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Can the Digital Economy Ever Be Sustainable?

World Economic Forum

People First is delighted to share work that is relevant to our initiatives. Mei-Lin Fung is a member of the People Centered Internet and an active, founding member of People First.

Read this article at The World Economic Forum as published on September 19, 2017.

Hurricane Harvey dropped 52 inches of rain and 27 trillion gallons of water on Texas and Louisiana. And a new kind of “All-hands-on-deck” response emerged.

Glenn Reynolds, author of An Army of Davids, writes: “But the real difference isn’t citizens getting involved, it’s the willingness of responsible officials to see that involvement as a plus rather than a potential problem … the excellent record of civilian volunteer responders in the post-9/11 record is behind that willingness.”

The Cajun Navy flotilla of private boat owners demonstrated the value of government, the private sector and regular people working together. The value of such cooperation in earlier disasters like Katrina and Sandy increased the ability to coordinate when Harvey struck.

Traditional global governance is failing. Yet the need for effective collaboration, delivering good performance in the face of new challenges has never been greater.

Good governance requires openness, transparency and integrity which are in short supply at a time of rapid economic disruption and social and political change.

As we face the challenge of transforming to a digital economy and society we face a difficult set of risks where the trade-offs for decisions will affect different organizations’ ability to act, as well as education, health and economic opportunity. Yet with the flood of information, many people will have the opportunity to voice their concerns, and face the frustration that their opinions will not be considered, their energy and skills ignored.

Source: Australian National Audit Office
Positive deviance is an approach that harnesses the solutions of people already in the community and spreads the solutions. Outside of the US and Western Europe, local community innovations are changing the future of the digital economy and society.
Positive Deviance in a Nutshell

* Community looks for members who are having success, their approach is more likely to be locally successful

* Local people design a way to spread the new behaviors.

* Finding solutions is the job of everyone on the front line dealing with the problem. Leaders facilitate and spread the successful solutions.

* People track and see that things are getting better in the community, that’s incentive to continue

In Singapore, United Overseas Bank launched BizSmart, an integrated group of five cloud-based digital apps so that SMEs could reduce costs by up to 60%. Business owners can get direct account transaction data flows using one of these apps, Xero

Bulgaria greatly expanded internet usage in 1999 by making it easy for businesses to start being internet service providers. Speeds went up to 1G per second and prices went down to 10 Euros per month.

Meanwhile, Vodafone worked with mobile operators in Africa in 2007. In Kenya Safaricom expanded their loyalty card programme and made it possible for people to use it to transfer money and to access microfinance. This has since spread to Afghanistan, South Africa, India, Romania and Albania.

By June 2016 Tanzania had 7 million MPesa accounts operated by Vodacom. In India, 1.1 billion people had digital identities for the first time which enabled payments to flow to the intended recipients, and in full.

This approach of Positive Deviance is neither new nor unusual. What is surprising is that Big Tech has not embraced it as they feverishly work to drive the digital transformation, generating a backlash as jobs are lost and as debates on the ethics of artificial intelligence are heating up.

The original digital transformation of business used very similar approaches, working closely with the innovators and early adopters then working to spread the solutions. Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling High-Tech Products to Mainstream Customers by Geoffrey Moore was first published in 1991, revised in 1999 and was updated again in 2014. Moore built on the technology adoption lifecycle (Wikipedia entry), a sociological model that describes the adoption or acceptance of a new product or innovation.

  • Innovators – the risk-taking positive deviants
  • Laggards – very conservative, oldest and least educated
  • Early adopters – younger, more educated, less prosperous
  • Early majority – conservative yet open to new ideas
  • Late majority – older, less educated, conservative
Working with the assets and strengths of a community is the modern-day equivalent of working with the businesses and organizations who had the strategic vision and strong IT departments able to take advantage of advances like relational databases, client-server technologies and enterprise software.

A sustainable global digital economy and society can be built and developed by the people who live in communities. Positive Deviance is an approach which allows the trade-offs to be decided at the local level, in a sustainable manner. The openness, security, transparency and integrity and inclusiveness of the networks that connect these communities is essential to create a trusted framework for investments to pay off for the borrowers and the lenders.

5 replies on “Can the Digital Economy Ever Be Sustainable?”

A great piece Mei-Lin.

I observe the ground-swell of social-networks and how they increasingly influence authority and business through positive deviance. Look at the shift at a macro-level in the UK with the younger voters eschewing the current political and economic model with interaction through digital networks and physical events. On a micro-level it shifts and mobilises communities to shift opinion and priority.

Plus I am a fan of Geoffrey Moore and Crossing the Chasm, which formed a large part of my University dissertation! 🙂

Great to hear John. His theses concerning adoption, diffusion and various phases along the way, are relevant for any engagement with a market concerning a new technology.

The link to ‘traditional governance is failing’ is fascinating. Try changing every instance of the word ‘governance’ to the word ‘government’! Even better, try keeping the facts but presenting through the lense of traditional radical ideologies. Positive variance link is a great story and great way to introduce a branding term.

“Spontaneous coordination in response to hazards can certainly make a great contribution to disaster outcomes. Technology can enable that coordination to a much greater extent if in addition to spontaneous responses volunteers prepare independently from governing body, offering a separate, partially integrated, partially redundant reserve of ‘thick’ security. Since this emergent layer is less formally structured than the centralized source of governance, it can iterate more quickly, experiment with more possibilities, and with more flexible possibilities, and this can learn to integrate emergent technologies such as drones and artificial intelligence into emergency detection and response far more quickly than would otherwise be possible”

I like you bringing in the term Positive Variance especially! Thank you Michael – that is good for People First to consider as we move forward. I spent the weekend reading Thomas Rick’s combined biography of George Orwell and Winston Churchill – it was fascinating to see the fears that drove them to be remembered and feted today, translated into the modern world in the last chapter of the book. Some years ago, I wrote a paper about “Back to the future” that technology would enable us to live in environments that were completely natural at first glance, where the technology would be embedded below the surface and we as humans could spend our time building relationships to fill our time on earth with joy and meaning alone and together.