Parag Khanna is a leading global strategy advisor, world traveler, and bestselling author. He is Founder & CEO of Climate Alpha, an AI-powered analytics platform that future-proofs global investments, and Founder & Managing Partner of FutureMap, a data and scenario based strategic advisory firm. Parag’s latest book is MOVE: Where People Are Going for a Better Future (2021), which was preceded by The Future is Asian: Commerce, Conflict & Culture in the 21st Century (2019). He is author of a trilogy of books on the future of world order beginning with The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order (2008), followed by How to Run the World: Charting a Course to the Next Renaissance (2011), and concluding with Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization (2016). He is also the author of Technocracy in America: Rise of the Info-State (2017) and co-author of Hybrid Reality: Thriving in the Emerging Human-Technology Civilization (2012).
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John: Welcome to another edition of the Impact Podcast. I’m so excited and honored to have with us today, Parag Khanna. He’s the founder and CEO of Climate Alpha. Welcome to the Impact Podcast, Parag.
Parag Khanna: John, thank you so much. May I say that your enthusiasm alone has an impact unto itself. I’m grateful for that.
John: Well, thank you for that. I’m sitting in Fresno, we met in LA earlier this summer. You’re sitting at home right now in Singapore. Before we get to share all the importance of how and why you founded Climate Alpha, and for our listeners and viewers who want to find Climate Alpha, you go to www.climate.alphadotai. I want to hear a little bit about your background, where you grew up and how you got here, and what got you on this journey.
Parag: We’ll make a long story short.
John: Yeah. Yeah.
Parag: Because as with many stories, the road almost ends in California, but to take it from the beginning, I was born India. I grew up in the UAE, so Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and then moved to New York when I was relatively young to Queens. Something you and I have in common.
John: You and I have that connection.
Parag: There we go. In Westchester County, upstate New York. I’ve been very peripatetic since then. I finished high school in Germany as an exchange student. I came back to the US for college. I went to grad school here. I worked in think tanks. I did my PhD in the London School of Economics. I’ve worked in the Pentagon and I’ve lived in Switzerland working for the World Economic Forum. But I am an academic, most importantly, I’ve written seven books on geopolitics, globalization. You’ve got a couple of them right there. Those are some of the recent hits.
John: Yeah, great books.
Parag: Geography is the common foundation to everything I do. You can see this map behind me. There are many more scattered around the house and even more in the books that are actually custom made by the best GIS cartographers in the world that I’ve had the honor of working with. Geography has been my obsession basically since I was a kid, just, it goes hand in hand with traveling. Being an academic, working in policy, in think tanks, in corporate strategy advisory, and eventually the book, the most recent one Move is really about the future of human geography. Where will people live in the year 2030, 2040, 2050? When I completed that book, or upon completion of the book, I realized that our human geography is going to fundamentally change because of aging patterns and new demographics, because of new geographies of infrastructure, investment resources, supply chains, and climate change.
If you take these three among other macro drivers, and especially climate emerging as a new and powerful macro driver, we will have a new human geography. That’s what the book was about. Climate Alpha, the software company, is literally a direct offshoot of all of that research and applying data science to figure out what are the most resilient investible geographies in the world, and why investors should be allocating more capital to those geographies starting now, because they’re going to appreciate much faster than we expect.
John: Right, right. I was honored to hear you speak in a small group of very, very influential and powerful folks that are good friends and common friends. Jared Carney put together earlier this summer in Los Angeles. In the room in the Front with you, was one of the leaders from Oaktree Capital, one of the greatest and most prolific real estate investment funds and organizations on this planet, not only with their own capital that they’ve raised, but as an advisor to some of the greatest brands on this planet on where to place their bets. They literally sat there and explained how important what you’ve created, Climate Alpha, that AI is to their investment thesis when they’re now placing their bets and advising on placing of bets.
Obviously, what you’ve created is already being seen as the futuristic and current most important tool to be using in the real estate marketplace on where to buy for future value. Obviously, climate change is telling us, almost is forcing us as to where to sell, but I think Climate Alpha is really advising us and pointing us in the right direction. I want you to go into that story a little bit more. First of all, what made you, was it something that your parents inspired you or what made you be such a lover of the geography? Now, you’re very young still, and you’ve been to what, about 150 countries around the world?
Parag: Bro, probably more. I stopped counting when I hit the bucket list. So there’s no place left that I want to go to that I haven’t been to. But I’d happily go back to many places. In other words, I’d rather go back to Turkey or Vietnam 23 times [crosstalk] than go to, I won’t offend anyone.
John: No, no.
Parag: But certain places that I haven’t been to in other corners of the planet. But look, as with all things, we have to credit our parents. My parents literally as we speak, have just landed from Norway. They were chasing the Northern Lights. Less than a year ago, they were in Antarctica, so that was a present from my brother and myself to my dad for his 80th birthday. They went down on an Antarctica cruise. As you can tell, the apple doesn’t fall that far from the tree, so all credit them. But then, I will say that collecting maps and just traveling and stamps in the passport and so forth, learning languages, being an exchange student, sequentially these moments have just been cumulative. Then there comes a point where you can’t imagine any other life. You and I can both relate to when you reach that inflection point, that decision point in college where everyone’s getting recruited to investment banks and consulting firms. If I’m going to give myself any credit at all, rather than just a passive absorption of travel, I did say to myself, I want to stay loyal to what I study. I study geopolitics, geography, history, languages, political science international relations. I said, I’m going to stick with that no matter how little it pays, and it did pay very, very little in the early years. I’m just so pleased. I’ll give you just one little anecdote. When I was 12, the Berlin Wall came down. It was 1989.
Parag: We were living in New York, my parents said, we have to just go and be there and see it. Literally, my parents pulled us out to school a couple weeks later, Christmas holiday, came early, we flew to Frankfurt, rented a car, drove to Berlin, and there we were. I have a photo, I’ve got many pieces of the Berlin Wall right here on my bookshelf. I was there. I sat on top of the Berlin Wall when I was 12. Everything else is a footnote. There’s a saying, all political philosophy is a footnote to Plato. It’s like, my whole life is a footnote just sitting on the Berlin Wall when I was 12. I was hooked, and that’s that.
