Tip of the Spear: Part 3

Part 3: Action & Answers

I have spent much of the past year meeting and talking with people about their thoughts, fears, ideas and reactions to the technological changes happening around us. Between slugs of beer, coffee and other substances, the conversations have been superb.

These tête-à-têtes have been essential to help me understand whether or not this stuff really matters – and to whom.

I have observed several things:  Most of the people have had to think through and appreciate the pace of change that we were discussing. While disruption is an over-used and misused word these days, the pace and scope of change (when properly presented) and the questions raised, made all of these folks pause – at least for another sip of beer. Even those I would consider the “technology 1%” – the Tip of the Spear, and those most likely to be cynical of the conversation –  leaned in at the discussion of the eight tipping points I discussed in Parts 1 and 2 of this series.

All of the people I met, however, understood and appreciated the idea that the tip of the spear was indeed moving far ahead of the butt. All were able to provide examples of issues and ideas of where things were working and where they were not. All committed to thinking about their own reactions to some of the implications.

In short – unless I am surrounded by pleasers of the worst kind (I can assure you that’s not the case) –  this is a discussion whose time has come.

The last part of this series therefore is to look hard at these questions and present ideas on what I think the human species needs to be doing to keep the javelin flying straight. There are real concerns tempered with genuine hope for our future. Several of these insights came from the conversations I have had and of course still having, and the dialogues have been passionate. Other ideas stem from recollections, revived from notes I’ve kept over the years following discussions with some incredibly prescient people.

The Problem of the Wicked Problem

Before we look at the answers to the Tip of the Spear problem, I want to state clearly what I think the real problem is. In my opinion, the one true “wicked problem” boils down to Inequality; and I see three unique flavours: Inequality of Accountability, Inequality of Finance & Capital and Inequality of Education.  But to make this easier, there is another way of saying this:  Our world is filled with inequality because our world’s Playing Field is not level.  Simply stated.  Now, before I get my Libertarian and Ayn Rand followers frothing, I simply am pointing out the obvious. I am all for the survival of the fittest when the rules of the game are known and the players are equally distributed, but I can assure you as I have in earlier paragraphs, when the Tip moves too far from the butt, revolutions happen.  And that gap has a word: Inequality and the reason is the unleveled playing field.

Now this is a conversation from eternity, isn’t it?  The world’s game has been played on an unequal playing field since the beginning of time.  But here is the point.  For the first time in our human history we have the tools and capability to create the conditions for equality within a generation.  The first time. Ever. There has never been such a potential benevolent tipping point before in human history.  Something’s knocking at the clubhouse door and it’s either opportunity or the steel toed boot of the mob.

Our use of the technologies we have invented are now poised on a blade’s edge.  Either the Tip of the Spear levels the playing field in the areas of Governance, Finance, and Education, or we use these extraordinary technologies to create further concentrations of wealth and increased inequality.   Either we use our newly connected planet to have real conversations or we let it devolve into a rabble at the gate.  Our choice – and I am painting this in a black and white “this OR that” way purposefully because I believe the stakes are that high.  To repeat, the Tip is moving faster away from the tail, and if left unchecked, our world is going to look very different within this generation.

“If machines produce everything we need”, Stephen Hawking wrote in On Inequality, “ the outcome will depend on how things are distributed. Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution. So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality.” Unilever’s CEO, Paul Polman, put it more succinctly, “Power is dispersed, but wealth is concentrated”.

Nothing exemplifies this quote more than the history of the leading organizations from the 90’s and those of today. Back in 1990, the largest employers in the North American economy included the big three automakers –  GM, Ford, Chrysler. When we compare them to the big three tech companies of today, the economic realities are startling: In 1990, the trio of American automakers brought in $36 billion in revenue altogether, and employed over one million workers; Apple, Facebook and Google, which together bring in more than $1 trillion dollars in revenue, employee only 137,000 workers.

