Blog post

#DigitalSociety: Digital Innovation on a Societal Scale

By Frank Buytendijk | November 28, 2017 | 0 Comments

In my last blog I was describing the need for futurism (or more formally futures studies), and how this is needed in markets with high levels of uncertainty, lots of innovation and competitive pressure (in other words, in about every market). More or less coincidentally, I had the opportunity to see a number of futurists at work, through their presentations. Well, the short version of the story is that there is work to do. Maybe we need more futurism, but we certainly don’t need more futurists.

Grand visions with elegant solutions for thorny problems, based on digital technology. Something that publicist Evgeny Morozov calls “solutionism”. Basically it is the idea that if you throw enough brainpower (male, young, white, privileged, silicon-valley based brainpower) and technology at a problem, you can come up with benign solutions for all of the world’s greatest problems.

Granted, and I have been discussing this regularly in these blogs, the big technology story has shifted from a business focus to a societal scale. Agritech keeps itself busy with feeding a growing population. Healthtech seeks ways to support a doubling population of over 65 years old. Energytech looks at deploying renewable energy at scale. Fintech promotes socio-economical participation and legaltech pleas for a more consistency of justice.

However, innovation on this societal scale works different.

Society, digital or not, is full of dualities. A duality is a set of opposing forces. And if you let these forces work together, they reach a certain goal. One of the most fundamental dualities in society is freedom and safety. There is tension between the two, and currently the balance between the two sways to safety. Meaningful innovation doesn’t come from solving one of both. If we come up with transformative solutions that massively increase our freedom (like “teleportation” in science fiction), this will lead to immediate and severe safety problems. And if you come up with drastic solutions to increase safety (everybody getting a chip injected), our freedom is at stake.

We see this in action all the time: think of big data and privacy! A shining example of Solutionism.

The goal of freedom and safety is the same: creating well-being and all the room for self-actualization. What then brings freedom and safety together? In the case of this particular duality the answer is “trust”. In a trusted environment, freedom and safety are a given.

By understand the dynamic of a specific duality, we know where to aim for in our efforts towards digital innovation on the societal scale. Not at one of the opposing forces, but in terms of improving the dynamic between the two.

In the case of freedom and safety in the digital society, this might be the real goal of blockchain: building the internet of trust. Or new idea to create privacy-as-a-content, being smart about when to share, and not to share specific information, based on the intended and dangers of unintended use.

Freedom and safety is only one example of a societal duality. Other examples are individuality and collectivity, scarcity and abundance, and likeness and difference. They all work towards a societal goal, and through digital innovation we can improve their dynamic.

A while ago, I introduced the idea of the “digital social contract”, and mentioned I wasn’t really sure what it would look like. In the meantime, I progressed a few steps. The digital social contract describes society’s dualities and how we want to deal with them in the #digitalsociety.

Research is a journey. And this blog is the description of my own steps on that journey. In the coming blogs I’ll go into more detail on a few other of these dualities.

Frank Buytendijk (@FrankBuytendijk) is a Research Fellow at Gartner Research and pioneers in the field of digital philosophy and ethics, #digitalsociety, and futurism.

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