity of heatwaves in South Asia.
Last summer, I did a small experiment with my young daughter. We froze a bottle of water and then placed it on a metal plate and filmed its melting, initially negligible and then with increasing rapidity. The same happens to the Earth’s more vulnerable regions. Warming at the South Pole has been three times faster than the global average since 1989. The Himalayas are equally vulnerable and will warm faster than the world average.
Perfect storms of risks
If we are, literally, changing the face of the planet, what will the planet do to us? In this age of the Anthropocene, we are likely to face perfect storms of risks.
In 2008, there were two global crises. One was the financial crisis. The other, less known, was in global food supply. A combination of high oil and energy prices, high cost of fertilisers, a demand shock for cereals needed for biofuel production, declining food stocks, currency devaluations and adverse weather conditions resulted in a rapid increase in food prices. Resulting food price shocks hit several countries in West Asia and North Africa, in part triggering the mass protests and social and political instability.
In the near future, India must confront the prospect of a perfect storm of global shocks, involving pandemics, water stress, agricultural losses, tensions over energy supplies, growing trade disputes, extreme weather events impacting insurance firms and the financial sector, and mass movement of environmentally displaced people. When these risks come at the same time, they overwhelm our social, economic and administrative capacities to respond.
We have already witnessed these in recent weeks. Extreme flooding in Maharashtra and Himachal Pradesh in India and Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany. Hundreds dead in floods in Henan, China. Heatwave in British Columbia, Canada killed dozens. Three-quarters of India’s districts are already hotspots for extreme climate events, like floods, droughts and cyclones.
Moreover, we must understand that extremes today could very well become the norm tomorrow. Climate risks are non-linear and the past is not a good predictor of the future. Heavy precipitation events that happened once in 10 years in the pre-industrial era now likely occur 1.3 times each decade (rising to 2.8 times with 4°C of warming). South Asia and several parts of Africa will also face severe droughts with 1.5-2°C of warming.
Sea-level rise in the North Indian Ocean will be more than one-and-a-half times more than the global average during this century. This will be devastating for our economic future, leave hundreds of billions of dollars of hard infrastructure investment stranded, and impose severe financial stress on our children.
The biggest lesson for us is that the distant is here and the future is now; the time to act was yesterday.
Direction of the economy
“Predicting the future is really hard, especially ahead of time,” warns Rodney Brooks, former director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.
I like to believe that the only way to predict the future is to shape it.
It is now increasingly clear that the shape of the economy will be different from the past. The future will be increasingly digitised, significantly decentralised and necessarily decarbonised.
AI and automation will unfold at different speeds within the same economic system. AI has been called the “electricity for the Fourth Industrial Revolution”. AI, big data, automation and quantum computing could fundamentally alter economic progress. Governments are pushing national strategies.
But the shift will not be discrete. Old and new industries, technologies and methods of production will co-exist. This multi-velocity automation will complicate industrial strategy. There is already a push to acquire emerging technologies and corner larger market shares. China’s 2025 strategy identifies 10 sectors (including robotics and semiconductors) in which its homegrown firms want to dominate the domestic market while competing globally.
The question we should be asking is: How can India’s climate policy help to transform the economy to be more resilient and competitive in a climate changed world?
Will India make steel in 2050? Yes. Will steel manufacturing look the same then as now? Very unlikely. Will India make cars in 2040? Yes. Will it be able to export petrol cars then? Almost certainly not. Will India face carbon-related trade barriers in 2030? Very possible. Every major economic sector now faces a choice: Pursue brown growth and short-term competitiveness, or low-carbon growth, green jobs and long-term resilience?
First, there are signs from governments. More than 50 countries have pledged net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in the next 30-40 years. Secondly, there are signs from markets. There is a swathe of large institutional investors and asset managers who are asking for more stringent environmental, social and governance norms or are being targeted themselves for not demanding enough climate action. The day of reckoning for Indian companies dependent on fossil fuels is not far. Thirdly, there are signs from the border. The European Commission has proposed carbon border tariffs from 2023 against companies from countries where, the EC would deem, climate policies are weaker.