John: But that’s so fascinating because when you think about the Berlin Wall, and it was one of those important moments in all of our lives that were alive then with Reagan and Gorbachev there. For the fact that your parents had the foresight to take you kids and go over there to experience it firsthand, what an indelible market left on you, because I know the answer to this question, but I’d love you to say this because one of the things I’d love to chat with you about for our listeners and viewers’ sake is, hey, where should we all be thinking about living in 2030, 2040, and 2050? Where do you want to end up? Where do you and your wife want to end up? Go ahead. You tell the story where you want to end up.
Parag: Well, the where question is what it’s all about. I’ll give you just two answers. One is that when I started writing the book, [crosstalk] I did think that it would be a relatively straightforward linear exercise. People will move from A to B, and that will map out differently by region and continent and so forth. The conclusion I came to, however, is much more about people being more nomadic the way we have been for hundreds of thousands of years. Because no place necessarily permanently ticks all the boxes in terms of stability, safety, good governance, climate resilience, economic and social vitality. Right? I forecast a world that’s much more nomadic based upon labor shortages, economic demands, climate resilience, and so on and so forth.
That new nomadism is something that you’re actually starting to see happen, especially after COVID, it’s taken off with young people saying, I’m going to be a digital nomad here, and there are nomad visa schemes. I wrote all this, by the way, right as COVID was happening. The book was going to come out during COVID. My editors and publishers said to me, “You’re writing a book about global mass migration during the greatest lockdown in human history?” I said, “Yes, I am because all the underlying drivers that promote that mobility are back in full force.”
Sure enough, our 2022 and 2023 migration and mobility trends globally far exceed 2019. It just shows what a deep human urge we have to be physically mobile, the right to mobility to connect as needed, and go where we need to be. Literally in history, COVID will prove to have been a blip in terms of stymieing global migration mobility pattern, so the thesis has held up well. Now, in terms of our personal answer, it’s actually a question that always comes at the end of an interview, so where will you live in 2015? [Crosstalk] Because that’s chapter one of the book [crosstalk] with a colon, is actually, where will you live in 2015?
John: I know.
Parag: I do have two answers that I can pull out of my pocket.
Parag: I’m going to stick to them. I’ve been very consistent about this. Number one is right here in Singapore. Now, people say, oh, this is on the equator and it’s hot, isn’t there climate risk? Again, it’s about adaptation and relative performance. This is a very wealthy country. It’s able to fortify itself. There’s more demand to live here than there is supply of visas that they’re going to issue property values, appreciate it’s a good government, and so on, and so on and so on. I like it here. I like the stability and the predictability of it. But I would say, and this won’t surprise you, but the backup plan is Berlin. I have a plot picked out for my grave. I even know what it’ll say on the tomb. If I do go retire and perish in Berlin, it’s kind of the city that is just closest to my heart.
John: Well, I got very lucky, very early, and I grew up in Queens in Manhattan. I went to high school and college of Manhattan. My first big trip out of Manhattan was when I was 13 or 14 years old. I was in the race force industry. Unfortunately, when you grow up and you don’t really travel that much, you think the whole world is like where you are, so I thought the whole world was like New York City. My first trip was to Columbus, Ohio. I landed in Columbus. Now, I’m 61 years old, this is 45 years ago, Columbus, which is a wonderful city and I have an office there now with employees there. I love Columbus. Imagine what it was 45 years ago.
Then you start realizing very young that, wait a second, everywhere isn’t the way it is where I grew up. The more I traveled, the more perspective I got. [Crosstalk] It was just a blessing. I love your book. The Future Is Asian, because I started traveling to Asia in 1993. I have contemporaries of mine. Unfortunately, most of the folks that I know here in the United States, they never have made it over to Asia. It’s a very small population that have ever made it to Asia. I’m hoping that some of the words of wisdom that you share today with our audience gets people moving more.
Parag: Can I throw in a punchline from the book?
Parag: You may not be interested in migration, but migration is interested in you. What I mean by that is that you may have never been to Asia, or many people haven’t, but look at the demographic influence of the United States. It is Latino first, Asian second, and the percentage, though of new annual naturalizations, so people who become citizens, the highest number is actually Asian. They, in other words, matriculate and naturalize into American statehood or into citizenship much more rapidly than Latino populations do. The whole world is being asianized, that’s why the two books actually come in sequence, the Asia book and the move book. One point demographically that I think people in California certainly, and literally globally are feeling and literally seeing in the complexion of their societies, is more than half the world’s population is Asian today, literally more than 50% of the human species lives actually on this Literally, this map, this rectangle contains significantly more than just 50%, 55 to 60% of the human species lives in this rectangle. Now, interestingly, because fertility rates are collapsing everywhere, but you still have a high birth rate across much of Asia, though it’s falling, of course, in China and so on. But still, the net growth in a region’s population is here. The future of the human species increasingly is just Asian youth. I get asked all the time, talk about the future. How would you characterize the future? People want to hear a philosophical answer, democracy or Christianity, or whatever the case may be, the literal future, the literal biological future of the human species is Asian youth.
That’s actually true. This is why it’s actually a direct segue to our conversation about sustainability in real estate and all these things. Because where Asians go, as they vote with their feet, literally shapes the economic performance of geographies and markets, so anticipating that, anticipating demand, is literally what we do as a company. But in light of demographics, in light of climate, in light of infrastructure, in light of corporate investment, in light of regulation, tax policy, you have to put it all together, take all the complexity in the world, and map it onto geography so that investors can be high conviction about where they’re going to put that next dollar.
John: I love it. I’ll tell you just a quick anecdote. We’re going to get into Climate Alpha in a second. I took my son, who’s now 31, when he was 16, I took him out of high school. I took him on a trip with me to Asia. One of the stops we made was in South Korea, where we have partners. The Coup family actually invested in our company back in 2008. We went out to dinner with a gentleman named CM Coup, whose father was the co-founder of LJ. We’re sitting there, and he had a whole group of folks with him. He sat across from my son, and he asked my son, he said, “Did your father take you out of high school? Or were you on break?” He’s, “No, my dad took me out of high school for this trip, and we went to South Korea, Tokyo Shanghai, Hong Kong on this trip.” He goes, “Greatest thing you could ever do.” He goes, “Keep going with your dad, wherever he goes.” He goes, “Why is that?” He goes, “Listen, you can’t become a global citizen on your iPad or on your [crosstalk].
Parag: So true.
