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Tech columnist and alumnus talks global supply chain crisis on Emory president’s podcast
GLF during podcast; Mims on screen

On the latest episode of One Big Question, Emory President Gregory L. Fenves talks to Emory College alumnus and columnist Christopher Mims about the global supply chain crisis and how many miles it takes to build a cell phone.

In fall 2019, Christopher Mims was standing at a port in Vietnam when a friend called to ask if “this outbreak in China” was going to impact him. He was on the dock watching ships deliver containers the size of skyscrapers full of cell phone parts. Mims was in the middle of doing research for his 2021 book “Arriving Today: From Factory to Front Door — Why Everything Has Changed About How and What We Buy.” 

As a tech writer, Mims started out investigating how robots were replacing humans in the manufacturing industry. He had no idea he was about to see the global supply chain implode before his very eyes. On the latest episode of One Big Question, Emory President Gregory L. Fenves interviews Mims about globalization and how it is impacting people’s day-to-day purchasing decisions. Listen to the full interview. 

Fenves starts with the big question, “For the last couple of years, anytime there's been a delay or a shortage, the global supply chain gets blamed ... can you explain what is going on?”

Mims answers, in part, “So, if you talk about something as complicated as a cell phone, 300 parts at least, the cumulative supply chain miles embodied in a cell phone could be 100,000 or more. There are a lot of single points of failure because those industries have been concentrated. If you want something really simple, like capacitors, well, you go to a capacitor village or town or city in China. And, if a capacitor town gets shut down by a pandemic, well, everybody who needs capacitors, which is every electronics manufacturer in the world, is going to have to dip into their reserves.”

Mims pens the Wall Street Journal column Keywords, where he covers everything from electric cars to the metaverse. The Emory College graduate studied neuroscience and behavioral biology before pursuing a career in journalism. For more than a decade, he’s been watching how technology has changed people’s daily lives. He also pays close attention to the labor market around technological advancement — from Silicon Valley to Asian provinces where computers are manufactured. 

For Mims, globalization is not a lofty concept. As he explains to Fenves on One Big Question, “The globe is more interconnected than ever. We're more interdependent than ever. And you really cannot untangle that web anymore.” 

Here’s a snippet of their conversation:

Fenves: The global supply chain has been enabled by globalization, ease of trade, trade policies, flows of money, flows of technology and intellectual property. But I get a sense, a lot of that is starting to change.... So, how do you see the connection between the technology questions and the supply- chain questions with the broader trends in globalization?

Mims: There's this concept of re-assuring, where you bring manufacturing back to within the bounds of your country. People call it “ally shoring.” You imagine these two giant, geopolitically aligned blocks where it's Russia primarily trading with China and some other countries. And the U.S. and the EU and others are worried about, "Well, how do we make sure that we always have supplies of microchips if there's ever a war in the South China Sea or something? So, maybe we need to give Intel a bunch of money to bring microchip production back to the U.S."

Listen to the full conversation with Mims.

On each episode of One Big Question, Fenves sits down with Emory authors, inventors, researchers, alumni and more to learn about their experiences and areas of expertise. The first two episodes featured epidemiologist and social media maven Laurel Bristow and novelist Tayari Jones, who is Emory's Charles Howard Candler Professor of English and Creative Writing. All three episodes are up now.

One Big Question

In his new podcast series, President Gregory L. Fenves asks Emory experts big questions about society, the challenges we face, and the unexpected, bold, ambitious and brave solutions they’ve discovered.

The first three episodes are now live.

Learn more about One Big Question

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