Will we wait to decarbonise until the economy gets buffeted by climate shocks (many times worse than the pandemic) or by institutional investors insisting on greener credentials or by carbon tariffs in our major export markets? Or will we move proactively to be an industrial leader in the green economy?
India needs hundreds of billions of dollars for investment in renewables, e-mobility, industrial energy efficiency and shutting down dirtier power plants. These investments would have net benefits in terms of avoided costs of pollution and damages from climate change. But available capital is insufficient and expensive. We need to attract foreign institutional capital.
Equally, India must ask stop waiting for technology handouts; instead co-develop disruptive technologies like green hydrogen, advanced biofuels and carbon capture and sequestration. Significant R&D investment will be needed.
We need a new mantra: jobs, growth and sustainability. For this, we must grab or create opportunities in three areas.
Imperative of jobs
The fourth big descriptor of the world we’re in is the imperative of jobs. India needs to create millions of jobs every year. Yet there is continued uncertainty, about the quantity and the quality of jobs.
Some years ago, I worked on an initiative on the future of jobs and we identified several drivers that would shape the jobs ecosystem, including lifelong learning systems, the shapes and sizes of enterprises, social security systems, and whether technology and innovation would enable inclusive growth.
But here, too, the climate crisis will have serious economic ramifications for India where nearly 75% of the labour force (380 million people) is exposed to heat stress. In 2030 India could lose 5.8% of working hours (a productivity loss equivalent to 34 million full-time jobs.
Change creates uncertainty but also opportunity. Commentary about AI and automation is replete with predictions about job losses, including high-skilled work. Meanwhile, the U.S. already has about 78,000 AI researchers; China about half that number. This is an important indicator of technological development, but not of jobs losses and gains in specific sectors.
For productive employment and decent work, we need to look for opportunities for new skills and new sectors. Decentralised energy creates seven times more jobs than large-scale renewables, which creates more jobs than coal-based power. Water, sanitation, waste management and (clean) energy would be important growth areas. Imagine new jobs for those installing rooftop electricity systems, or in decentralised water and sanitation infrastructure, or for those trained in optimising, recycling and reusing critical minerals and materials.
In an economy enabled by new technologies, one’s personal economic value is likely to be inversely proportional to the standardisation of tasks. The more unique the job, the greater would be one’s value in the workforce. Workers are likely to develop multiple skills spread across multiple jobs.
Finally, we have an uncertain geopolitics amidst stressed politics. The tentative stability of the Cold War era was replaced by the exuberance of the 1990s and 2000s, followed by economic uncertainty since the financial crisis, the rise of China, fraying multilateralism, challenges to regional stability in our broader region, security threats and emerging security platforms and alliances.
Like dominoes, the pandemic has set in motion a sequence involving public health, job loss, financial insolvency and economic recession. These economic indicators will be supplemented with social stress. We can expect that social fissures — on cultural or religious lines — will get deeper and erupt as civil strife. These conditions are also ripe for extremist shifts in politics, left or right, and will make it harder to find common ground within countries or maintain norms of behaviour, let alone cooperation, internationally.
Beyond the usual geopolitical threats, I have two worries.
This brings me to my second theme for today’s lecture. If you accept that humans have indelibly altered the planet, that risks of various kinds will test our resilience, that the economy of the future will look very different, that we still need to create lots of decent jobs, and that world politics is uncertain at best, how can you navigate this mess?
So, here’s an epiphany: You are here because there is a silent demand for leadership. This is not about contesting elections or becoming a CEO. It is, instead, about taking responsibility of one’s decisions and taking ownership of our ability to be agents of change. Are we ready to take on that mantle?
In an uncertain environment the youth of today are swinging between impatience and self-doubt.
