Big Data Solutions

05/07/2013 02:39 pm ET | Updated Jul 07, 2013

The sun is setting on the West. According to the International Monetary Fund's new report, World Economic Outlook , there is not much light on the economic horizon for most OECD nations. The developing world, on the other hand, appears to have a bright future.

And perhaps what the IMF analysts have in mind is the inability for the Europeans of the OECD to find a formula for growth since the Great Recession, which hit Europe especially hard. Nor is it surprising the European based economic paper would, itself, dedicate pages to the topic.

The gist of the IMF's long report is captured in a color-coded map in the Economist, which compares rates of recovery by using different colors to signify varying rates of growth. In and of itself, the map is a good summary of the report, but the really interesting exercise would be to create another map, using the same colors, but assessing the rate at which all nations are aging (as measured by a drop in fertility and a rise in longevity). My working hypothesis is that the colors would match almost perfectly, as slower aging nations would have faster growing economies, and faster aging nations would have slower growth.

Indeed, a comparison of these two maps would ostensibly confirm the long-held economic truism: demography is destiny.

Only it need not be. Demography is foundational, and good policies and practices must be structured according to demographic affordances and limitations. But it is not destiny.

Rather, what these two maps would reveal, and what the IMF report suggests, is that slow economic growth is the consequence of a mismatch between old systems and new population structures. The countries that are thriving -- excluding China -- are aging slowly. Those that are struggling are, on the whole, aging quickly. And it is the Europeans as much as any, which, as a region, have some of the oldest populations on the planet and continue to insist that austerity-not means to keep handing out all those 20th century era benefits.

The demography is not destiny. It is the result of a failure to realign societies to population aging and the new demographics of the 21st century. With the right policies and practices, rapid aging and rapid growth can become parallel phenomena.

This point is essential not only for the high-income nations struggling today, but also for low- and middle-income countries that are growing. In Vietnam, Peru, and dozens of other emerging nations, fertility rates are plummeting and life spans are increasing at far more dramatic rates than they ever did in Japan or Germany. And the so-called "demographic dividend" that is paying healthy rewards today will be gone tomorrow.

So what is to be done? As fertility rates drop, and as life spans increase, older adults must continue to contribute to economic life. Politics aside, there is simply no way for the ballooning 60+ demographic to become dependent as previous generations have. It's a lesson Japan and Europe are learning fast.

"Healthy, productive aging" is, of course, a nice phrase that's easier to articulate than execute. Nonetheless, it remains a global imperative to find the substance behind the phrase. If not, the Economist's color-coded map will soon have all countries colored light-blue -- the dreaded color signifying negative growth.

Part of the answer to enabling healthy, productive aging may come from Silicon Valley's hottest trend du jour: big data. It may seem like a stretch, but there is ample reason to believe that Big Data can revolutionize the ways that people age.

While there are innumerable possibilities, the most fundamental contribution that Big Data can make is to trigger health and medical breakthroughs.

As a brilliant tour-de-force piece in Foreign Affairs shows , Big Data's revolutionary potential lies in its ability to enable researchers to break away from the causation paradigm (X causes Y) and move towards a correlative paradigm (Y is present in people with A, B, and C).

The implications are huge. Take Alzheimer's, for example, a disease that is poised to become the nightmare of the 21st century. We don't know the molecular basis for the disease, and, with so much ground to cover, a correlative approach to research may hasten our timeline to therapies. The OECD, Oxford University, and the Global Coalition on Aging are soon holding a summit to discuss these possibilities, and the potential can't be overstated.

If Big Data can "de-link" aging and Alzheimer's through correlative research, one of the greatest obstacles to healthy, productive aging can be overcome. It's a tall order, but so is curing HIV/AIDS. And it's not just Alzheimer's. Other age-related non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like diabetes, heart disease, cancer and cardiovascular disease pose both health and economic burdens as populations age. Both the UN and the WHO have recognized NCDs as barriers to growth and success.

The IMF's new report confirms what many people throughout the world already know: the balance of global economic power is shifting, and the aging of "rich" societies is accelerating this new world. Global economic fortunes, however, do not need to be a zero sum game. One nation doesn't need to get poor for another to get rich. We can all see the sun rise, and that's the win-win-win of market capitalism embracing evolving demographics -- understanding that the debate over austerity is the wrong one. This is a debate over growth and, particularly, how healthy and active aging populations can become new sources of economic growth. Now there's a goal worthy of 21st century imagination.