John: He goes, “You want to become a global citizen, you just get on a plane and go.” Literally when he said it that way, I had never heard anyone frame it up as global citizen. My son told me after that trip, and he’s since then, “He goes, dad, that trip changed my life forever. It opened up what the opportunities were around the world.” He also then started to realize that, comparatively speaking, when I grew up and went to high school in Manhattan and then college in Manhattan, I was competing against all the folks to get into NYU from the lectures call at the United States. But now the people competing to get into NYU and Stanford and London School of Economics, and all the greatest institutions around the world are from everywhere. You’re against the best and brightest from South Korea, from Singapore, from Shanghai. It’s a democratized system.
To me it’s really opened my eyes the amount of that I’ve traveled and that I’ve taken my children on with me. I think you’re so onto something so big and so powerful. It was so delightful to hear you literally in the room that you addressed that night with some of the biggest real estate investors on the West Coast of the United States. You could hear a pin drop. People were fascinated by what you were saying, and also really interested in what you created, so let’s get into that a little bit. Talk a little bit, you’ve written these books. Just for our listeners and viewers, Parag, you are a very humble guy. You were named one of the 75 most influential people in the 21st century by Wired Magazine. You don’t talk about all these accolades and all these amazing kudos you’ve gotten over your career so far. Now you’ve taken everything you’ve done and you’ve become an entrepreneur besides a geopolitical expert and advisor to so many. Talk a little bit about the founding of Climate Alpha and the why. What was the why moment and what really was the impetus to take it and commercialize all your knowledge now?
Parag: Well, thanks for framing it in that way. I think it is a culmination kind of moment. When you do academic work in fields that are adjacent to each other, each book is certainly cumulative. It’s almost like, a stream of consciousness a [inaudible] publisher allow you to do a 2000-page book, so you break it up into seven. It’s one long but connected stream of consciousness. But this has been a moment where I really did hit pause and say, wait a minute. I’m not just going to jump from one topic to the next, to the next, like sort of on lily pads. Instead, we’re going to actually put it all together. The operative word is actually complexity that I used a moment ago, because in a way, complexity is what defines the kind of human civilizational condition today. Connectivity, rapid feedback loops, many drivers, unpredictability, not knowing what’s going to happen next. This is not going to slow down. There is not going to be some immediate new equilibrium where everything is hunky dory and back the way it was in whatever good old days.
Complex systems, by definition, don’t work that way. They’re always pushing you in new directions that almost seem chaotic, and yet, at the end of the day, the foundation of life on earth is geography. You want to be able to physically map and visualize and geolocate how this is playing out. I saw this as an opportunity to take what has been social science and travel log and traditional methods of research, but make it more scientific, make it more rigorous. For me, the great learning experience over the last couple of years, again, bearing in mind, we started the company during COVID to hire data scientists and to absorb and learn data science, AI, ML, bio osmosis climate science and modeling, not just to kind of summarize the literature that other people have presented around where climate change is taking us, but to have climate scientists building our own models and looking at what the impact is going to be and blending it with the data science.
Then the industry expertise especially in real estate to work with unbelievably sophisticated clients like Oaktree Capital, and it’s legendary head of real estate, John Brady [crosstalk] and folks like that who have been not just clients, but really guiding in many ways and saying, this is what we need. These three buckets, the data science, the climate science, the real estate, assembling in a way a group of people very formally, obviously as a company now with a platform, with IP, with software, with the go-to market products and, a platform, that has been the great shift for me personally in the last couple of years. COVID was a time to really, in a way, not even so much reflect, it was so obvious that this needed to be done. Then we can talk a little about the market, because clearly what is the state of play?
It’s backwards looking, pessimistic, risk oriented, legal ESG compliance driven, rather than saying, we have to be opportunistic, we have to adapt. That’s where we come in. We want to be the cutting edge, the tip of the spear, the adaptation. Mitigation is saying, let’s decarbonize, let’s reduce our emissions. Of course, we need to do all those things, but again, let us also be clear, the climate is not going to snap back. Places that are stricken with drought, it’s not suddenly going to pour rain just because we may or may not meet the Paris emissions targets, which we’re nowhere near meeting and never will, right?
Parag: Adaptation is where we need to be. It can be viewed opportunistically, which is the way we do, for better or worse, and it can be backed by high conviction data, despite the lack of historical baselines pointing to these disruptive trends. Just to come to a close on this point, we like to say that the past is a terrible guide to the future, right?
Parag: Because really, given what’s happening with demographics, new realities, what’s happening with climate? New realities, interest rates, new realities, industrial policy, new realities. You cannot possibly believe that the 40-year trend line of market performance and real estate assets everywhere that’s been up into the right nice and smooth, is going to hold in all locations deeply. No way.
Parag: No one really has a model. Such as what we’ve built. That again, is a defensible way of pricing the future of geography. That is what we do, we price the future of geography.
John: Talk a little bit about the anecdotal story about your parents, right before COVID, where they were living most of their adult life, and then where they moved to and what helped spur, again, this entrepreneurial gene to come out in you.
Parag: It is so instructive because again, no one knew COVID was coming, at least not, let’s say more than two to three months out. But it was exactly two to three months out that my parents said, we’re sick of shoveling the snow here in Upper Westchester. The kids aren’t around anymore, so they can’t do it and be rewarded with simply $5 and hot chocolate, so what are we going to do? They moved to California, and interestingly enough, and Westchester, this is an area that one expects to constantly appreciate as a result of its stability and proximity to New York City. But family sizes have shrunk so considerably that really no one wanted to buy a six-bedroom house, two acre kind of land, a swimming pool and so forth.
I was like, in my parents’ bottom line, they took a haircut on a gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous home, but this is before COVID. Just imagine and actually what happened to Westchester, immediately, within two months of COVID, as soon as remote work and Lockdowns began, Westchester went like this. All those people who were saying, oh, this house is too big, it’s too far away. I don’t want to commute. I don’t have time to enjoy nature. Oh, suddenly everyone is saying, I would love to have two acres. What reservoirs, forests? This is phenomenal. I can grow vegetables and there’s farmers markets, and I can go up country. What if they had held on, if they had known COVID was coming? If they had held on for what, three, four months, they could have sold at a 50% markup sight unseen based on some aerial drone footage from Redfin [crosstalk] But they took a haircut.