In an article called “New World Order,” published in 2015 in Foreign Affairs[1], Eric Brynjolfsson, Andrew McAfee, and Michael Spence (a Nobel laureate and professor at New York University) argued that “superstar-based technical change … is upending the global economy.” That economy, they conclude, will increasingly be dominated by members of the small elite that ‘innovate and create’. If technology leads to more inequality, it may have the effect of suffocating demand from the economy and can become self-destroying, making further technological evolution redundant as only the few could afford it.”

The growing inequality around the world can no longer be ignored, and addressing this and the other problems of capitalism, such as environmental degradation, is not only the morally right thing to do, but the pragmatic thing to do.

So let’s speculate how these three areas might play out.

Leveling the Governance Playing Field

A common example of how the Tip of the Spear has moved very far from the tail is found in how our systems of government are simply not able to keep pace with the changing nature of the world of technology and the speed and importance of innovation.  The populace is increasingly finding itself at odds with personal technologies and work systems vastly more efficient and effective than those of government – including the ability to participate in the decision making and innovation processes of the governing bodies.  As President Obama recently said, “We’re the only advanced democracy in the world that makes it harder for people to vote…it (was) easier to order a pizza than vote. How do we redesign our systems so we don’t have 50% voter participation?”

Worse, the increasing distrust and cynicism of the developed and the developing world of our governance systems is at an all-time high.  My previous discussion of Mr. Trump is the perfect example. And it’s a frightening reality.

Of all of the innovation and responses to change I have seen and researched, it is the ability to re-shape how our governments function in a connected world that has the potential for the largest impact on closing disconnection inherent in modern democracies, the inequality gap.  This is where the tail meets the 21st century.

From the essay in the World Economic Forum in May of 2016, the author saw the challenge of bringing technology into government, however, as no simple panacea:

“Part of the explanation is that technology is a problem as well as a solution. ‘There’s a lot of technological triumphalism about how [the internet] can be used to improve democracy,’ says the columnist and former White House speechwriter David Frum. ‘But in the end what seems to have happened is that it’s empowered angry and highly motivated minorities, and empowered them to slow down the system. Getting things done seems to go slower and slower every decade. How long does it take to build a highway? How long does it take to build a bridge? How long does it take to get a presidential nominee through the Senate?”

The result is what Francis Fukuyama has labelled ‘vetocracy’, in which it is much easier to stop things than start them. Even the admirable devotion to increasing official transparency has sometimes been counter-productive – ‘like creating a big Amazon rating system for government that only allows one- or two-star ratings’, according to Archon Fung of the Kennedy School of Government.

Another problem, which it is impossible to overestimate the extent of, is the pressure of the accelerated news agenda. Put simply, those in government often lack the time to think – to take time to chew through problems and come up with policies rather than being forced to respond to the latest gyrations of the 24-hour media cycle”.[2]

However, even with these challenges combined with added security, more trust and an algorithmically driven, automated future now on the cards, governments continue to look to the internet to transform public services. So as well as regulating it as a utility, governments need to innovate around the internet- and that’s something the commercial world is dragging its heels on.

The three biggest sources of deep innovation in global governance I have found are the Blockchain Technology, Open Big Data and The Emerging Economies

The Blockchain:  Welcome to the Digital Nation

The Blockchain – the underlying technology of Bitcoin –  has become a very popular, if widely misunderstood possibility for radical innovation in the local, national and global governance model. In short the Blockchain could completely change how any organization manages data and keep records. Blockchain anonymizes blocks of encrypted data in ledgers disparately across the network, recording when and by whom data is accessed, and making data effectively both decentralized and tamper-proof. Governments around the world are taking notice.

An unexpected leader:  Eastern Europe’s Estonia. 

At the heart of Estonia’s e-Residency initiative is Bitnation, a blockchain-powered ‘virtual nation’ that allows e-residents to notarize marriages, birth certificates, and business contracts. It’s used elsewhere, too, with Blockchain platform Guardtime working with Estonia’s e-Health authority.

