Ecosystems for companies
There’s one thing I shout from the rooftops at every keynote, on every stage, in every city and in every country: I am a grandfather and thus a futurist. Or perhaps I should say: I’m trying to be a futurist.
By futurist, I mean someone who is passionate about the future. It’s not only about knowing what lies ahead, but mostly about wanting to understand how I can influence that future myself, to make it a better place than the world as we know it today for both people and planet. We can’t keep doing what we’re doing. If we continue down this road, our children’s lives – the lives of my grandchildren who I am currently playing with in the garden – will be hell.
I am still shocked that our generation keeps denying that we have drained our planet over the last 75 years, denying that we have put the liveability of our planet in serious danger. But I’m also shocked at how we keep promising ourselves that we will be CO2 neutral by 2050. In other words, we have the nerve to tell our grandchildren that we will continue spoiling our earth for the next 20 years and that we’re counting on them to clean up all the damage that we have caused. That they will have to restore the earth and its balances and bring stability back to the wild climate. Now, off you go to school, even though we’re not really investing in education, study hard and come up with some solutions. Don’t whine, you’re also enjoying our life of excessive luxury. What are they supposed to do? Lead an austere life and study hard while we party and ignore the deluge that will ensue? It’s up to us, here and now!
We should not go gentle into the night
Of course, technology and the impact it will have on people and communities fascinates me. I’m often perplexed by technology gurus, the ones who elicit ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from their audience as they weave spectacular predictions. That’s not me.
I’m no tech nut. I don’t understand anything about the internet protocol, but maybe that’s why I can objectively look at what impact these technological wonders are having on people. In 1964 (I was 1 at the time) for a BBC programme, Arthur C Clarke predicted in fun old-fashioned English what our life would look like “in the next 50 years”. He foresaw the internet, mobile society, remote working and even the metaverse. He poignantly summarised it by saying “people will no longer commute, they will communicate”. Clarke didn’t delve into topics, but talked of the dynamics that the fast development of tools like “the communication satellite” would create. That’s art.
Today is a heyday for curious people like me. We are now living in a time when new technologies seem to be inundating us one after the other. At least, that’s how people tend to describe it to me. It’s all going too fast and we’re losing control. People are scared of big data, AI, blockchain, web 3.0, metaverse and so on, just like people before them were scared of the first trains and cars.
That’s not how I see it. Every new innovation that results from our never-ending human inventions is not necessarily good, bad or ugly; it depends on what we do with it. I was born an optimist and I believe in good. We will need new technology to rectify the suffering that we have caused. It’s possible, with a pinch of imagination and a touch of magic. Moreover, we’re not experiencing one technology after the other, but rather a logical connection between innovations. That connection is not linear; they’re parallel phenomena that grow in networks just like natural ecosystems. Most people only think in a linear way, so they don’t see those connections. On stage, I try to connect the dots for people. It’s an exciting challenge which is served well by stories.
I’m a story-teller, always on the look-out for ideas that I can use to make things clear. I’ve already used images like upside-down slow cathedrals, beach chairs, Chernobyl and… Alice in Wonderland, of course.
When I tell my grandchildren the story of ‘Alice in Wonderland’, I always think about what our world is currently like: Nothing is what it seems, because the patterns of the old world – our old ways of life and thus the old economy – are no longer valid in the new universe that is taking shape. If you look at the new world through the lens of the old, it seems completely absurd. But for the inhabitants of the new world, it’s all perfectly normal.
The hyperconnectivity of people and things, big data, artificial intelligence, blockchain, cryptocurrencies, automation and web3 are turning our world upside down. We need to let go of the old and immerse ourselves in the new, to see what we can’t see through the lens of the old and thus what we don’t understand.
In Cinderella, the hand-drawn Disney animation film from 1950 that I watched on the big screen with my granddaughters, there is a scene where Cinderella wants to go to the ball. Her Fairy Godmother turns up to help with a pumpkin. Cinderella looks despondent; a pumpkin won’t help her get to the ball. We’re just like Cinderella, looking at the world as it is and unable to see how we can turn it into something better. The Fairy Godmother’s message to Cinderella: “Don’t see things as they are, see what they can become.” With a flick of her wand, she turns the pumpkin, mice, horse and dog into a golden carriage, four beautiful horses, a driver and a footman. We can use technologies, like the fairy godmother used her wand, to create something tremendous. We just have to be brave enough to do it, to see and believe in magical powers.
We need to let the good in. It’s easy to describe what that ‘good’ actually is: Optimising wellbeing for all people, now and in the future. According to the indigenous peoples of America, we need to think of the future in terms of the impact each decision will have on the next seven generations. It’s so easy to describe, but so unbelievably difficult a task.
Wellbeing is a complex combination of multiple factors that keep each other in a delicate balance. It’s about optimising and balancing our welfare and prosperity, our freedom and our togetherness. Factors like health, housing, green spaces, mobility, social life, income, safety, care and education all play a role. This complex question must also take into account future generations and thus, by definition, be sustainable. There is no one person that can envision, examine and manage this idea alone. It’s too vast and too complex. But we need to do it and we need to do it now.
It's not impossible as there are two things that can help us: technology and fractal theory. According to fractal theory, all large things are made up of smaller and smaller parts that have the same ‘shape’ as the whole. The smallest component is a person. The largest is how we organise humanity.
If you merge those two ideas, you get smart ecosystems.
Smart as in good for people and planet and thus able to examine and manage the very complex issues surrounding wellbeing.
Smart as in technology-enabled.
Smart as in data-driven.
Smart as in platform-thinking. It’s where all data is collected and processed to achieve an optimal result. Ecosystems are P2P: People to Platform, Platform to Platform, Platform to People and thus People to People. Small platforms combine to create larger platforms that in turn form even larger platforms. It starts and ends with individual people. Connect to many, engage the individual.
It should come as no surprise that more and more cities are taking the lead in developing these smart ecosystems. Companies that want to build a platform to become an ecosystem, or part of one, can learn a lot from smart cities.
1. Cities are close to their people.
2. Cities have a whole host of data on the people who live there. They can and must learn about the person behind the citizen by gathering even more data.
3. Cities are not driven by profit, but focus on creating maximum wellbeing using all components that may have an influence.
4. Cities can’t do it all by themselves and must look for participants. Those participants are diverse, but many are likely to pursue profit models.
5. Due to their responsibility to their people, cities must be very transparent about what data they have available to them and what they wish to do with it.
6. Given that cities must optimise the wellbeing of all citizens, they must find a balance between autonomy and unity. They must also seek this balance with participants.
7. Given that cities must be neutral, by definition, they must also prohibit all and any bias from the algorithms they use.
8. Cities must rely on technology in order to customise their interactions with people.
9. Cities must find a delicate balance between neutral algorithms and elected political governance. Short and permanent feedback loops are essential.
In the end, the citizen decides.
To put it simply, companies that want to learn how ecosystems work, that want to imagine what their building blocks could become in the new world, should dive deeper into the wonderful world of smart cities. They’re ‘Alice in Wonderland’ in the making.