Parag: Now they’re very happy in California, of course. However, this was instructive, this was complexity at work. People make a linear forecast about a location based on one thing, demographics and family size, but then COVID happens and you get a new reality, so again, you have to take into account working patterns and technology. You have to take into account investment shifts and demographics. You have to take into account climate and so on and so on and so on, to really get an accurate picture of where places are going. Seeing my parents’ story, and then there’s a corollary to this, which is the fact that they are obviously retirees. One of the other things that we’re looking at is just, again, the demographics and the climate coming together. As you know, in America, we will have 80 to 100 million retirees by 2030, right? That’s effectively tomorrow in demographic time and certainly in the landscape and the amount of time it takes to get projects green-lighted and built and executed in America today, given our regulations.
What I see, and this is a sad commentary to be clear, there is a massive market failure in economics. You call it a market failure, right?
Parag: We are not providing the supply of climate resilient senior housing for 100 million people that we need to. My parents are lucky enough to be in an active adult community in a very climate resilient area that’s thriving in Northern California in a perfect little oasis, right?
Parag: We should all want that for a hundred million Americans around the corner from now and even more in the future as the population ages and grows. We have not done it. To be clear, the process of figuring out where my parents would live when they left New York was instructive in building this company. Because I realized that we can solve these really acute market failures by pointing investors in the direction of the geographies and the products, meaning senior housing, student housing, industrial, whatever the case may be, where they are needed, and we haven’t done that, and we need to do it.
John: Understood. You’ve created climatealpha.ai, and for our listeners and viewers, I really want you to go to that site and check out what it represents today. Talk about the original mission and how is it evolving?
Parag: Well, so the mission, if you will, is to future proof global investment writ large. We focused on real estate, but our applications and the toolkit we’re building actually apply to public markets as well. We’re actually building in a forward climate index that will allow for the testing of equity performance to help to build a climate proof ETF, for example. Real assets are certainly the heart and soul because of the geographical underpinning of what we do, but writ large, the mission is to future proof global investment generally. [Crosstalk] Almost everything falls within that. What doesn’t fall within that?
John: A hundred percent. We mentioned, John Brady and, Oaktree and, and boy, I mean, John was so complimentary and just loves the technology you’ve created and talked about the importance and interrelationship between what you’ve built and his advisory services at Oaktree. Talk about the man or woman on the street. Me, for example, so if I’m thinking about buying a home or a condo in Miami, or in Vietnam, is climatealpha.ai going to be also good for the man and woman on the street as well and be able to [crosstalk] usable by all of us?
Parag: We actually have a free retail product on our dashboard. It’s called Climate Alpha Homes.
Parag: You can enter either your location or a target destination, and you can get not only a kind of dashboard of the risk and resilience attributes of your locality, but even our risk adjusted, resilience adjusted valuation outlook for assets in that location. We make that free a limited number of uses per person. Obviously, it’s capped on the backend, but basically in lay, in layman’s terms, it’s a climate Zestimate, right?
John: Got it.
Parag: Everyone knows the Zillow Zestimate.
John: Yeah, that’s great.
Parag: But Zestimate doesn’t include climate, so it’s a climate Zestimate, and we built it and we make it. Again, in a free market society, individually driven, residential real estate being so important, people are going to make their own decisions, so we actually just want to arm people with information.
John: Talk a little bit about AI. Before you founded Climate Alpha, how much did you know about AI, how much do you know about it today, and where do you predict its future beneficial applications are going to be used as we move forward into 2024 and beyond?
Parag: Right. It’s a huge and important question. I would say that going from passive to active in AI has been quite, again, a head spinning trip. [Crosstalk] It is mind blowing. Again, I’ve been an observer of technology, an analyst of technology, written about technology a lot, including AI in my books, but I’m not a deep tech, I’m not a data scientist. I’m not a software engineer and so forth, but as I said before, the process of osmosis, like you, I’m learning about it, is just amazing because you have to fill gaps in data using the kind of inferential tools that are built into AI and ML and that relates to geospatial data and climate data and so forth. That’s one example. The other is in the way in which we do scenario building, because you have some indicators and features and variables that can be back tested and others that can’t.
Climate variables don’t have a strong historical statistical significance, so you’re actually training models based on certain assumptions to make forecasts about locations within, they learn from new data as it comes in, and the models get retrained. That’s also ML. We have real world concrete, tangible applications of machine learning tools. The wide suite and array of those tools that we deploy is, again, fascinating, the choices that one makes. You’re very conscious, obviously, a bias obviously, and of preferences that get built into the training models and so forth. You’re always trying to correct for those. The feedback from our academic advisors, from the corporate users, from experts in the field, has been really helpful.
I would say, quote I don’t want to say “perfecting models,” but in kind of being at the cutting edge of what is possible and what is defensible and what is accurate. That’s what we strive to do. I think that, again, it’s the difference between writing a book based on traveling and getting a look and feel for a place versus having 20 people who are statisticians, machine learning engineers, data scientists, programmers working on a problem. It may lead you to the same outcome, but as in mathematics you want to show your proof, and so that’s really what we’re doing.
John: When you write a book like this, and again, you’ve written seven books, many of them are best sellers, New York Times best sellers, and other bestsellers is there’s a beginning and an end, and there’s something elegant about that. Starting a business is sort of like an artist that starts drawing on a piece of canvas. It’s an ongoing process. It’s a journey, and it’s not as elegant as what you’re used to. Talk a little bit about where you see yourself in the journey now. Obviously, when you started the business during COVID, you sat at the kitchen table and you started outlining what you were going to do, and you did it, you got it launched, you got the beta launch, you’ve got great people like John Brady and Oaktree and others to qualify it and be a third party endorser of it and use it with great excitement. Where are you on the journey now to building both a scalable and commercializable platform that has worldwide implications and benefits?
Parag: We’re quite far along actually. The key to that is the maturity, if you will, that I think we’ve achieved in a short period of time, has a lot to do with focusing on the tech, on the deep tech, on the algorithms on the platform, and all. It is, to be clear, a fully deployed cloud-based enterprise SaaS, B2B platform. It lives entirely in the cloud. You can log in right now, you can upload assets. You never have to meet, speak, consult with any physical human being to use it. Focusing on the tech, having a repeatable enterprise model with a high margin is what we set out to do. Of course, I received a lot of great advice on that along the way with people saying, don’t be fake SaaS. Don’t be fake AI. Right?
