Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Beyond words – reflections from a 4-day gathering in Svalbard

A few weeks ago I participated in an amazing 4 day gathering of about 100 people from all over the world in Svalbard – way up North.
I was invited by The Aurora Borealis Foundation, a Swedish-Chinese organization, which works to explore ways in which human civilization can adapt to the rapidly changing conditions we live in.
It was one of those occasions where you run out of superlatives. It was very intense, touching, inspiring, scary and beautiful.

I have tried to assemble my reflections in the following page, starting from the in-adequacy of our words to express and capture the challenges we face.

The Svalbard gathering was very much about words. Listening, discussing, and searching for words to create a new narrative from which we can understand our situation and act to pursue a better world.
Given how acute it seems to create change, and how complex the challenges we face are, the words we can come up with may seem inadequate, even banal. Clearly, words alone are not enough to convey the depths of what we are trying to express – it takes music, images, dancing… and action, of course.

Never the less, the language we use is important. Words and categorizations define and delimit our thinking. An important part of the change we need is to move beyond old categories and to re-define some central terms.

Words like ”growth”, ”productivity” and ”development” are losing their usual meaning, changing from positive to negative as more conventional growth increasingly seems like less real growth.

Likewise, in our new narrative, we need to acknowledge that ”value” and ”money” are not the same. Certainly, there is overlap, but much of what it most valuable to us has very little monetary value - like love, community, harmony, joy, trust, or the beauty of nature.

The economy is an immensely powerful engine of creation – but there’s a bug in the operating system: Money is the only value it can measure. The economy is set up to maximize the production of money, and that is what it single-mindedly delivers, even if it means neglecting and destroying other values that give our lives meaning. Now, we must fix the algorithm to make the system create values beyond money. We must demand that, which we really want the economy to produce.

The split between rationality and mystery is another core issue that we lack words to reconcile. Science can wrestle solid facts from the fog of mystery, gradually turning what used to reside in the metaphysical realm into laws of nature, which can be predictably calculated and operationalized. Still, there is always another layer below, which we simply don’t understand.

Compartmentalizing our worldviews into either being atheist or religious seems to prevents us from addressing and seeing the world as it is. Can’t we insist on scientific reasoning and demand hard facts as the basis for thinking and decision making – while remaining in awe of the mystery and beauty of it all? Can’t we have agency and assume our responsibility to act to improve the world around us – yet realize that, ultimately, we are completely at the mercy of much greater powers beyond humans?

The narrative of our future is about co-existing with paradoxes and opposites. We are becoming ever more connected and interdependent. We should see diversity and increased complexity as an enrichment, rather than a threat to our conventions.
Yet, how do we then insist on preserving that, which we will not compromise on? Are all values relative and negotiable – or are there absolutes; values which we know are right and which we will defend without compromise? What is so sacred that you cannot question it? And what shall we do if we find that others do not agree?

The yin/yang symbol beautifully shows how every element carries its opposite within. There is no renewal without destruction, no life without death, no victory without the seeds of future loss. Up and down, round and around. Inching our way up the evolutionary ladder.
Scary, but hopeful, too.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Sharing economy - or public service 2.0

There's a Very interesting article in Fast Company about how the majority of services in the sharing economy are failing to attract use.
It confirms many of the findings from my own work.

In the research for the We-economy project, I have not come across any sharing services of the sharing-among-neighbors kind, that are actually making money. Even Street club, the British service operated by Kingfisher DIY stores, has folded its activities into a grassroots organization called Street Bank, supported by grants. I talked to both Kingfisher and to the manager of Street Bank, and they are quite clear, that this sort of activity cannot survive on purely commercial terms.

Clearly, true sharing services can have value beyond money. They can strengthen social cohesion and have environmental benefits – but they cannot generate money in significant quantities. In a sense, that’s actually the point: That they remove revenue and offer savings for participants.

The many different outfits that are currently operating under the ”sharing economy” label really belong to very different categories. There are commercial, micro-rental services like Uber and airbnb – and there are actual sharing services, which by nature are rather non-profit, but may be valuable in other ways.

I believe that this last, non-commercial category of sharing platforms might be considered a new type of public service – like state-owned media or libraries.
Historically, public services have been functions in society for which it was clearly in the general interest of society that everyone had access – but which would not be established if left to the market forces.
The rewards of creating these services might be too long-term, or the rewards might be in-direct, cultural, and hard to monetize. Radio and Television channels, libraries, postal service or the telephone network are examples of large-scale services, which were operated by the public sector. Being public services, they upgraded everyone to the next level of societal participation and thereby supported further development and a higher general standard of living.

I have recently worked in a Danish ministerial think tank on smart cities, and one of my conclusions from those discussions are, that as we move towards smart cities, we will need a basic platform for coordinating everyday activities that is non-commercial – otherwise some very fundamental aspects of what is available and acceptable will be controlled by Google, Facebook etc.
The commercial giants do a great job, but I believe that there is a need for some additional levels of service provided on a non-commercial basis if we want to ensure that everyone has decent access and reasonably equal opportunity to participate and benefit.

Examples of this could be the type of concepts found in the sharing economy:  Services to share tools, meals, houses, cars, gardens and parking spaces. Digital platforms that connect people with skills and a wish to help users that need assistance with small tasks. Electronic bulletin boards, which allow the inhabitants in a local community to announce or discover social and cultural activities.
Such services can connect community members and build up social capital and coherence – and they should be part of the smart cities of the future. But they are not commercially viable.

All of this leads to the conclusion that it is entirely reasonable to explore if the next type of public service suitable for tomorrow’s smart cities should be a ”citizens network”, established and funded by the government.

Talking about such networks in terms of public service allows us to be less apologetic for the fact that you can’t wring enough money out of them to make them work as business – and it allows us to think much more ambitiously about the functionality of the networks.

A citizens’ network featuring these types of services could create better communication among citizens, it could make it much more transparent what takes place in the local community, it could create new ways of participating in local democracy, it could be the ”help desk” for the information society… And the more functions the network would integrate (including private services and local media), the better chances are that it could indeed reach critical mass of use and users to become the preferred app for interacting with all things local.
This could be the next version of a true sharing economy.