Citizens can not only view their own medical records, but also see exactly who else has inspected them, and when. What’s more, that kind of data is permanently attached to their records, and cannot be deleted or tampered with. But Estonia’s e-Residency has an even more ambitious aim.

“In Estonia we believe that people should be able to freely choose their digital/public services best fit to them, regardless of the geographical area where they were arbitrarily born,” says Kaspar Korjus, e-Residency Program Director. “We’re truly living in exciting times when nation states and virtual nations compete and collaborate with each other on an international market, to provide better governance services.”

From their web-site, https://e-estonia.com,

“e-Estonia means voting in elections from the comfort of your own living room. Filing your income tax return in just five minutes. Signing a legally-binding contract over the Internet, from anywhere in the world, via your mobile phone. These are just a few of the services that Estonians take advantage of on a regular basis.

For their part, entrepreneurs can register businesses in as little 18 minutes, check vital company, property and legal records online, and even integrate their own secure services with the ones offered by the state.

Interaction among government agencies, and between the government and citizens, has been completely transformed in e-Estonia, quickly making bureaucracy a thing of the past and making the running of all levels of government more efficient than ever before.
With the blockchain as the foundation for trust and privacy, citizens are starting to participate directly in the re-imaging of government interactions in completely new ways.

Open Big Data: Cities as A Collaborative Source of the Data to Drive Innovation

While national governments are taking the lead on some tech issues, the real engines of innovation and experimentation are municipalities and big cities. The NYC Open Data Plan, for example, sees New York State make well over a thousand data sets from government agencies available to browse and download, while Chicago’s UI Labs’ CityWorks is encouraging the development of an internetof Things urban infrastructure.

From their website, “UI LABS is a first-of-its-kind innovation accelerator, addressing problems too big for any one organization to solve on its own. The challenges we are addressing in manufacturing and smart cities are at intersection of digital convergence: computing, big data, and the Internet of Things (IOT).

Both are great examples of large-scale digital planning that the commercial world isn’t going to work out on its own.  It’s collaborative, open and real-time.

Emerging Economies:  The Great African Experiment

Africa is probably the area where the most disruptive changes will occur over the medium term.  Ironically, the continent’s lack of infrastructure may prove to be one of its greatest assets. It has forced entrepreneurs to contrive different solutions and jury-rig the limited resources available – primarily the mobile phone. Africa has already taken the lead when it comes to mobile banking and mobile health, and implemented those solutions faster than anywhere else. There’s a burgeoning sense that an app like Apple Pay wouldn’t be deemed newsworthy, a frog that’s been leaped already.

Some data with tremendous implications:

  • 700 million people will be moving into African cities in the next 35 years – that means an entire New York City has to be built every six months until 2050
  • Nine out of the 20 fastest growing economies in the world are in Africa
  • African startups raised USD 187.5 million last year
  • African venture capital companies reported up to 330% growth last year
  • Africa is home to one billion people and 200 million of these are aged 15-24
  • Africa has the fastest growing middle class in the world
  • Smartphone usage is at a tipping point, expected to reach 400 million users in 2020.

As new investment and capital begins to flow into the African continent over the next several decades a natural outcome is the harsh glare of the capitalistic due diligence spotlight. While early entrants into distressed regions often represent the worst of the self-interest businesses, history has shown that over time, capital flows from transparent nation states and global corporations tend – albeit imperfectly – to norm (i.e. effective oversight, governance and a reasonable return to capital). As we have found in all things in the Tip of the Spear world, scrutiny and iteration are often brutal but largely effective.

In short, turning the flywheel on the Sub-Saharan African continent is likely going to start with capital and investment. What’s new this time is that transparency and improved technology availability and literacy will move change along much more quickly.  Corrupt regimes that fail to provide transparency will fall with alarming speed and, ideally, with less intensity than the sectarian chaos of the so-called Arab Spring.