John: Right, right.
Parag: I took that to heart. I said, look, we don’t even know when COVID’s going to end. We have all the time in the world, I’m going to invest in this, let’s make it right. Being at that stage of maturity now proves to be a blessing because then we can focus on the model testing with different clients or different use cases and doing things at scale, not just the one or two asset things, but the hundreds of thousands. Not just equity funds, but debt pools where, CMBS, RMBS, you’ve got thousands, tens of thousands of assets and being able to model that. Then of course, when you’re getting big data in, big data out, you get some really, really interesting findings and we can further train our models, and also, of course have the kind of metadata that helps to either validate or refute a thesis or a hunch, and use that to again, to guide clients. This is the virtuous circle that we’re starting to get into where we are right now.
John: Got it. For our listeners and viewers who just joined us, we’ve got Parag Khanna with us. He’s the founder and CEO of Climate Alpha, to find Parag and his colleagues, and find Climate Alpha, go to climatealpha.ai. Talk a little bit about nomadic living. A couple years back, we lost one of the greatest professional nomads of the world that really inspired, I think millions of people during his career, Anthony Bourdain. Who is now the new leader in nomadic living that people can point to and say, I want to be her. I want to be him. I want to enjoy the ability to go see, taste the street food in Vietnam and enjoy the safety and security of Singapore. Who’s doing that now, and who’s leading that nomadic cause? Because besides Airbnb, which is pretty much the platform that allows us to go do that in many ways, and maybe WeWork was as well at their heyday. Where do you see the new trends and everything now that we’re hopefully in this post-COVID moment?
Parag: Well, there obviously was only ever one Anthony Bourdain, sadly tragically no longer, I don’t think anyone could really fill those shoes. But let’s think about the movement.
Parag: The movement towards digital nomadism is very, very real. I think quite frankly, that book has documented it up to the minute, more extensively at this point than any other. I am glad, grateful for the real time data we have that validates the thesis, but just to remind everyone, this was a precarious time to be claiming that 4 billion young people are going to be scattered around the world during COVID. I took a lot of flak, right?
Parag: Again, the beauty of human nature being what it is, it took less than one year for the thesis to be validated and is more so all the time. In other words, there is a true youth diaspora underway. The percentage of young people, again, it’s a percentage of the world population that is living outside their country of origin is growing and growing and growing. Digital connectivity, the services economy, labor shortages, and demand, all make it literally Inevitable with a capital I that ever more people are going to be mobile and living in more places over the course of their lifetime than perhaps even I have thus far in my life. That is already considered perfectly natural by, let’s say, a certain frontier or vanguard of today’s youth.
Not everyone, of course, when we look at youth in Paraguay or in Africa, or Laos, of course, they’re not so lucky. Up to the moment right now, most human beings have not left the country in which they were born. I’m very clear to say, well, young people are obviously more mobile. If you’re going to talk about the future of human geography, you don’t interview 90-year-olds, you look at youth. Let’s focus on that 4 billion segment of people who are the present and the future of humanity. When I look at that 4 billion, I see, of course, again, as I said before, most of them are in Asia, not in Africa.
Whatever number of Africans are struggling across the Mediterranean, I have enormous sympathy. Look, I go to Europe all the time, and I argue for more humanitarian, more sensible, more pragmatic policies around taking advantage of the labor force they need. But even put that to the side, because it’s literally statistically insignificant compared to the large number of Asian youths who are in fact freely fanning around the world and redefining, again, the complexion in the labor markets and the property markets of societies everywhere. This is a train that has left the station. It’s Asia, but of course, it’s Americans going to Canada and to Portugal and to Greece and to Dubai on golden visas. It’s Europeans coming to Asia, because of course, they’re coming from overregulated, low growth economies and want to experience the dynamism, energy, and potential of Asia.
It’s this crisscrossing of youth that I spent a couple of years before COVID, traveling, interviewing, learning about, canvassing, doing focus groups, talking to students and so forth, that gave me that conviction. It’s more than validated by COVID and the post COVID experience, because look now at the message boards and the job sites for any services profession, software or otherwise, 90% of them are mobile first. Work from anywhere. You find me one kid, find me one person under the age of say, 40 or 30, who’s going to say, no, no, no, I prefer five days a week in the office with no flexibility.
John: Not happening.
Parag: Not one on earth. Because whoever all of our listeners are today, John, I have actually talked to more young people than all of them. You know what I mean? [Crosstalk] This is my job. I interview thousands of people when I do my research.
Parag: I have two young kids. As much as I’m unfortunately not a millennial or Gen Z, we’re past our prime. Maybe even [crosstalk]
John: No, don’t say that. That’s not [crosstalk]
Parag: No, I know, but talk to young people and they are actually using data to make decisions. This was so fascinating for me, John, to hear. We treat young people as objects.
Parag: Not as protagonists [crosstalk] in the story.
Para: They are the protagonists. They are looking and seeing aha, taxes are lower here. This place has free vocational training, education. This government is giving out grants for startups. I can have 90 days visa free here. The co-living company with whom I have a membership has properties here, here, here, and here. Young people are digital data natives. They’re incredibly [crosstalk] savvy, sophisticated, and making those decisions very much on their own volition. To be clear, they are voting with their feet, and where young people go today determines the winners and losers of the future. If you could take all that complexity that I was talking about earlier, and boil it down to one thing and say, what defines a winning place in the future? You could actually boil it down to that one thing, which is, is it attracting young people to today? If it is, they will solve problems. They will have taxpayers, they’ll have renters, they’ll have entrepreneurs and caregivers and educators. They’ll have the tax base they need to invest and solve problems. If your country is losing people, your future is very dim. That is ultimately the fact to boil it all down to one thing, it’s who’s winning, who’s gaining young people.
John: That’s fascinating. Let’s talk about that. Let’s parse that in two ways here, Parag. One is what we talked about a little bit off the air that I brought up with you. The brain drain, the brain drain that’s occurring in terms of losing people. Secondarily, let’s parse out on the second leg of that stool is what do you call it? Low birth rates. You take an area like I’ve become very familiar with since oh eight when I’ve been going there four to six times a year, so South Korea, I could live in South Korea the rest of my life. I grew up in Manhattan and in Queens. But when you talk to leadership in South Korea, they’re grossly challenged by a whole group of new youth that don’t want to have babies into their thirties if they have babies at all. The marriage rates are down the birth rates are down, but Seoul’s a booming, amazing economy.