Self-doubt is like that annoying monkey on the shoulder, always ready to poke and irritate, just for fun. In the best of times, it is an extra weight we bear, hunching our backs as a result, rather than standing tall. At other times, it bites our head off, makes us lose focus, and makes us vulnerable to vicious, maleficent attacks from those who want us to fail.
Impatience is the other evil. It is our sense of urgency and impatience that allows us to be daring and demanding. But we also have to realise that some things do take time. Like learning or sharpening a new skill, like recruiting the right set of people, like training and mentoring your colleagues. Most of all, it takes time to pave roads that have never been built.
What makes the difference is not just hard work but also commitment. Hard work can be beaten out of us. But commitment comes from within, to dig deep and stay there. In her book, Confidence: How Winning Streaks & Losing Streaks Begin & End, Harvard professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter writes, “The difference between success and failure is often how long people give it before they give up.”
We have to conquer these two evils of self-doubt and impatience. We do ourselves the greatest disservice by not doing so. Otherwise, there would be no self-belief, and we would withdraw from the very bets we have placed on ourselves.
Once you acknowledge the twin evils of impatience and self-doubt, we have to actively work to become transformational leaders, leaders who are resilient and remarkable. This must be why you’re here. This must be your purpose.
So, how do you build resilience?
The mind does not control you; nor do you control the mind. Notwithstanding our outputs and impact, we have all struggled at an individual level with pressures and anxieties. We often fall prey to our minds playing tricks. It happens even in good times, even to the best of us. To act tough, we might instead wish to control our minds, our thoughts, our disquietude. But emotional resilience does not arise simply because we will it. It requires active practice to realise that neither the mind has complete sway over all our actions, nor can we just command it to obey us. If we think we’ve given something a lot of thought, it’s a good sign that we probably haven’t. Bravado is not a substitute for meditation. Ultimately, reserves of resilience can be built up by letting go of things we can’t control and not overly attaching ourselves to things we can.
And, how do you become remarkable?
Being remarkable is not about how much money you make or how quickly you gain a promotion. The sign of being remarkable is that you have changed the system, whatever it might be. You have done something that had not been imagined before, had not been considered possible before, that had not been attempted before, or that had not succeeded before.
Consider these four conditions, which could trigger widespread systemic transformation:
Each one of you will make a personal choice. Regardless of the jobs you’ve picked, the start-up ideas you are considering, the specialised skills you hope to deploy, I hope you will think about your legacy in at least three ways.
Reimagine how technology could empower sustainable development. Think about technological applications to solve the problems of the vulnerable. For energy, water, health, education, cities, forests, oceans. How can machine learning algorithms improve climate modelling by assigning weights to models according to their accuracy against observations? How can AI support more flexible and autonomous electricity grids to integrate renewables and distributed energy? How can wind turbines increase efficiency when each propeller “learns” about wind speed and direction from other propellers? How can sensors and control systems improve irrigation efficiency in water-stressed regions, or guide marginal farmers in sowing practices for increased yields? How can AI help to significantly improve accuracy in identifying cyclones and save lives and livelihoods?
Technology will develop and get adopted at varying speeds, with attendant inequities and opportunities. How we channel their potential will depend on how our social and political systems make conscious efforts to give primacy to human agency to solve the challenges of human and planetary vulnerability.
India, alone, needs around $2.5 trillion of investments over the next decade for its climate mitigation and adaptation actions. Worldwide tens of trillions of dollars are located within pension funds, sovereign wealth funds, insurance funds and so forth. Yet, capital is not flowing at sufficient scale and speed from capital-rich to capital-poor regions.
I hope that some of you will devise the solutions for financial institutions and financial regulatory agencies to respond to the financial inclusion of companies, communities and citizens. What kind of blended finance will channel $200 billion into renewable energy by 2030? What kind of consumer finance will tap into the $206 billion market that electric mobility offers over this decade? What kind of public finance will create an insurance cushion against the $5-6 billion of disaster-related losses we encounter every year?