In summary, global governance inequality is at the root of the Tip of the Spear problem.  In the developed world, we are seeing the arrival of new technologies that are providing the potential for quantum changes in the control and access of the citizenry.  In the developing world – especially in Africa, capital inflows and entrepreneurial ecosystems are leading the way to bring the spotlight on inept governance and the benefits of a proper education.

Leveling the Financial & Technical Playing Field
Safe, efficient access to the fundamental tool of the economic game – the bank account – is staggeringly varied across the globe.  Do a gender, education or region pivot on that data set and you will quickly discover that what we absolutely take for granted in the developed world is not an easy thing. That is inequality.  But the Tip of the Spear is changing that game.

The Blockchain (again):  The ‘Unbanked’

Don and Alex Tapscott noted in their May 2016 book, “The Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin is Changing Money, Business, and the World”, the problem of inequality isn’t necessarily capitalism itself. They note, “…financial and economic exclusion is the problem. Fifteen percent of the population in OECD countries has no relationship with a financial institution, with countries like Mexico having 73 percent of the population unbanked. In the United States, 15 percent over fifteen years of age, or 37 million Americans are ‘unbanked’.

“Financial inequality is an economic condition that can quickly morph into a social crisis …The problem is that most people never get a shot at seeing the benefits of the system because the Rube Goldberg machine of modern finance prevents many from accessing it… Blockchain will have the greatest impact in areas where the payment networks don’t exist or are very poor…Blockchain will push many nascent initiatives, such as mobile-money service providers like M-Pesa in Kenya, owned by Safaricom, and microcredit outfits globally, into high gear by making them open, global, and lightning fast.

Connectivity and Access

From the State of Connectivity Report commissioned by Facebook, we learn of some sobering statistics:

The developed world is largely online, but the developing world is a long way behind. Urban areas are connected; many rural areas are not. The less money you have, the less likely you are to be online. In many countries, women use the internet far less than men. And even if the entire world lived within range of the necessary infrastructure, nearly a billion people remain illiterate or otherwise unable to benefit from online content.

The internet is a catalyst for broader social and economic advances through access to education, economic and employment opportunities, and even healthcare. It is a critical tool for development and should be available to everyone. Acknowledging the importance of connectivity and the need to bring more people online faster, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) recently called on the international community to provide universal access to affordable internet by 2020.

Achieving global connectivity will require action to address the four key barriers to internet access:

  • Availability: Proximity of the necessary infrastructure required for access.
  • Affordability: The cost of access relative to income.
  • Relevance: A reason for access, such as attractive content in people’s main language.
  • Readiness: The capacity to access, including skills, awareness and cultural acceptance.

These barriers do not arise in isolation, nor can they be addressed in isolation. They function as a cluster, each one affecting the others. Unless corporations, government, NGOs and non-profits work together to address these chief barriers to access, the digital divide will persist and expand.

While we are sometimes cynical of the efforts by a global pillar of the digital community like Facebook (i.e. the greater the connectivity, the greater the users of Facebook, etc.), there is ample evidence that the company and its CEO have understood that access to the online infrastructure of the internet is a pre-condition to economic and education literacy and is a perfect example of the Tip of the Spear technologies being used to close the gap along the shaft.

In summary, the leveling of the financial and technological playing field begins with two basic foundations: Making the banking relationship simple, affordable and accessible and 2) Making broadband internet access available to all. Solving the transparency and efficacy of government and leveling the financial playing field leaves us with the biggest challenge of all, leveling the education playing field.

Leveling the Education Play Field

If we are free from oppression (leveling the governance playing field) and able to join the starting blocks of the financial system without prejudice, then access to education becomes the final Playing Field to level.

The added challenge here is that the playing field is tilted in different parts of the world for very different reasons.  Let’s look at both the developing world and the developed world for two different views.

The Developing World

The single greatest determinant to economic success and the demarcation line between developing and developed nations is literacy.