John: What happens? How do you reconcile the excitement of Seoul and the rise in the Phoenix of Seoul since the mid ’50s and what it’s accomplished in a very short period to where they are today and the challenges they’re facing, and in terms of where we should be placing our bets in both real estate and also living conditions?
Parag: Great question. Tokyo, as is so similar.
Parag: You’re a deep simulating country. You’re a shrinking country with a thriving central urban metropolis. This has a [crosstalk] young people want to congregate in cities, right?
Parag: One of the animating forces in human history is just urbanization.
Parag: Most of the human population that lives in cities. I foresee a world in which 100% of the human population lives in urban environments of some kind. They can be small, they can be towns or larger cities, but pretty much, very few people will be truly kind of remote in that sense totally agrarian. Well, Japan and Korea are actually representative of much of the OECD, northern hemispheric wealthy world, which is that birth rates have declined very, very rapidly in their sub replacement. Absent immigration, these countries would actually be shrinking. Japan would be shrinking even faster, if not for the fact that you have a growing number of Chinese, Vietnamese and Koreans and Filipinos, and even Indians, and even Brazilians and Americans moving to Japan.
John: Got it.
Parag: Primarily, they will live in the greater Tokyo area. However, demographic data shows that every single one of Japan’s prefectures, there’s a 40 plus prefectures in Japan, I think more, every one of them has some growth in the foreign population even in rural parts of Japan. However, of course, when you go to Tokyo today, you can see the rise in the number of foreigners who are coming to study and to work, and so on and so forth. Again, you can see this in Berlin, particularly East Berlin. West Berlin feels a bit old, a bit crumbling, aging past its prime, a retirement colony. East Berlin is full of strollers and kindergartens and street side cafes and young hip nomads.
Again, to look for where the young people are going, they’re going to congregate in cities, so you have, yeah, low birth rates globally, even in developing countries, the birth rate has come down. But cities are where you want to make your bet in the future. You want to pick climate resilient cities, places that are climate proofing themselves through their infrastructure and adaptation investments, places that are politically stable and entrepreneurial, and attracting youth. Where those layers of data overlap, that’s when you’ve got your winners. That’s what the book is about and that’s also the data that we’re harnessing and geocoding so that you can see and build that conviction around where to invest.
John: Putting on my businessman’s hat, I am literally in love with India. Now, India is first in largest population in the world now, fastest growing middle class in the world, and because the business, we’re in also fastest growing mobility market in the world. So many of my OEM clients are opening up facilities there, manufacturing facilities, because it’s become too expensive to run facilities and manufacture their products anymore in China. They’re moving to India, they’re moving to Vietnam and other places like that, but I don’t think that India’s challenged with a lack of climate resilience. How do I then reconcile those two things? From a business perspective, a commercial perspective, I’m super excited about Mumbai, Bangalore, and other parts of India and opening facilities there, but climate resilience not so much.
Parag: Correct. This is exactly right. Now, on the one hand, the Indian story is finally taking off. There’s been a lot of people, myself included, who have been pretty pessimistic and bearish on India, just never quite living up to its potential. You can see that in the last 10 years, the infrastructure investment, the economic growth, the opening of the economy, attracting in a lot more foreign capital or driven by wage arbitrage, economic reform, and of course, the China angle, the desire to de-risk, and to diversify supply chains.
Apple, now having phones made in India, you can see it in pharmaceutical, as you said, OEMs, auto, pharma, all of these sectors are growing, which is a great thing. However, climate resilience is a big problem because unlike other large economies unlike peers or analogs like China, where there’s huge investments in the power transition and renewable alternative energy sources, and in building the infrastructures for the fundamental existential issues like water supply, India is not. In the last two years, India has had to ban exports of onions as a result of drought, exports of rice as a result of flood and drought. This is actually roiling global agricultural commodities markets.
India, the more, in a way it gets integrated in the world economy, the more vulnerable we might be to some of the weaknesses in India, and India doesn’t cope with those things, we’re going to have to hedge accordingly. And this is the dilemma there, so I would like to see India focus a lot more attention and resources. Quite frankly, Asian economies in general, besides China and Japan, need to invest a lot more in climate resilience, because if they don’t, we actually become vulnerable to the brittleness of the supply chains that connect us to them.
John: Let’s talk a little bit about sustainability. Now, we’re living through the, the hottest year ever on record since we were recording temperatures in world history. Talk about the business perspective. You’re now a businessman, you’re an entrepreneur. Where does business now step in to do the right thing and transcend politics to help decarbonize this planet, to help this climate change issue, which has gotten away from us, obviously has gotten away from us. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be living through the hottest year ever on record.
You’re leaving academia little bit now behind, and you’re really becoming a full-fledged entrepreneur as your company continues to scale and grow and become more commercialized, and you’re dealing more and more with other John Bradys and other John Shegerians and other business people around the world. Where do you now and how do you reconcile the different hats that you’ve historically worn with the now the new hat that you’re wearing to help motivate businesses to work and make the world a more decarbonized place and a better place to live?
Parag: Well, I wouldn’t have thought that there are real parallels between academic research and running a company, but I’ve been keeping a little checklist handy to have just observations, managing a research team, pulling together data point, reconciling contradictory perspective, setting milestones and targets, having documentation of everything you do, all of those things. The marketing, there are parallels, I guess maybe many spheres of endeavor can be compared in this loose kind of way. But leaving that aside, I think the common heart and soul of everything, at least for me, is analysis. I consider myself an analyst. People ask me, are you an author? Are you a journalist? You’re just a traveler, entrepreneur? I say, I’m an analyst. This is it. That is twinned in some way with academia and traveling.
Maybe I’m not teaching anymore.
Parag: How can you cease to be an analyst when you have an academic background. Just trying to be very, very rigorous in everything we do is very crucial, and that’s a common thread for anyone who’s, quite frankly, just ever taken scholarship seriously. In that sense, there’s zero transition whatsoever in phases of my career. There is a methodology, there is a kind of reliability that you want to have in the quality of your analysis, so that’s where for me we’re never going to sacrifice or cut corners.
