Rethinking society

Over the past summer break, I’ve tried to draw up some images, some conjectures of what the future might hold for us. As global mega trends like urbanisation, globalisation, digitization, and decentralisation unfold, I wanted to create an impression of the big disruptions waiting for us: in politics, economics, Big Business, and energy and production (here and here).

Looking for weak signals that might foreshadow major changes, I found, not surprisingly, a broad diversity of recent developments, including the rise of cities as actors in global governance, the demise of the labour contract as the mainstay of wealth distribution, the dominance of data-driven platforms across many industries, and the re-localisation of manufacturing and energy supply. That begs the all-important question: Is there a way to integrate all these ideas and observations? To come up with a reasonably coherent image of the trajectory we are on?

As any futurist will tell you, it’s impossible to predict the one future that will occur, but it’s quite possible to identify plausible futures that possibly could. In that spirit, I’ll offer you a frame in which to look for such plausible futures. And of course I’ll share my ideas of the constituent elements of these images. Those elements, still blurry today, will gain more and more contour, texture, and colour over time.

What we need to think about …

We are living in interesting times as the Digital Revolution unfolds not just right in front of us, but literally all around us. We experience ever faster interactions; everybody (and everything) is connected to everybody else (and everything else) almost instantaneously at close to the speed of light: unfiltered, unmoderated, unmitigated. That’s true for people and their impressions, views, ideas, and even feelings; it is equally true for news, services, and goods. We have a strong sense of acceleration in our everyday lives; and even more challenging: the acceleration of change.

Still, we have only seen the beginning of the Digital Revolution. Right now, change is driven by technological opportunities that are developed and promoted by business actors, entrepreneurs as well as corporations, in order to deliver new products or services to their customers. That’s the pretty fast and direct interaction between business and customers, focused on micro-economic interest and return on investment. In stark contrast, society writ large, the collective of all customers and non-customers, acts with considerable moderation and delay on novel technologies. After they have entered the market, gained a sizable market share, potentially even created new market segments; and after the unintended consequences have surfaced. In short: society acts on new technologies after their macro-economic impact and societal cost become reasonably tangible and concrete.

For the Digital Revolution, we have not yet fully reached that point. But the public quarrel between Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk on the risks of Artificial Intelligence is a strong signal that we are pretty close. And once a broader discussion on the impact of digitisation on the economy, on society, on the environment, on working conditions gets going, we’ll see a strong push to influence the further trajectory of digital technologies: through politics and policies, through laws and regulations, through taxes and customer protection standards. The goal then is to ensure that the rules of the game – for the use of existing digital technologies and the further development of everything digital – are not only written in terms of short-term economic interests, but take longer-term societal interests into due account.

And that’s the frame in which to look for plausible futures. As novel technologies push the boundaries of the possible, and business models are designed around these new opportunities, how do customers respond? What are the impacts on the economy? On employment and the nature of work? On the nature of leisure? On social interactions? On the environment? And how does society react to the inevitable unintended consequences? So far, the discussion about all things digital is focused on technologies, their application, associated business models and customer experience. But as the full impact of digital technologies becomes more visible and tangible, the human and societal dimension of the Digital Revolution will move centre stage. And society writ large will flex its muscle to influence the previously unregulated digital domain. The question is not if, that question is only: In which direction?

What’s on the horizon …

As we live through the Digital Revolution, I suggest that three major vectors will shape the future of  our society: ownership, trust, and value. These vectors will not simply change a couple of people’s mindset, they are bound to transform fundamental concepts on which our culture is built. In the upcoming short series of posts, I’ll address these vectors one by one, for each of them individually has the potential to reshape the society we are living in.


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