While the number of illiterate persons has fallen over the past decade some challenging statistics are present:

  • 774 million adults – 64% of whom are women – still lack basic reading and writing skills.
  • In 2011, the global adult literacy rate was 84.1%, compared to 89.5% for youth.
  • More than three-quarters illiterate adults are found in South and West Asia and sub-Saharan Africa;
  • In 21 countries fewer than 50% of the children of primary school age learn the basics in mathematics.
  • In 27 countries, 9 out of 10 of the poorest young women have not completed primary school

This is a challenging set of statistics.  It reminds those of us lucky enough to have the tools and skills to able to read this blog that the global experience of education inequality is real and in these specific regions the tip lags furthest from the butt. It is here the three inequalities are obviously so completely interlinked: corrupt governance leads to lack of investment in basic life infrastructure which in turn makes financial access impossible.  It is a seemingly impossible cycle to change.

But there is hope.    

There are many trends that have surfaced in my discussions and research but three stand out:

  • The Rise of Transparency: As we discussed in the leveling the governance playing field section, the gradual disappearance of corrupt regimes combined with the dramatic cost reductions and availability of technology is enabling citizens to demand essential services such as primary education and literacy.
  • The Leapfrogging Technology: The “exponential path” is possible as we begin to see developing countries literally by-pass an entire generation of experimental technologies and infrastructure investments to emerge digitally reading. It is as though smart, well governed nations possible have the ability to “disrupt” developed countries – much like the upstart firms in Clayton Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma were able to out-maneuver the much larger and established companies because of their legacy of business and economic models.
  • The Connected Youth: What many of the world’s leaders need to understand – and especially those that are less than transparent open and free is that once given access to the technology, it will be the youth of the nation that latches hold the quickest. And once that genie is out the bottom, the youngest generations with access to the global internet and the rudiments of the financial systems will actually own the keys the new economy and will – faster than most leaders will ever appreciate – hold the keys to the future.  Leadership that resists this will not survive for long.

The Developed World

In the developed world the education playing field has a very different set of challenges; the Tip of the Spear technologies and future ways of work are completely out of sync with the way we are educating our children.

Sal Khan, the founder of the extraordinarily successful Khan academy which is providing online knowledge, skills and education in ways never before seen, and at a marginal cost (i.e. approaching zero) that invites universal access, says in a 2014 speech that the “pyramid of education and training is inverted and he seeks to turn it upside-down.”  What he refers to is that the core skills that traditionally made up of primary and secondary education need to be “automated” – leaving room to change the teacher into the creative facilitator that not only changes the value of the teacher but fundamentally changes how individuals move through the system of acquiring knowledge and skills throughout their lifetime. It is a powerful acknowledgement and argument of not the need to change but that the tools that we have at our fingertips are there to help us re-think education and deliver knowledge in new and innovative ways.

Perhaps the greatest opportunity of all is the ability of the developing nations – supported and facilitated institution and organizations of the developed economies – to leapfrog the largely “analog” education experience of the 20th century and take full advantage of the tools, connectivity and insight we have acquired in the past 20 years.

Finally:  Being Human

There are many more brilliant examples that my research has catalogued and that I am documenting. I will expand on many of them in the upcoming book. As I researched and reflected on global and local examples, I was struck by something in all of them:  While most were profoundly smart and innovative, all had a single common thread:

Using the collective best of what makes us human with the power of innovation.  In short, solutions appeared when we made it personal, when we connected with our fellow man and when we reminded ourselves of our collective human powers.

I recently watched an excellent TED talk by Dan Pollata called “The Dreams We Haven’t Dared to Dream” that put a similar (and beautifully done) spin on the story.  In his talk Dan eloquently notes that while human ingenuity has exponentially increased the transistors on a chip for the past 40 years, we have not applied the same exponential thinking to our dreams nor human compassion. We continue to make a perverse trade-off between our future dreams and our present state of evolution. Some describe the ethical stasis as “the tyranny of OR (our dreams).”

The best way to complement or augment this exponential growth of technology is through connected “present” humans in ways that inspire. The power of joy, compassion, love, hope and kindness are extraordinary human things.  When magnified by a movement they are truly inspiring and indeed exponential – easily matching the pace of technology.