Markets exist; but market failures also persist. Amidst debates about sustainable finance, nature is excluded. We value products that clean up degraded resources, not assets that are clean. GDP grows when a sewage treatment plant is built, not when a river is not polluted to begin with. No financial product induces the latter. The day you devise the financial solution to value the wealth we have rather than the income we create by degrading that wealth, you’d have changed the very definition of prosperity.
Nothing you imagine can scale on its own. You will need to build teams and tribes to take even the best of ideas and innovations to the world out there. But teams and tribes need anchors. So, I hope some of you will also build institutions.
For me, institution building is about people, process and purpose. We must always seek smart people who will challenge us and help us grow but who also have the maturity to balance curiosity, irreverence and responsibility. In short, we need people who will both dream and deliver.
But also strive hard to maintain, add, simplify and improve processes from day one and continue to do so as you scale your ideas and enterprises. By focusing on the details of process you will smoothen the inefficiencies that can hold you back from achieving your goals.
But whether it is a country or an institution, people and process will flounder without purpose. Without clarity of purpose, people remain uninspired, at best, and become selfish, at worst; process seems onerous, at best, and gets bypassed and corrupted, at worst. It is the lack of clear purpose that makes us undisciplined, wild stallions, all remarkable creatures in their own right but all running amok. Discipline is not a whip that a single charioteer can crack to tame the wild horses. For complex societies, including large institutions, it is only common purpose that can solve for complex problems and deliver on both individual as well as common goals.
To deliver on people, process and purpose, we will need humility. Super star athletes, world famous musicians, the most brilliant of academics, the greatest of politicians – they have not become what they are today on their own. They have had parents, friends, colleagues, coaches and mentors helping them. As entrepreneur Michael Fishman has observed, “Self-made is an illusion. There are many people who played divine roles in you having the life that you have today. Be sure to let them know how grateful you are.” A few centuries ago, Isaac Newton had offered a similar articulation, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Will you NUtons also stand on each other’s shoulders to reach ever higher?
And to build a team, we will need empathy — the greatest skill you can develop. At the core of cultivating and maintaining empathy is the ability to walk in another person’s shoes.
We live in unempathetic times. Extremist ideology has always been around and propaganda has always been deployed. What’s different now is that social media both amplifies alt-truths but also stratifies us into echo chambers that never intersect. The worst kind of propaganda is one that you don’t even hear about. This toxic combination of extremism, amplification and stratification can make finding common ground — within a company or within a country — very challenging. Being right is not the same has listening to others; being wronged is no guarantee of having voice. When you build teams, create the conditions from which common ground can be found.
Remember, a leader is an individual; leadership is for institutions. Assume leadership. Build your tribes of eager followers, around your ideas and initiatives. You will find the new faithful will gather around you, from within organisations as well as from the world outside.
I have spoken about the world you’re entering. I ask that, in a world of crisis and opportunity, please listen to the silent call for leadership. Abandon your impatience and overcome your self-doubt. Become resilient and remarkable, instead. Whether via innovations, investments or institutions, I urge you to think about the legacy you will leave.
So, congratulations Class of 2021. You have come so far, you are graduating with a Degree in Life, yet the world is still your oyster. Will you succeed? Who knows? Not even you. But will you try? That, only you know. For me, there is no shame in not knowing the final destination. There is shame in not walking at all.
I want to close with a verse of a poem I had written for my colleagues when our institution, CEEW, celebrated its 10th anniversary. The poem is called Gratitude and this is the final verse.
If you wished your strokes could paint a grander canvas
fill your palette, then, with colours of adventure;
If you deepened the roots or broadened the branches
erected them platforms but feared no failure;
If you strode solo or sprinted, on long lonely journeys
ran marathons that made you stronger to endure;
If you could trust your instincts to believe your partners
I’d walk with you to the ends of the Earth.