Excerpted from MOVE: The Forces Uprooting Us, by Parag Khanna. Copyright © 2021 by Parag Khanna. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster Inc., for Future by a16z.
The Great Lockdown of 2020 was also a Great Reset. Thousands of entrepreneurs chose to become digital nomads, ditching San Francisco for Costa Rica and Boston for Bali. But for millions of professional expats, construction workers, and students, the arrow pointed in the opposite direction: They simply returned home, unsure of whether they will live abroad again.
There couldn’t have been a more ironic year to practically freeze global migration. 2019 had marked a high point in the mobility of people: 1.5 billion international travelers and nearly 300 million people living outside their home country. These numbers were a major achievement — especially against the backdrop of the past century’s extreme bureaucratization of visa processing, and politics.
The origin of the passport is much less as a restrictive symbol of exclusive identity than a simple laissez passer: a request for safe passage. So how can we return to a world where passports don’t stand for who you are, but simply identify you on your way to where you’re going?
The passports of the future should be based on skills and health rather than nationality.
The Great Lockdown taught us how important physical mobility is to global supply chains and individual livelihoods. Sadly, it also showed us how terrible we are at coordinating that mobility. At nearly the two-year mark since the pandemic began, countries continue to issue unilateral travel bans and vaccine certificates unrecognized by others. On any given day, people don’t know which countries their passport will allow them entry into or not. According to UBS data analyzed by travel research firm Skift, travel remains more restricted in September 2021 than it was in September 2020.
I believe there may be no more important industry to elevate into the future than the regulation of international mobility. Indeed, even as Covid restrictions still pins billions of us down, it’s not difficult to identify the forces conspiring to uproot much of humanity in the decades ahead: Political upheaval (think refugees from Afghanistan, Syria, or Venezuela); demographic imbalances (massive shortages of workers in developed countries across North America, Europe, and Northeast Asia); and climate change (with people fleeing floods, droughts, and rising sea levels), to name a few. Standing behind glass counters at consulates just won’t do.
This early phase of the post-pandemic world provides a unique opportunity to pre-design the next migration system, one better suited to a global population constantly searching for political, social, and/or ecological stability. But to get there we’ll have to embrace blockchain technologies, and biometrics — which together would enable a decentralized global platform for individual mobility.
The Great Lockdown was the most coordinated worldwide action in human history. We can make the most of it by peacefully and sustainably enabling the Next Great Migration.
How we get there — a global passport app
The rise of digital identification is a major milestone for enabling a post-passport world. National ID cards have been common in Europe for decades. In the 2000s, Estonia already distributed a unique SIM card to citizens for mobile access to government services (including voting), eventually switching to a “Smart ID” via an app instead. Today, Singapore’s SingPass substitutes for the national identification card for entry into government offices or opening bank accounts. China is also deploying this at a billion-person scale, with Tencent and WeChat introducing a Virtual ID app that replaces physical ID cards with facial recognition for all government or commercial purposes. India’s aadhar program distributed unique identifier (UID) cards to 99 percent of the adult population; linking one’s 12-digit UID to a registered mobile phone number now enables cashless banking and instant subsidy payments.
Thanks to the marriage of mobile phones and digital IDs, billions of unbanked are now banked. Why not do the same for travel? Having a global passport app represents a leapfrog for global mobility that is both desirable and possible. Imagine if every person who wanted one was issued a mobile phone and digital ID — and could upload essential travel-related information to a blockchain-based mobility wallet for clearance. Who would benefit from such a system? The answer: almost everyone.
Even the wealthy are not immune from arbitrary travel restrictions. During the pandemic surge, the U.S. passport tumbled in international acceptance in inverse proportion to Covid cases, at its lowest point accepted by only three dozen countries. Canada (and even Mexico) claimed they’d need a wall to keep infected Americans out. To avoid being penalized for citizenship no matter our health status, we should want a system that allows us to differentiate ourselves through additional data.
Now that we have provided billions of people with mobile phones and digital IDs, how can we give them paperless passports? (After all, Estonia has had this capability for years, but has been standing alone on the dancefloor of digitized travel. It takes two to tango.) For better or worse, a portion of what governments require to grant entry visas is already held in national databases such as verification of identity, proof of address, criminal history, and vaccine certificates.
