29 October, 2015

ETNO ThinkDigital Interview: Digital power maps, data flows, the new way of working and the future of smarter citizens

An interview to Dr Tim Jones, Programme Director for Future Agenda, a global open foresight programme: “Perhaps data should be treated like water in that the ability to control the flow is not down to national governments and agreements, but more down to protocols and security levels.” #ThinkDigital

What trends do you see having the most revolutionary impact on society and economy as a whole?

I just want to start by explaining that all the information gathered and the perspectives I am going to share with you come from talking to around 10,000 informed people over the past 6 months. Our job is to listen and playback what is said. Within this context, there are a quite a number of new issues in the latest version of the Future Agenda – in addition to those that were already there five years ago.  The broad insights are available to review on our website but a more detailed discussion will be published in January 2016.

I am often asked how sure we are that these forecasts are accurate. While some are 100% sure, most are “maybes” and the degree that they will have an impact will vary dependent on other circumstances.  I’ll start with the few trends that people agree on.

Projections that are most certain tend to be related to population. It is clear that there is less concern about population growth, than about an imbalanced population. The ageing factor comes into it, but also – if you think about climate change – people are increasingly located in the wrong place in terms of access to food and water. So the emphasis lies mostly on the structure, demographics and geography of population rather than just on the number of people who live on the planet. From a sustainability perspective there is a general acknowledgement that resource constraints will eventually lead to a crisis.

There is also broad agreement around the shift of power and influence and an expectation that it will move back to where it was 500 years ago. Mckinsey have developed a great guideline which shows that the centre of gravity of world economic powers shifted from India/China over to Europe, temporarily moving to the Atlantic and will eventually return to the East.

From a digital perspective, it is entirely credible that we will all be connected by 2025. The question today is partly related to the quality of the connection and partly to the level of access to information that it will provide.

Other general trends that seem to be less set in stone include access - inequality of access in terms of wealth, education, healthcare, digital access... Some of the big uncertainties seem to be around where will we be in ten years’ time: Given the amount of information on the web, will it be possible for every schoolchild to have access to education or will the division between the unconnected and the connected become even more extreme? Will more people have access to better healthcare or will there be an urban vs. rural divide or a rich country/poor country divide? Access to information will also be key, creating an even larger gap between those who have it and those who don’t.

Another interesting trend in terms of identity is that of shifting relationships and a shifting sense of belonging. If a country’s influence is decreasing in importance compared to that of specific cities within its borders, what does that mean for our sense of national identity? Are we in a situation in which national boundaries are becoming less important than communities, particularly in the case of global population shifts? I was in Lebanon for example, where there is a population of just over four million, but a diaspora of 20 million people spread across the world. It’s the same case for Ireland and many other countries. A geographically dispersed population has a different set of behaviours than a population located in one geographical location.

A lot of people are talking about data and how that is changing organisations and how organisational structures will change.  Will more companies operate like the film industry for example and bring people together on a project-by-project basis, - more of a mass collaboration of experts? And then of course, how is quality judged and who will get the most interesting work and projects? How do you differentiate yourself from an increasingly connected average? 

You mention changing organisations. What impact will connectivity have on businesses and their employees? And will the employee – or the individual – of the future be able to disconnect?

The idea of “being able to disconnect” seems to be a very middle-class, developed country concern. In Africa, India, the Philippines or Southern Argentina for example, people don’t really see the need to disconnect. On the contrary, they are pushing for connectivity. It’s similar to the conversations we have had around privacy – the whole idea of “switching off” seems to be a very western perspective, not a global issue.

Regarding businesses, there are probably a few things that are changing. One is the nature of collaboration and partnerships. In the past, a partnership was two companies or industry sectors working together, but today, there are much deeper levels of collaborations with multiple sectors and organisations working together in a far more open way than in the past. This change is partly due to the fact that today’s problems – related to food waste, water or air quality for example – need to be solved in a much more inter-connected way. Take air quality. This is linked to the way we manage our energy, cities and transport systems and has clear impact on our health service and lifestyle choices.  To solve such a large-scale problem, you need mass collaboration between governments, private sectors, NGOs and individuals.

One of the impacts of this is that attitudes towards intellectual property and value need to change in consequence. While in the past partnerships were about trading intellectual property and know-how, today’s mass-collaboration society needs to rethink the notions of how value is created and shared.

And this brings me back to the question of employees – should people work for an organisation or for particular projects? If it were project-specific, attitudes would change from loyalty to an organisation to loyalty to a project itself.

You mentioned the shifting of power and influence and the McKinsey map of world economic powers. What is your vision of the world map of digital powers in, say, 20 years’ time?

The McKinsey map shows the shift of economic powers, which is quite easy to overlay with where people are located. As more people become economically active across the globe - 1.3 billion in India, 1.1 billion in China - it clearly shifts the centre of gravity away from areas like Europe and the USA.

I think the digital power map will be relatively more fragmented. We have had several conversations in which people were trying to work out whether there will be global agreements on digital matters, aiming to create more of a level playing field, or whether it would be much more localised and therefore fragmented. Somebody in Singapore mentioned the idea of digital islands acting as separate entities.

Other conversations covered the fact that nations are trying to put up borders around technology, imposing national boundaries on matters such as data for example. Realistically this is not feasible in the longer term given the nature of data flows which do not recognise national borders. Someone said that perhaps data should be treated like water in that the ability to control the flow is not down to national governments and agreements, but more down to protocols and security levels.

Although people are obviously putting a lot of expectations on current leaders – whether at country-level as in the USA or at industry-level such as in the telecoms sector - I think that they are coming to recognise that, if leaders are not able to come to agreements on relatively simple topics such as trading food, global agreements around data access or privacy and other digital matters are still more than ten years away.

Cities, Health, Transport – all these sectors will change dramatically to adapt to new trends. What is your vision?

Cities are such a big focus because that’s where most of the population is located. They are where a lot of the problems are, but also where most of the solutions are. Energy, health, transport - everything in a city is more complex, but it also provides more opportunity for innovation.

Some people expressed the view that cities are becoming more important than countries; mayors are becoming more influential than heads of government, and there will be a rise in the power of city-states, particularly the mega-cities – when compared to governments. Arguably that is just like going back to the Renaissance when Venice was more important than Italy.

From a technology point of view, there is a lot of recognition of the great potential around smart cities. What I find interesting is whether people are referring to smart cities or rather about smarter citizens. By this I mean whether it is about using a digital overlay/a more embedded intelligence within cities so that everything is more automatic, or is it more the idea of giving citizens more choice – the ability to choose between the healthiest option, the more environmentally-friendly option or the fastest option.

If you had to pick one topic after all your trips and workshops, what would it be?

There is huge expectation around the power of data. The idea it having a value came up time and time again from Mumbai to Dubai to Hong Kong. Some suggested it should become a currency in itself.  There is general expectation that there will be a more transparent data trading and as a result there will be a need for a market for data-trading just like there is a market place for diamonds, shares, steel or coal.

Of course data is worth different amounts to different people unlike the value of a share on the stock exchange. The general view is that there will be a three-dimensional market place in mind considering price, time and the rationale for its use, rather than the simpler market place that you usually associate with the financial sector, which is only based on price and time.

By Joanne Mazoyer for #ThinkDigital, 29 October 2015


Dr Tim Jones, Programme Director for Future Agenda, a global open foresight programme 

Tim is Programme Director of the Future Agenda global open foresight project. He is also a founder of the Growth Agenda network and leads the Innovation Leaders research project. Tim is an expert in innovation, growth and foresight and advises a wide range of organisations on these issues.

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