John: If Climate Alpha was is a baseball game, and this entrepreneurial journey has nine innings, where are you right now in the baseball game of Climate Alpha? Are you in the bottom of the second, top of the third? Or in the middle of the fifth? Where are you in the entrepreneurial journey of Climate Alpha and where your dream is to get it to go?
Parag: Top of the second?
Parag: Honestly, we’ve only just done a seed round. In the funding cycle, we’re very young, chronologically, we’re very young. I said, our technology foundation is mature, but we can build on it more. There’s so much to do [crosstalk] in terms of globalizing resilience data, the price forecasting. On the product side, what excites me is not only our work with institutions but also actually fund the construction. Again, people have asked me from day one, if you have predictive analytics around the performance of geographies, locations, why are you just selling it? Why aren’t you trading on it? The answer was, well, because we’re a software company, not a fund manager, not an asset manager, but we’re going to be partnering with very, very large global financial institutions to build those funds, to put our money where our mouths are, basically, and to be the first movers in those resilient geography. That excites me tremendously, but as you know, multi-billion-dollar real asset funds don’t just materialize overnight.
There’s a very, very defined pathway towards that product, which we’re working on right now, very actively with, with a client. To me, that’s hugely exciting, but imagine, I say only the second inning, because you not only have to go through those steps and motions and design, the product and the output accordingly, but you have to see how it plays out. To me, the ninth inning isn’t somewhere where we are as a company, per se commercially, the ninth inning is seeing how we interact with reality, which is ever unfolding. I said before, we’re never going to have, or I don’t think we’re going to have a new equilibrium, a stability anytime soon. My comment about the second inning verse, the ninth thing is also a comment on that. If there’s going to be a new equilibrium in the world, we’re far, far away from it right now. In a previous book, I wrote about the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance.
When you’re studying history, you say, oh, well, it was roughly the 14th or the 15th centuries, 15th, 16th centuries. You can flick a switch and say, well, the Medici family in Renaissance or pre-Renaissance Italy sponsored great artists and inventors, and you had the global commercial revolution, and the Renaissance sort of took shape through humanistic movements and so on and so forth. But in reality, it played out actually over a very long period of time, as I described, it was well over a century, two centuries, three centuries, depending on what historical literature you’re looking at or what your metrics are as to when did the Middle Ages really become the Renaissance, right?
Parag: It’s kind of like the second inning to the ninth inning of a very, very, very, very long game. My conclusion of that book was that the next Renaissance is still a long way off. The seeds of it may be there today, the technological revolutions that we’re experiencing today. The investments that we’re making in connectivity and infrastructure. The enlightenment that you can see maybe in some corners of the world around what are better or worse ways to run governments. To regulate economies and those kinds of things, and to deliver better welfare to people around the world. We’re learning and learning and deploying these technologies and knowledge, but to scale that globally, we have a long way to go. It’s not just our journey. I think it’s a global journey. I don’t want to be pessimistic. I’m actually an accidental optimist in a way, but even the most [crosstalk] rabid optimist would admit those who are techno, utopians or whatever, when they write about the future, they also say, we’re getting there. We’re on the right track, but even they say it’s still a long way off before all of civilization benefits from the fruits of today’s investments, and I would agree with that,
John: Going back to your parents moving from Westchester to where they moved in Northern California, if you had created Climate Alpha before they moved, and for those out there that are 60 plus that are thinking about moving for a softer landing for their golden years, let’s just call them. Where’s your best advice for people to be living now in their golden years? There’s one answer for their youth. You’ve given a great example of where youth should be going. They should be going where more youth are going, and to urban areas that are climate resilient, that are interconnected and fascinating, and where nomadic living and global citizenship is welcome. But how about for those folks that are 60 plus, should they be relying on climatealpha.ai to go look for where they should end up in the soft landing? Should they be listening to Dan Buettner to go seek out one of these blue zones around the world? Where’s the advice for them?
Parag: Well, even for old people, elderly, interestingly enough, there doesn’t have to be one fixed answer. They are less mobile, for sure.
Parag: My parents are going to stay in Northern California for the rest of their lives, and I think they’re really happy there. People will look for those, again, zones of affordable retirement. Because of longevity [crosstalk] your retirement savings needs to stretch not just 10 years, but 25, 30 years, so you need to be in a place you can afford. You want it to be climate resilient. You want it to have those amenities. You even want to be looking at walkable communities because you’re not necessarily going to be able to drive forever, at least golf carts, driverless cars, something that’s adapting and modifying infrastructurally, ideally multi-generational, and all these kinds of things with amenities. Again, like I said, very few communities are like that, so the banal answer is, look for places that have those amenities that you need given your health condition, your longevity, your budget, and so forth. However, the answer though, that I’ve observed to that is scattered everywhere. You’ve got Americans moving to Mexico, to the Dominican Republic, to Panama, to Costa Rica, to Southern Europe.
Parag: Europeans moving from north to south and to Morocco and to various other islands, including to Asia. Thailand has launched a retirement visa with free annual medical checks. It’s actually trying to capitalize on its low-cost basis for providing basic healthcare, and it’s the sort of low tax status and low, low annual cost of living. I’m seeing old people everywhere, and you have probably been seeing about these cruise ships. I wrote about this in the book.
Parag: Cruise ships are being retrofitted to be ultramodern, high tech, luxurious. Retirees can live out for years on cruise ships that will expand the number of ports of call and hubs and destinations, so you will continue to visit exotic new places for every year of your life. Your average monthly expenditure all in is something like three or $4,000, so your Social security and Medicare can literally cover the cost of exotic mobile retirement. Now, how many people are doing that? Statistically insignificant.
Parag: My point is that there is something out there, hopefully for everyone. This is an ethical point again, thinking about my parents and thinking about that market failure earlier.
Parag: We need to solve this problem not only for today’s elderly and seniors, but the world is going to be consistently aging given life expectancy and so forth. It’s not just a crisis for today. It’s really a structural demographic issue we need to solve, which is that climate resilient communities. It’s what we owe to, obviously the generation that built the modern world as we know it but also to ourselves for the future, so they’ve become pioneers. In Singapore where I live, actually, the elderly are known as the pioneer generation. You see and appreciate the great deal of care and resources that are expended to caring for this elderly population and realizing that this is a so-called Super Aging Society, which like Japan, has a very high life expectancy. I think, in a services economy in particular where healthcare and demographic related sectors are a huge share of GDP, it’s not a peripheral issue. Real estate, which is a giant share of our economy, combined with the demographics, needs to point us in the direction of investing in the kind of assets and products that are actually going to be beneficial to the socioeconomic stability of communities, and that’s actually going to help our GDP. Let’s not view these things in silos, right?