Many governments require plane tickets, itineraries, proof of residence, educational records, financial statements, and social media account profiles — the same kind of information needed for setting up utility accounts and job applications. Travel-related data is already collected and shared by airlines through consortia such as IATA and by border agencies with Interpol. The Good Health Pass Collaborative has developed technical standards for QR code health certifications.
The essential information required for a passport app or mobility wallet is therefore already available in digital formats, albeit in fragmented national or corporate databases.
The next step would be to fully bypass the onerous notary stamps and wet signatures in favor of blockchain-verified equivalents. This would prevent national governments from being the sole repositories of this personal data such that they could unilaterally grant or deny the right to travel. Instead, the app could store the requisite information on blockchains, and users would share specific items as needed for travel tickets, visa applications, or work and residency permits.
Across the world, people have adopted e-wallets that hold everything from digital cash to cryptocurrencies to electric-car-sharing accounts. A protocol for travel would be a clearinghouse that crowds in data that’s already being used: national ID numbers, fingerprints, bank statements, criminal history, employment records, travel logs, health status, and so forth. Marginally different requirements could easily be streamlined. Does every country really have to require a different size passport photo and background color? IATA, customs agencies, and booking websites have been working to iron out these pain points, and similarly advocate an opt-in repository of traveler data to be shared as needed for speedy approval. Covid has nudged this agenda forward. Instead of long queues at consulates, many countries have set up online visa processing procedures.
Remember that almost all countries and their businesses want tourists, business people, and essential workers — but their movement is stifled in pre-technological bureaucratic purgatory. It should matter less that one is Bolivian, Nigerian, or Vietnamese, and more that this individual has provided sufficient, accurate information to gain entry. Such a system could liberate billions of working-class individuals from the friction associated with their national identity, no matter what continent. As economist Branko Milanovic argues, citizenship is a penalty or tax, arbitrarily assigned based on location of birth. Yet these regions are home to the labor pool dozens of wealthy countries need, whether farmers or construction workers or nurses. By divorcing mobility from nationality, we circumvent biases people face for coming from countries that are poor or at war.
The passports of the future should be based on skills and health rather than nationality.
Immigration pragmatism and common sense technology can go a long way to boosting opportunities for the billions of people who need it most. Construction workers, farmers, and nurses are accustomed to shifting geography seasonally or every few years. They follow the law of supply and demand — and our migration system should enable billions of others to do the same. We should prepare for a future where people have many jobs and move many times over the course of their careers, rather than having one or two jobs or moving once or twice over a lifetime.
The future of work will be remote and global. While headlines are dominated by politics and lockdowns, the reality suggests an all-out war for young talent as countries seek to bridge labor shortages and recruit the next generation of taxpayers. Some country pairs already have robust skills partnerships. A sensible next step, as suggested by economist Michael Clemens, would be setting up in-country training that transfers skills to would-be migrants and develops deeper ties with the destination country. As OECD country populations decline, colleges and universities depend ever more on foreign students. Rather than anxiously waiting for governments to approve student visas, smart countries will simply grant a digital student visa upon uploading an acceptance letter.
A parallel digital identification that circumvents unnecessary bureaucracy is not a competitor or threat to national citizenship, which confers rights to land ownership, voting, and legal protections, and obligations ranging from military service to taxation. However, it could be an exceptionally useful approach for governments to screen whom to let in and keep out — including some of their own citizens for national security reasons. Requiring individuals to rigorously verify where they have been is a better way to stay ahead of nimble terrorists no matter who or where they are.
This very moment represents an absolute highpoint in restricting mobility; we can only do better from here in expanding mobility. Putting passports on apps and vital data on blockchains is key to get there. And right now there’s a unique opportunity to bring about a system that empowers, rather than restrains, the billions of individuals whose freer mobility could benefit world society, whether in accessing talent or more. It’s also a chance to digitally prepare for an era of mass migrations, in which hundreds of millions of people may circulate in a constant flux of unpredictable multidirectional movements for all sorts of reasons.
Humankind is capable of a better approach to managing cross-border movements, and orderly mobility — enabled by technology — is our best insurance against volatility. When the next crisis comes, we’ll be glad we have it.
See also a 2016 episode of the a16z Podcast with Parag Khanna on “the internet as supply chain” here.
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