January 24, 2011

Society 2.0

What does the future of society look like? It’s an audacious question, and one apt to stop many of you from reading further. Yet despite the derision it may welcome, let us remember that productive consideration of this question has brought us many of our most enshrined ideas, from thinkers such as Confucius, Plato, and Sartre. Our clients, through the work they do, ponder this same question in operational contexts every day.

Throughout history, passionate citizens have endeavored to improve and redefine the nature of society. The rate of change possible in our modern day, however, largely outstrips previous generations. Our new tools are intrinsically additive, and are increasing the opportunities, replicability, and scalability for social change. While techno-utopianism is admittedly dangerous, the ability to fly across the globe in a day, visit the moon, access a vast and ever expanding library of human knowledge from digitized biology to the chemical formula for nuclear energy are indeed changing our societal complexion. The present challenge is to steer change towards constructive rather than deleterious ends.

Opportunities Ahead

At Reboot, we care about delivering services that improve livelihoods and creating policies that addresses the broad cross-section of citizen needs. Times of seismic shifts offer opportunities to do things better. Network technologies are challenging traditional notions of the nation-state and expanding economic relationships beyond geographic limitations. The transistor and computational machines have created methods of analyses and algorithmic processing that are redefining the way we think, learn, share, and create. Combined, these tools are redefining notions of self, identity, and culture. It’s trite, but ultimately true, that in ways large and small, we are stumbling toward Society 2.0*.

Through their day-to-day work, many institutions are beginning to codify and formalize this transition. From the World Bank’s work on governance reform, to the transnational Open Government movement, to the work of groups like UNICEF in driving innovation in international development, smart people the world over are experimenting with new ways of allocating power, organizing communities, and serving citizens. This is a good thing.

But harnessing technologies for a more just and peaceful society has its limits. There is no guarantee that such a path will lead to improved outcomes. For every instance of positive progress enabled by technology, there seem to be as many examples of negative movement.

For all the latent potential, we have yet to formalize constructive frameworks to manage the inevitable change. The discrepancy between outcomes of modern political organizing in Tunisia, Iran, and the United States represents the variability between applications of emergent capacities. When attempting to marshaling evolution in light of complex unknowns, a useful place to start is taking stock of what currently exists. What are the transactions, mechanisms, and models of social organizing we’ve already created through millennia of trial and error? Once documented and defined, they inform our bids for improvements.

Using Governance as a Framework

This evolution is occurring in the academic work being produced around the concept of governance. Historically, civilization was often considered in terms of economic interests or traditionally powerful institutions like governments and large corporations. The notion of ‘governance’ — in its consideration of sub-systems including government, citizens, civil society, and the private sector — is a more accurate, inclusive lens through which we can discuss civilization. The web of transactions and negotiations that binds these entities together creates the world we live in. As new tools expand the capacity for a more equitable future, this notion of governance will improve our understanding of society.

Defining the future is inherently a process of experimentation, failure, and cautious steps into the unknown. Through proactive design, we can positively influence the relationships, transactions, and processes of governance. In doing so, we create a society that considers the diversity of citizens and needs, and is thus more stable and sustainable.

To start this process of design, we must first articulate how Society 2.0 can and should differ from version 1.0. What follows is but a starting point for discussion.

  • We should embrace, not fear, the expansion and dilution of power. It is inevitable that ever more actors will have the desire and the means for agency in the decision-making processes that affect their lives. We must create power structures that are accommodating of this.
  • We must leverage new techniques to more equitably distribute resources. The means of organizing finite resources are changing dramatically, from algorithmically driven healthcare decisions to water systems that manage allocation on-demand.
  • We should strive to democratize access to opportunity. From the ability to gain an education from YouTube videos to the ability to run a global business from a laptop in Lahore, our new tools can enable a world of increased hope.

Society 2.0: Platform Requirements

With the principles defined, the next step is to enumerate the necessary attributes for improved governance systems of the future. Let’s call these ‘platform requirements.’ By my accounting, the following traits will be critical:

  •  Trust—Human networks, like all networks, depend on trust to reliably convene transactions.
  • Accountability—Accountability helps build trust, and leads to improvements when things break down.
  • Efficiency—In a world of finite resources (time, energy, labour), efficiency will be critical to useful systems and services
  • (Some) Transparency—Appropriate levels of transparency help enable trust and accountability.
  • Feedback—Feedback flows also build trust, and help create smart systems capable of improving themselves.
  • Authority—Though difficult to maintain without the above attributes in place, authority allows efficient course-setting and effective decision-making.

Future governance services must demonstrate and reinforce these attributes. Otherwise, social pressures such as resource scarcity, religious strife, and economic disparity will lead to ever-increasing instability. Thankfully, many new tools, from social media to algorithmic processing, can be easily applied to support critical attributes. Social media offers real-time, asynchronous feedback channels that facilitate trust and accountability. Algorithmic processing, based on equitable data, can lead to more efficient allocation of resources, increasing trust and undergirding authority. Communication technologies can support transparency in all of these transactions. These are the opportunities our new tools afford us. It remains to be seen, however, whether we can effectively wield these capacities to achieve the above outlined attributes.

From Theory to Practice

So how do we get there?

Tangible improvements are occurring in governance services, systems, and platforms. An improved future doesn’t require a great leap forward; rather, it will come from incremental progress and innovative hybrids that move us forward one step at a time. Improved access to clean water for even one village that previously lived without is better than the failed pursuit of a clean water system for an entire country. We must be utilitarian in our approach.

Academics and theoreticians working in governance reform, participatory politics, and e-democracy are developing critical frameworks to help us understand current systems of political organization at a conceptual level. There remains a demand for more constructed understanding of the needs of individual citizens, the ‘users’ of Society 2.0. Only by marrying conceptual understandings of governance with practical knowledge of human capacities and behaviour can we create a realistic, working map to move forward.

Institutions that hold primary responsibility for directing governance systems must fundamentally change their cultures. Society 2.0 will be constructed through an unending series of changes to the way we live. Many changes pursued in this transition will prove to be wrong, misguided, or damaging. This is inevitable, and not necessarily a bad thing. So long as we have mechanisms to document and learn from them, we will benefit from our missteps. Unfortunately, most government institutions are extremely failure-averse and are therefore poor at innovation. This must change. Management and incentive structures, as a start, must orient bureaucracies to embrace experimentation.

Stepping into an unknown future is fraught with complexity, and requires equal parts awareness of the social and natural sciences, information and communication technologies, and political and cultural realities. Those capable of wielding these forces can be thought of as ‘governance engineers’. Many such engineers can be found in the groups that shape society. They must work within their own organizations and with others to build an effective and worthy Society 2.0.

* We recognize that the term ‘2.0’ is often used as a catchy add-on to the latest social science topic du jour. It is overused and often misplaced. And while the shift occurring in our civilization is leading us more to version 3000.0 than 2.0, the well-known suffix immediately draws forth theories we all know and understand. We hope you’ll excuse our use of it herein. Suggestions for an alternative vocabulary are welcome.

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