Order in nature
“Order and simplification are the first steps towards mastery of a subject” – Thomas Mann
Order, in general terms, is stability and structure, control over explored territory. All states of order though, have their flaws.
Nothing truly exists in a closed ecosystem and rigid structures that don’t allow for the different and the new to percolate within the system and produce change can’t evolve and adapt. They tend to degrade with time. Incapable to be fit for a shifting environment. Examples of that can be found everywhere, even in the rise and fall of human empires.
The same is true for businesses.
Order in business and society
Companies, as natural systems, produce activities and processes that are meant to self-propagate successfully in the future. They compete to exist in a chaotic business environment which is part of a larger social environment, whose order is regulated by governments.
Rules and regulations are meant to create a safe environment, guaranteeing the protection, sustenance and safety of the processes that allow the very working of societies and the life of the individuals dependent on them. As in nature though, excessive order leads to rigidity, which is the enemy of resilience, novelty and innovation.
The tension between order and novelty
An especially striking example of this can be found in highly regulated industries, mostly comprised by large long-established incumbents, like the pharmaceutical industry or the energy industry, where governments strictly dictate their workings.
Rules and regulations are fundamental for the safety of products and processes and set high standards of quality and delivery. On the flip side, the number of rules can become an unsurmountable mountain for innovators and start-ups to arise, dampening the process of change and transformation.
How can innovation emerge and be facilitated in tightly bound and strictly regulated environments?
This will be part our panel discussion among Imperial experts on the future of highly regulated industries later in the year.
Disorder and digital commons
“In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order” – Carl Jung
Disorder is a concept that in nature is often associated with chaos, randomness, lack of predictability, organisation and control. Despite its negative connotation, disorder can be a source of novelty, diversity and, in many ways, democracy.
When the internet took off in the 1990s it had all the characteristics of a disordered system.
Lack of control and structure. Its potential was yet unknown, and multitudes experimented in various ways to extract value out of the new medium.
It was from this inherent disorder and openness that “digital commons” emerged. Today we can consider, as digital commons, all public and private cyberspaces where commerce, value-sharing and communication take place. From social networks to e-bay or Airbnb, and soon, the metaverse.
Despite the great opportunities and value, they brought to societies and economies, digital commons seem to have several problems. One of these, for example, is the different approach to control of consumer and citizen interactions with commerce and the commons in democracies – power of authority decided by election – and autocracies – power resting in a particular individual.
Digital commons and democracies
The internet was conceived and developed in democratic states. Over time, however, the digital commons value-chain has ended-up in the hands of few private big technology organisations, such as Google and Facebook. These platforms are largely driven by commercial imperatives.
The consumer choice and behaviour in such spaces is driven by mechanisms such as the attention economy and data mining.
The secondary value generated by users – their consumption behaviour – ends up in the wallets of these big companies through advertising orchestration. The consumer may have choices, but navigating this can be an exhausting burden. A burden that a more controlled platform takes away from them.
Digital commons and autocracies
In autocracies, state-run or highly state controlled platforms provide citizen services and gateways to commerce including their vision for digital commons. For example, Alipay and WeChat in China.
These platforms are powerful channels to deliver citizen services efficiently and, by dint of design for a wide range of consumer, do much to break down the digital divide. The investment case for these platforms in not so much commercial gain in comparison to democratic societies but increased social efficiency. Commercial services and access to digital commons are provided through this gateway.
Yet the apparent comfort that state-based technologies (sometimes framed as ‘super apps’) offer to the public hide mechanisms of control and uniformity that limit freedom and diversity, manifesting dictatorial undertones.
The future of digital commons
How will digital commons evolve in the next 20 years? How can we rethink the internet to be a truly democratic place?
Some of the potential technological changes here are:
- Web 3.0 and the blockchain
- Decentralised social networks e.g., DeSo (Decentralised Social)
- Novel technologies such as generative AI algorithms
- The metaverse
We’ll be exploring this further with a panel discussion featuring experts from Imperial later in the year, with the aim to unpack current issues in digital commons and their possible evolution in the future.
Are you intrigued?
Stimulating novelty in tightly ordered and regulated environments can be challenging, but it’s fundamental for progress. On the other hand, preserving disorder in digital environments can be beneficial to sustain diversity, progress and novelty.
About Imperial Tech Foresight 2042
Order and Disorder is a theme within Imperial Tech Foresight 2042 (ITF 2042) Nature meets future. ITF 2042 is produced as part of the Imperial Business Partners 20+ plausible futures programme. You can learn more about Imperial Business Partners here and more about the 20+ futures programme at Imperial Tech Foresight here.
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