What do we really want from the digital revolution?

Sensemaking / What do we really want from the digital revolution?

David Bent asks crucial questions about productivity, success, how we organise and how we relate to each other in the digital age

By David Bent / 07 Mar 2016

This article was first published in The Long View 2016. Please share your thoughts here and join the conversation on social media with #longview2016.

Can the digital revolution enable us to live well within environmental limits? That’s the make or break question for the next 20 years. History tells us that profound social change feeds off – and feeds into – technological revolutions. With the birth of the steam engine we replaced farms with factories, stage coaches with locomotives, local time with timetables, tight-knit villages with cities of strangers – and so much more. To paraphrase Brynjolfsson and McAfee, authors of The Second Machine Age, computers and other digital advances are doing for mental power what the steam engine did for muscle power.

The social effects will be as profound. If we think ahead to 2026, our surroundings will be much smarter: anticipating our behaviour and making programmed but complex decisions, based on data from weather, traffic, markets and search engines. Already, algorithms are performing some white-collar tasks, and robots are ‘working’ as care-givers, shop servers and drivers.

Is productivity our primary goal?

Our first hope has to be that everyone will be able to meet their fundamental needs. The digital revolution will make us much more productive. We’ll get the best use from each hour of labour, each joule of energy, each kilogram of raw material, and each hour of a productive asset. But productivity doesn’t always correlate to satisfaction of needs: social justice must be built into the system.

Our second hope is to bring us back within planetary boundaries. Can we meet our needs with fewer inputs – and generate less waste? How far will digital help us to deliver a circular economy? And will new technologies allow us to meet non-material needs in non-material ways, moving beyond status-led consumerism? The ideal is absolute decoupling, where increased total economic activity requires less total environmental impact.

These goals raise difficult questions for our economy and working lives.

Who will profit from the global digital economy?

Jobs are not the only way we provide an input to the economy. Another, and one set to grow massively, is through the data we provide about ourselves. Google, Facebook and others give us a service (often for free), and we give them data about our likes, behaviours and connections. They can make vast fortunes from under- standing what those data mean, either at a population level or through targeting individuals.

Today, we worry about privacy and data protection. Tomorrow, we will worry about power and who gets the value from data about ourselves. As our ability to earn from tasks is disrupted, the value we get from data on ourselves will become much more important. Jaron Lanier imagines a dystopian 2036 where people without jobs are offered bespoke discounts for entertainment, while dying of thirst and hunger. An extreme warning perhaps, but one to heed.

How will global digital business affect the distribution of power and wealth? It could result in a small number of superstars who win big, and a large number of players who win small, if at all. We’re already seeing this in the rise of the ‘1%’. In this scenario, the winners will also have the deepest pockets, and the best political connections. They will become new incumbents, spending anything to protect their position. This will slow our responses to change, making us more fragile in the face of big issues like climate change.

What new forms of organisation will succeed?

Digital technologies enable networks where a resource is more useful the more users there are, helping to match demand with supply. Waste from one industrial process can become food for another. Entrepreneurs can find investors. Fewer cars and homes need be left empty. All of these hold the promise of delivering a world where we meet needs within environmental limits.

As well as new forms of economy, there are new ways of organising ourselves. Twentieth-century capitalism gave us machine-like organisations, based on management by objectives using hierarchy. Over the last 20 years, globalisation saw manufacturing outsourced, with companies such as Nike keeping the central functions of branding and supply chain co-ordination.

The next step in that evolution is to network organisations. Frederic Laloux has studied the current examples like Buurtzorg (a Netherlands-based healthcare non-profit), Morning Star (a US-based tomato-processing company with a 30–40% share of the North American market) and Sun Hydraulics (a maker of hydraulic cartridge valves and manifolds). He found that self-management had replaced a hierarchical pyramid. These organisations are better understood as living systems. The organisation doesn’t plan best possible solutions. Instead, there is constant experimentation with workable solutions that iterate quickly according to real-life experience. Strategy-in-action arises from sensing and responding, not from predicting and controlling.

But that evolution will be tough for incumbents. It will take time for organisations to restructure to take advantage of digital technologies – during which period they may well become obsolete. Those that resemble living systems will have an advantage over machine-like ones, in their capacity to adapt and evolve.

The evolution of the organisation won’t just be in the private sector. The ‘social technology’ of markets, regulation, public-sector bodies and non-governmental organisations will also be disrupted. How will these networked institutions merit our trust?

We are already seeing the emergence of what Don Tapscott has called “global solution networks”, which address a global problem by engaging diverse stakeholders, and exploit the digital revolution to self-organise and self-govern. Examples run from the Global Water Partnership to the Abdul Lateef Jameel Poverty Action Lab, and from the World Economic Forum to the Internet Governance Forum. We can expect these types of efforts to grow and mature.

Some digital technologies will themselves be useful in building trust. The Economist is already calling blockchains “the great chain of being sure about things”. Centralised record-keeping is no longer necessary to create a trustworthy record of interactions and transactions. What does this mean for land registry, passports or contracts? What if blockchains can record the value of your contributions to a wider effort in a way you could exchange with others? Could this even replace monetary payment?

What about personal and societal impacts?

Some people hope that global connections will give rise to a global consciousness. You could claim that as we become more connected to others, we expand our ‘circle of concern’. Certainly, communications technologies mean people are more aware and have relationships with people in very different situations. But to see only the rise of global consciousness is to miss the parallel rise of populist nationalism, as people fear being left behind by ever-accelerating change.

The groups that people feel they belong to will matter. One theory of the rise of the nation state argues that, as people began to read en masse in a common language, they came to understand they were part of the same ‘imagined community’. Now, digital technologies are allowing us to strengthen new imagined communities on a global scale, based not on the nation state but on interests, ideologies or religions. Online radicalisation is one example of this: people have the option to identify with a chosen community, abandoning the customs and expectations of their origins. Achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals will depend on our ability to empathise and collaborate with those beyond our imagined communities. The digital revolution will enable us to build trust based on shared evidence, organising ourselves rapidly. But respect for others cannot be digitally generated. Previously, location-bound communities encoded morality in a combination of unspoken but keenly observed practice (culture) and written laws: does the digital revolution require a new moral compass?

This article was possible because of Forum for the Future’s Digital Revolution project, supported by O2. If you’d like to know more, contact Ela Rose: m.rose@forumforthefuture.org

Art by Echo Yang

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