So that is the theme of the examples I have come across: When we amplify the best of what makes of us human through the use of the technologies at the “tip of the spear” we can easily keep pace – and solve some wicked hard problems.

So it’s time for exponential “humanness”.  But…

But things get in the way, don’t they?  The individuals in our human collective are suffering from A.D.D. and many have forgotten how to listen. We fight each other for face time, space time and air time. We have generally stopped thinking critically and have stopped being compassionate. Worse, we allow the tools to amplify the bullies who use the connected medium to lower discourse to unprecedented depths of biliousness and broadcast the basest traits of our species.

Watching the reaction to the devastating fires in Fort McMurray here in my province of Alberta (as well as other traumatic and very public events) what occurs to anyone with a modicum of humanity is that what ALWAYS rises to the top – at least initially – is the extraordinary compassion for our fellow man/woman/child.  “How can I help NOW in the basics of human needs – food, shelter, warmth?”

What then happens – inevitably and most unfortunately – is that the discourse gets hijacked. When the conversation moves online – as it always does – commentary and passive aggressive trolling pushes the discussion off the rails. Base-level human behaviours inevitably show up and things devolve astonishingly quickly. What begins as a collective response to human need – spreading exponentially and positively – became a vitriol of the trolls. In the case of Fort McMurray, online newspaper and Facebook discussion threads saw the deniers of climate change met head-on by the shouts of “karma” by the radical environmentalist.  The poor souls who happen to be in Fort McMurray in the spring of 2016 simply needed shelter, food and water.

In the face of this, the best of our humanness disappears, “I am out of here…” the best respond.   Worse, it puts another shadow on our belief and faith in the collective human experience. We start to back away from the very tools that give us access to the best and the brightest.

Some of the lead actors of the brilliant ideas and leadership in local and global innovations, have figured out that in order to “exponentially” advance the discussion they have had to learn how to navigate the open channels and water of disconnected, virtual, messy online discourse.

What they all have done from my observation is deploy what I have come to call the “Rhythm of Innovation”.  In a previous blog post, I discuss this rhythm where the asynchronous (i.e. different time) conversation – (brutally efficient, often caustic and sometimes brilliant online conversation) is combined with “synchronous” human interactions (face-to-face). The best of the innovators then circle back as the online asynchronous conversation picks up the best of what happened in the face-to-face meetings as people return to their physical, global and often distant lives.  The best innovators have understood that complex problems require the best of the asynchronous and synchronous conversations and do an amazing job of joining them in harmony.

It is always stunning to me how the ‘humanness’ of simply sharing a meal or the age-old conversations starters of the coffee or drink rapidly weed out the those whose opinion is left to the passive aggressive and much colder digital world.  But when combined, we can go grow, go exponential.

Conclusion

In summary, there is much to think about and much to do as we examine the Tip of the Spear and its increasing distance from the tail. There is a hard challenge awaiting those trying to solve these “wicked problems” of today – be they unforeseen natural disasters or the man-made challenges of changing generationally stalled institutions.  But I am more than ever convinced that the solutions to our problems lay in capacity of our connected planet and the resulting collective brilliance found by opening up the discussion. And by doing so we will invite in the noisy, angry and disaffected. Some of whom are articulate and unfortunately persistent. And we will persevere.

The Tip of the Spear is the continuation of a multi-year journey exploring the best example of how the world is answering the call of inequality and specifically how our collective brilliance in using technologies at the Tip of the Spear is making change happen.

Along the way I will be working with individuals and organizations who seek to find solutions within their homes, their lives and their ecosystems; helping to understand – together – how they can channel the best of their world to solve their own wicked problems and keep their spear moving in a way that will fly straight and true.

Stay tuned for the book and much more.

Jim

[1] https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2014-06-04/new-world-order

[2] https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/05/everything-is-speeding-up-except-politics-why/

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