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December 23, 2014

Network Trailblazer: A Conversation with Don Tapscott

The Internet of Good: Amy Cortese sat down with technology thought leader Don Tapscott to talk about a new model of finding solutions for everything from poverty to climate change to human rights.

Amy Cortese: Your latest research project focuses on how global, multi-stakeholder networks are coming together to solve some of the world’s thorniest problems – tell me about it.

Don Tapscott: There are many problems in the world. If you inventory them, some are getting better—perhaps poverty—many are stalled, and a number are getting worse, like climate change and water. So, are these problems too hard to solve? Or is our model wrong?

Our model is based on nation-states that work together through diplomacy or in global institutions – institutions that were established at the end of the second world war when 42 countries got together at Bretton Woods and created the World Bank and the IMF, and a year later the UN, and then the WTO and later the G20 and the G-8. These are all global institutions based on nation-states. The trouble is, nation-states are the wrong size for a global economy.

Enter the Internet. By cutting transaction and collaboration costs, it’s enabling new self-organizing models to emerge for tracking global problems, for cooperating on this little planet and, perhaps, for governing ourselves. We call these Global Solution Networks. They involve hundreds of thousands of organization and millions of people and they’re attacking every problem on the planet. We’ve launched a program to better understand what is arguably the most important development for building a better world in our time.

AC: So what exactly is a Global Solution Network?

DT: They have four attributes. They’re attacking a global problem. Secondly, they are multi-stakeholder, with some combination of private sector, civil society, government, foundations, academia and individuals. Thirdly, the Internet and digital revolution are core to their modus operandi. And fourth, they are self-organizing and emergent—they can’t be controlled by states or corporations. So the UN, a typical NGO or a corporation would not qualify.

AC. What is driving this shift to these global, multi-stakeholder solution networks?

DT: With many problems getting worse, there is growing urgency to rethink our aging global institutions. We need a new model. Secondly, the Internet enables powerful and radically new forms of collaboration to occur on an astronomical scale. Thirdly, there’s a demographic shift happening as a result of the first-ever global generation. This generation has a set of norms that are common across the world; they think of themselves globally and they collaborate globally as well. This is a powerful force for change. And a fourth factor is the big change in the structure and architecture of all institutions. So, just like Cisco pioneered the business web – that is, a network where you focus on what you do best and partner for the rest – now vertically integrated governments and other enterprises are unbundling into networks. So it’s logical that this would be reflected on the global basis and that network models would arise.

AC: Can you give me some examples of GSNs that are having an impact today?

DT: There are ten types of GSNs, and any one of them can have an important impact on solving a global problem. There are knowledge networks that are qualitatively bigger than anything we’ve seen before—such as Wikipedia, the Khan Academy, Galaxy Zoo, and TED. They’re in the business of increasingly global knowledge.

There are advocacy networks like the group behind the Kony2012 video.  The Kony 2012 movement involved almost 100 million people over a two-week period in a campaign to alert governments and the world to the atrocities of Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony. The movement, while flawed, showed how advocacy can achieve unprecedented velocity.

There are operational and delivery networks that don’t necessarily advocate or develop knowledge. Rather they intervene in situations to fix problems.

There are watchdog networks like the human rights watch that are in the transparency business.

There are platforms that are not trying to solve a specific problem, but are providing a platform for others to do so.

There are global bodies such as the World Economic Forum, which has a wide range of programs and is beginning to look like an institution even though it is not controlled by nation-states.  I call these Networked Institutions.

AC: The Middle East has been engulfed in turmoil. That’s one area that seems to be ripe for this kind of non-state solution.

DT: The debate of three years on the role of social media in social change was settled with one word: Tunisia. This was followed by other words:  Bahrain, Libya, Egypt and so on.  It turns out the Internet drops transaction and collaboration costs not just in business or government but also in dissent, rebellion, and even insurrections.

The Tunisian unrest wasn’t caused by social media but by injustice.  It wasn’t created by social media but by a new generation of young people.   But the media was instrumental and continues to be.

AC:  Despite the recent wave of extreme weather events and record amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, we can’t, in the U.S. at least, seem to make any meaningful progress on climate change…

DT:  Nation-states seem to be the wrong size for solving this problem, because we end up with a common denominator that is going to be far below what is required to address this situation.  But if you look at the ten types of global solution networks there are initiatives in each type of network to help solve this problem.  Knowledge networks are developing knowledge about carbon. Policy networks are coming up with new approaches to tax credits and pricing carbon.  There are watchdog networks that are tracking the evolution of global warming.  There are networked institutions that meet about this topic.  There are advocacy groups like the Alliance for Climate Protection that are lobbying governments to change.  Ultimately on this issue it will require states to become involved and bring about meaningful change, because pricing carbon can only be done by governments.  States left to their own devices will not do what is required to go forward on this issue.

AC: Your research seeks to identify success factors in these networks and what makes them tick – any early insights you can share?

DT: Many of these networks have common characteristics that lead to their effectiveness.  They are able to build large-scale collaborations; they are transparent and open.  They are able to engage multiple stakeholders and use creative ways of funding.  And they are able to interact effectively with traditional states, corporations and state-based institutions.

AC: Are there challenges with these networks?

DT: Every network needs to find a way to be legitimate.  You can say what you like about the UN, but at least there is a process there whereby they can make the case that they are legitimate representatives of the world’s people.  What does one say about these networks that weren’t elected by anyone? They are networks of the willing and committed. If they are effective that makes it easier for them to claim they are legitimate. Legitimacy can also be bolstered by a clear mission and goals, so that success can be measured.  It can be advanced by having transparency, open dialogue and by being inclusive of key stakeholders.  These people feel a sense of ownership of the network. They also abide by their commitments, and so on.

AC: So will traditional nation-states and global institutions become obsolete? Or will they adapt?

DT: Nation-states are not going to go away, certainly not in my lifetime. They have the power to tax and a monopoly over military force and the ability to legally coerce people and a culture of nationalism among citizens.  But cities are becoming a more dominant political force, and I can see a time where a disintermediation of the nation-state begins, where global structures and networks are key on the one hand, and where local urban cities and communities are important on the other.


Amy Cortese is an award-winning journalist and the author of Locavesting (Wiley, 2011), about the local investing movement and its potential to rebuild the economy, one community at a time. Her coverage of business, technology and social/environmental issues has appeared in Business Week, The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, Mother Jones, Plenty, Wired, The Daily Beast, and many other publications. Used with the permission of ‘The Network, Cisco’s Technology News Site.’