Ecosystems for companies

6 min.

At every keynote, on every stage, in every city and in every country, I scream it from the rooftops. I am a grandfather which is why I’m also a futurist. At least, I’m trying to be a futurist.

By futurist I mean passionate about the future. I don’t just want to know what our future will look like, I want to understand how I can influence that future in my own way to make life better for people and planet than it is today. We cannot keep living as we are now. If we keep this up, life for young people today – like my grandchildren who I love playing with in our garden – will be hell. We should not go gentle into the night.

I am constantly bewildered by our generation that continues to deny that, in the last 75 years, we have completely drained our planet. We have seriously endangered our ability to live on this planet. But I’m also astounded by the promises we keep making ourselves – that we will be CO2 neutral by 2050. In other words, we enjoy telling our grandchildren that we’re going to continue abusing our planet for the next 20 years and that we’re counting on them to clean up all the damage that we created. We’re passing the responsibility of regenerating the Earth and its delicate balances to them, expecting them to bring the erratic climate back under control. We tell them to go to school, even though we’re not investing heavily in education, and to study hard so they can come up with solutions. How dare they complain, they’re also living in our excessive luxury. What are they supposed to do? Live like a monk and study hard while we party with complete disregard for the consequences? No! It’s up to us, here and now.

We should not go gentle into the night.

Against this backdrop, it’s no wonder that I am fascinated by technology and its impact on people and society. However, this means that I am often confused with a technology guru, someone who makes the audience “ooh” and “ah” at their spectacular predictions. But that’s not me.

I am not a techie. I understand nothing about internet protocol. But maybe that’s what enables me to truly see what all these technological wonders are doing to us as people.

I was one year old in 1964 when Arthur C Clarke predicted what society would look like in the next 50 years on a BBC television programme. In sweet old-timely English, he essentially predicted the internet, mobile society, remote working and even the metaverse. He summarised this simply: “People will no longer commute, they will communicate”. He didn’t zoom into details but looked at the overall trends that would come about through the speedy development of, for example, “the communication satellite”. That’s art.

It’s a wonderful time for curious people like me. It seems like just when one technology has come out, there’s a new one to beat it. Some people speak of it as overwhelming; everything’s happening too fast and we’re losing control. People are afraid of big data, AI, blockchain, web 3.0, and the metaverse, just like people were afraid of the first trains and cars. But that’s not how I experience things. Every new discovery we make, each of our endless human inventions, is not good, bad or ugly in itself. It depends on what we as people do with it. I was born an optimist and I believe in good. We will need new technologies to right the chaos that we are causing. It’s possible with a little bit of imagination and a touch of magic. Most importantly, we shouldn’t see technology as just one thing after another because there’s a logical connection between all of these inventions. Those connections are not linear; they’re parallel phenomena that grow in networks, like natural ecosystems. Most people don’t see those connections because they think in a linear way. I try to illustrate those connections on stage through stories. It’s an exciting challenge.

I am a storyteller. I’m always on the lookout for images that I can use to make things clearer. I’ve used images like upside-down slow cathedrals, beach chairs, Chernobyl and Alice in Wonderland, of course.

When I tell my grandchildren the story of Alice in Wonderland, it always makes me think of what our current world is like. Nothing is as it seems because the regulations of the old world, our old society and thus the old economy are no longer valid in the new world that is now taking shape. If you look at the new world through the lens of the old world, it seems completely absurd. Meanwhile, for those living in the new world everything seems completely normal.

Our world is being turned upside down by the hyperconnectivity of people and things, big data, artificial intelligence, blockchain, cryptocurrencies, automation and web3. In order to see what we can’t see through the lens of the old and thus what we can’t understand, we need to let go of the old and immerse ourselves in the new. 

In Cinderella, the 1950 hand-drawn animation film by Disney that I have watched on the big screen with my granddaughters, there is a scene where Cinderella wants to go to the ball so the fairy godmother turns up to help. Cinderella looks at the pumpkin, two dogs and some mice with despair; surely they can’t get her to the ball. Naturally we agree with Cinderella because we see the world as it is; we don’t see how we can make it better. The fairy godmother says to Cinderella: “Don’t see things as they are, see them as they can become”. With her magic wand, she transforms the pumpkin, mice and dogs into a magnificent carriage with footmen and beautiful horses. The lesson here? We can use new technologies, just like the fairy godmother used her wand, to create something incredible. We just need to dare to do it, to see it and to believe in those magic forces.

We need to make sure that we use that technology to do good. Really, it’s quite easy to define what’s good: it’s about optimising people’s wellbeing now and in the future. As the Native Americans taught us, we need to look at the future as the impact every decision we make will have on the next seven generations. It’s so easy to define yet so difficult to put into practice.

Wellbeing is a complex combination of many factors that maintain each other in a delicate balance. It’s about optimising and balancing our wellbeing and our welfare, our freedom and our solidarity. Factors like health, housing, green spaces, mobility, social life, income, safety, care and education all play a role. In addition, this complex problem must take into consideration the coming generations and must, by definition, be sustainable. No single person can envision what this looks like, let alone oversee and govern it. It’s too big and complex. Yet it needs to be done. And it needs to be done now.

Even though one person alone can’t do it, it’s not impossible. We have two powers to help us: technology and fractal theory. According to this theory, all large things are made up of smaller and smaller components that each have the same ‘form’ as the whole. The smallest component is an individual person. The whole is how we organise society. If you combine these two things, you get smart ecosystems. By smart, I mean good for people and planet and thus able to oversee and manage incredibly difficult questions regarding wellbeing.

Smart as in technology-enabled.

Smart as in data-driven.

Smart as in platform thinking.

This is a place where all data is combined and processed for an optimal outcome. Ecosystems are P2P: people to platform, platform to platform, platform to people and thus people to people. Together, small platforms become larger platforms that in turn become even larger platforms. At the beginning and at the end are individuals. Connect to many to engage the individual.

You shouldn’t be surprised that more and more cities are at the forefront of developing these smart ecosystems. If companies want to build a platform and become an ecosystem or participate in an ecosystem, they can learn a lot from smart cities.

  1. Cities are close to the people.
  2. Cities already have a good set of data about their residents. They can and have to learn more about each individual by gathering even more data.
  3. Cities aren’t focused on profit; they care about providing maximum wellbeing and concentrate on all the elements that affect wellbeing.
  4. Cities can’t do everything by themselves which means they have to look for external participants. Although they need a diverse range of participants, the latter are all too often focused on their profit models.
  5. Due to their responsibility to their people, cities have to be very transparent about what data they have and what they want to do with it.
  6. Given that cities have to optimise the wellbeing of all of their citizens, they are compelled to seek a balance between autonomy and solidarity. Finding this balance with participants is also important.
  7. By definition, cities have to be neutral. This means that they have to eliminate any bias from the algorithms they use.
  8. Cities must implement technology in order to personalise their communications with citizens.
  9. Cities have to strike a delicate balance between neutral algorithms and political government. Short and permanent feedback loops are essential.

In the end, the people are the ones who decide.

In short, if companies want to learn how ecosystems work and how they can re-imagine their building blocks as they can be in the new world, they would be wise to delve deeper into the wondrous world of smart cities. They are Alice in Wonderland in the making.