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W.Va. growth tied to economic needs abroad, experts say

CHARLESTON, W.Va.--West Virginia's future could be tied to how well it meets the needs to growing economies abroad, a noted consultant told members of the Charleston Area Alliance Tuesday evening.

Deborah Westphal, managing director of Toffler Associates, was the keynote speaker at the Alliance's annual meeting at the state Culture Center.

Westphal is also a futurist, a type of social scientist that systematically analyzes global trends to predict the potential evolution of society and the economy.

The firm has advised the U.S. Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security and several Fortune 500 companies about strategies they should develop in order to get ahead of future trends.

Westphal said for Charleston and West Virginia to prosper, it has to find its niche in meeting the needs that will emerge in a coming global economic shift.

"We are in the midst of a revolution in society," she said. "The information age is creating a really different pattern for how businesses and government are going to exist."

She said by 2030, everyone would be a part of a global social network that is "highly segmented and hyper-diverse."

The world population will boom to more than 9 billion people, due to advances in health care and quality of life in less-developed countries. Society as a whole will become more educated, wealthier, and the world will see a shift in economic power to emerging countries in Asia and Africa.

The key, Westphal said, was how local leaders build on the past to capitalize on the future.

"The next 20 years could be very, very exciting if you look through different lenses of how the future will unfold," she said. "It will be highly connected, it will be about knowledge and it will be about those human resources that we will all be so desperate to get."

Westphal said, for decades, Charleston focused on being the envy of the chemical industry in the United States. She said if the community hopes to thrive in the coming decades, it has to position itself to be the envy of the global industry.

To do that, it has to meet the needs of the burgeoning populations abroad.

"We're going to have water issues and energy issues to resolve," she said. "Why not focus on the problems and the issues that the rest of the world is going to be focused on?"

To address those problems, industry leaders will have to create innovative solutions. To do that, it will need innovative, well-educated people. She said that would require a good education system that funnels bright individuals to good jobs at home.

"How are you going to draw people here that are going to create that foundation for the future?" she said.

"You (in West Virginia) have 150 years of a lot of great vision, persistence and hard work that can be used to drive you into the future, but you're going to need a really strong information backbone," Westphal said.

"Knowledge is the key to the future; information is the wealth-driver," she said.

Dr. Brian Hemphill, president at West Virginia State University, said to meet that goal, local higher education systems have to break out of the traditional academy style learning system that was crafted in the 19th century.

"The bottom line: We must adapt," Hemphill said.

That, he said, will require going beyond teaching just the basics, but giving students a hands-on learning environment that prepares them for the future needs of the workforce.

"Higher education has to be in tuned with today's learners and today's industries," he said. "Those that do will be the prosperous institutions and deliver West Virginia into the future."

Steve Hedrick, CEO of the Mid-Atlantic Technology, Research and Innovation Center, said studies have shown the Marcellus shale natural gas industry alone will likely grow to support 29,000 natural gas and manufacturing jobs by 2020 and 50,000 jobs by 2035.

He said to meet that growth, West Virginia will need to ensure it's graduating enough students in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields in order to properly support the industries.

"I believe it all comes down to education and innovation," Hedrick said. "In my opinion we need a science-literate citizenry in order to make well-informed decisions for our society."

While education holds the greatest potential in unlocking this growth, Westphal said the growing national and state-level debts pose the greatest threat to the country's overall future.

She said the problem isn't as bad right now, as most mature, developed countries around the globe currently face the same debt crises.

However, she said the U.S. would lose its advantage as the world economic leader once the economies of developing countries begin to emerge.

"What's happening is there's a lot of countries that aren't burdened like we're burdened," Westphal said. "They haven't gone through the last 50 years of the spending and the race for whatever it was...they are pretty much starting clean sheet in a lot of cases."

She said the United States has to begin to rein in its spending and tax policies and place them on a self-sustaining path.

"We cannot spend like we have been spending the way we have been spending in the past," Westphal said. "We're going to have to give up some things to gain some things, and the debate right now is that we don't want to give up anything."

Contact writer Jared Hunt at business@dailymail.com or 304-348-4836.


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