Parag: Let’s have a really integrated approach.
John: Hey, well, I hope you don’t mind me asking, how old are your children now?
Parag: Oh, 14 and 11.
John: You had an eighth-grade moment when your mom and dad had the wisdom and foresight to take you to the Berlin Wall when it was tumbling. Obviously, it’s just so obvious that that left a tremendous and indelible mark on your life. Truly that was on a retail basis. You were breaking down a wall on a wholesale basis. I call this wholesale basis. You have now perpetuated what you learned at that Berlin Wall to the masses around the world by writing this book and creating climatealpha.ai in terms of breaking down the world and encouraging all of us to be global citizens and good nomadic livers. I’m sure you’ve thought about this, given that you’re an analyst really, as you said, by expertise and by profession and by practice. What are you thinking about in terms of your own children, in terms of what’s the indelible mark that you and your wife are going to take them that you could leave on them like the Berlin Wall left on you?
Parag: Well, fortunately, I mean, our kids, I guess, have the good fortune of living here in Asia and in International Hub. [Crosstalk] They’ve lived in global cities near New York, London, Berlin, Dubai here. We’re frequently in San Francisco, obviously as well. They do have that benefit of being, and the school they go to, an international school teaches the IB curriculum, the International Baccalaureate, where global citizenship literally is the mantra. It is literally about [crosstalk].
John: They’re living with you and your profession and what your wife does. They’re living it just through the style that you’ve created.
Parag: Beautifully, what I think more and more, you can literally see that the number of American high schools in America that are adopting the IB curriculum is growing like exponentially. There is this harmonization convergence that’s going on globally where young people are being taught more and more of these kinds of international curricula, and what you can rightly call global values. I wrote about this in the book. I said, if you could take all the surveys and metadata and social media snooping that we do on today’s Gen Z and Gen Alpha, you would find very, very matter of factly that there are terms that they associate with the most, and those terms are connectivity, sustainability, and mobility. Now, I’m not making that up. This is matter of factly, what survey data tells us. Young people believe there are global values and virtues, which they strongly identify.
Connectivity is a human right. Sustainability is a human right. Mobility is a human right. That is the collective voice of four-and-a-half billion people right now. That is not a matter for debate. It’s not a matter for argument. That is exactly how they feel, and I’ve summarized that literature, and I’ve talked to the thousands of them, and that has been validated, and I see it in our own dining table every single day and in their school and all the other schools around the world. We have to take that really seriously, and I think this is a good thing. I certainly want to be on the right side of history. I think those are three pretty decent principles to live by rather than, say, nationalism, parochialism, xenophobia, racism and so on. I’m a fan of what I’m seeing. It has to be operationalized in a way that’s economically viable and sustainable.
I don’t think it should translate into anti-capitalism, but the principles don’t actually do that, which is good thing. Again, long story short young people are organically adopting a frame of mind that is consistent with the needs of the world are today. I think we need to empower them, obviously, to really execute on those, and like I said, not to be passive subjects, but protagonists and real change makers. Again, I see that happening, which is why ultimately, I’m pretty optimistic, despite all the headwinds we face today.
John: We’re going into a challenging year, Parag. We have a presidential election in 2024 coming up, which looks like just a sequel to the 1985 movie Cocoon. We have Russia, Ukraine still going on. China has its challenges with the real estate. a little bit of a real estate crisis that they have going on. The interest rates are still at cross hairs. Nobody knows which way that’s going to go. There’re some unique challenges that are ongoing, including obviously the bigger challenge of climate change, and people racing now to try to get to net zero. But really, I don’t know where that’s going to go. Next year could be even hotter than this year. You are o obviously, as you said, an accidental optimist, which is, I think, a great way to live, and I think optimism is highly underrated. Talk a little bit about what’s getting you excited about next year, given all these other challenges, but you’ve got a great platform you’ve created. You’re only in the top of the second inning. Climatealpha.ai has amazing future in front of it. What gets you out of bed every morning now as you look towards 2024 and beyond?
Parag: That’s a big question. Again, I’m excited by the opportunity. Look, the last few years have been one body blow after another, COVID, interest rates stagflation and so on and so forth. That said, you can see some movement coming back to life in the economy. Again, you can see labor force participation, wages increasing. The nearshoring and investment in the United States, the stimulus measures and their impact. For every positive story, there’s a negative. There is the geopolitical volatility and all these kinds of things. But that said I think that overall, we’re starting to see people embrace the need to have wide ranging information to make their decisions about the future and to embrace this complexity, again, for lack of a better term.
There’s just a maturity that is kicking in in society around the need, obviously, to act in a more sustainable fashion and to integrate that kind of thinking into the investment process. Early on in our journey firms, clients would say, oh, you’re called Climate Alpha. That’s a 10-year, 15-year story. Go talk to those ESG guys down the hall. Instead now it’s, hey, this is timely important. It has to be incorporated in our investment process. It can’t be a separate silo of data and so on. Again, rapid, rapid learning is going on in the industry, and that, again, is a reason for cautious optimism.
John: Yeah, and it’s like John Brady would’ve said, and I don’t want to put words in his mouth, it’s not go see the ESG specialist down the hall. It’s go see the CEO down the other side of the hall. I think that’s where we’re at now with Climate Alpha. For our listeners and viewers, he’s Parag Khanna. To find him, you go to climatealpha.ai. You can also find him @paragkhanna.com. We’re going to put that in the show notes, and we’ll give you an ability to contact Parag. If you’re more interested in Climate Alpha and what they’re doing, we’ll put it all in the show notes. Parag, you’re always welcome back on the Impact Podcast. As you and I know climate issues, sustainability issues, there’s no finish line. It’s a journey. You’re on a fantastic one. You are going to change the world. I’m so grateful for what you’ve created. I’m so grateful for your inspiration, and also, I’m so grateful that your platform is going to make the world a better place.
Parag: Thank you. As is your program and all of your investments, I can’t thank you enough for this conversation and opportunity. Thank you, John.
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