Yesterday, Brookings launched a book, aptly named Breakthrough, coauthored by 15 people active in the worlds of technology, innovation, investment and development.
The book is a truly majestic sweep of what technology innovation can do to get us over the SDGs bar by 2030, or simply put: make this planet a beautiful home for everyone. And, no, I am not being so kind just because I contributed a chapter (here); there are some truly compelling vistas of the near future in the volume.
From creating a multilateral bank dedicated to non-human species to applying synthetic biology to rural agronomic transformation, the authors’ visions are surreally beautiful in their combination of the practical with the truly lofty.
Contributing to Breakthrough was a very nice opportunity to sit back and think about the three passions of my life: technology, activism and social innovation/entrepreneurship. I am at a point where, after nearly two decades in the trenches, I am revising most of what I know. A group of connected agro-tech projects in Malawi, with which I am intimately familiar, thus served as the perfect backdrop for me to use my chapter in the book to tease out my new horizons and perspectives.
The words “transmediary” and “transmediation” are the brushes and ink-pots with which I try to bring out the features in the landscape I am seeing in my world right now, a world in which standalone social enterprises are sadly incapable of making enough of a dent to change the world. A world in which technology is changing much too fast for most people to properly trace its real contours at the intersection of Political Economy and the Knowledge Economy. To get to my point in the chapter, I had to first, in my own head, get to basics.
What is technology?
A technology is a system that produces quick and precise responses to a defined problem.
Therefore, we have to start with “problem”. In the context of the SDGs and changing the world to benefit all its inhabitants, we are clearly talking about social problems.
Given the times, let me give you a familiar example: the last major episode of the bubonic plague in London, in 1665. City planners began to believe that stray animals were involved in spreading the disease. The King therefore ordered the wholesale massacre of dogs and cats. By some estimates some 240,000 of them.
Well, they were right in part. Animal vectors were a major spreader of the disease. But they got the wrong animal.
Turns out rodents were most to blame. So, by killing cats and dogs, the dangerous furry balls now had free rein to run amok, exacerbating the plague.
In our far more complex world, problems are obviously harder to define and diagnose properly compared to Stuart England, so we can expect more unintended consequences when we go chasing silver bullets. But, even worse, problems nowadays also tend to have multitudes of secondary and tertiary effects and adaptive features that confound precise gauges of their causes and impacts.
An easy way to put it is that all problems are connected, and so all solutions must be connected.
Because our fast-changing world, however, also requires very quick and precise solutions, it means that all solutions must be technological at their roots, and all the technologies must be connected.
It is amazing how poorly appreciated this fact is.
Take the automobile for instance. And compare it with the modern notion of a self-driving car.
The classic automobile was described in terms of how many component manufacturers – about 200 in fact – had to collaborate in its making, and how many inputs – about 30,000 – were needed to get it on the road. Many treatises have been written about the interconnectedness of the modern supply chain and how only connected solutions can address concerns like the need to shift to greener inputs and outputs whilst addressing labour rights.
But in the 20th Century world, once the car was made, it was safe to switch our analysis to treating the car as a discrete object with a discrete impact on society. We can look at emissions, vehicular accidents, the blight of traffic on suburbia and many other such technology-society interactions by treating the technology and its producers as discrete elements in a classical mechanical plane.
A self-driving car, on the other hand, is going to be very different. Its ontology is more in the quantum mechanical plane, to use a bad metaphor. To work effectively, it must continuously be wired to other solutions and solution-providers. Municipal risk management systems. Novel satellite complexes. Networked semantic IoT. New safety algorithms developed by collaboratives. Connected car insurance platforms. A whole host of as yet poorly understood meshes of datacenters and super-algorithms developed and managed by a wide range of actors will form the quantum mesh to make the self-driving car a truly viable institution in a world grappling with automation.
What that means is that the actual technology will be EMERGENT through networking across solutions. It is not like Tesla will screen its suppliers, make the car, and release a compact object whose interactions with society can then be mapped in terms of which problems it solves and which new ones it creates. Rather the problems and the solutions will emerge in tandem and evolve alongside the ongoing interventions of a whole host of other actors whose evolving contributions will shape the car’s interaction with society.
Because the problems and solutions will be emergent through continuous relations among actors, which as we all know is a function of power but also of the passion of many who will create these sub-solutions, the worlds of technology, regulation, activism, design and social impact will fuse, and grate far more intensely than we can imagine today.
Consumer safety activists will demand “standardised APIs” between pedestrian safety algorithm stores and municipal road safety engines, and reinsurers will redesign contracts to accommodate on-demand predictive analytics on crashes and the likes. Advocacy won’t be limited to people on the “outside” wanting to check the technology. Activists will be able to “embed” in the technology-complex itself.
Most of the problems that confront us will be solved by technologies that have emerged through continuous interactions of power and passion, of activist technologists suddenly relevant through other instruments besides the market. The dissolving boundaries between government and business domains (consider the number of public cyber-security systems managed by private contractors) will become even more complex as civic actors outside the two spheres also start to assert themselves.
As unintended consequences, feedback loops, and complex causal rings make it clearer to most people that every problem is in fact a problem-solution-problem-solution chain, the infrastructure of our lives will become woven into quantum entanglements connecting everything.
Fintech solutions will not be one thing and government anti-money laundering systems another thing. Crypto will not be one thing, and regulations to deal with its effects another thing. Different actors with different angles to these issues will come at these problem-solution-problem chains with multiple chimeric and intermediate responses, which working together integrate problems and solutions into manageable situations. This is the only way for society to reconcile its need for both speed and precision in addressing rapidly mutating risks.
Those who stand above it all and succeed in creating higher-order systems for integrating the longest problem-solution-problem chains into effective and stable ecosystems where risk is effectively managed, even as social and economic value continues to multiply, are those I have called, “transmediaries”.
They are transmediaries because by taking a systems entrepreneurship view, they can build transmediary platforms that remove inefficient intermediaries. How? Providers of many chimeric and intermediate solutions rely on certain nodes in a network not being able to connect well with other nodes.
Banks are bad at talking to SMEs and millennials, hence the fintech boom. But fintechs are not necessarily any better at delivering financial literacy, suppressing excessive consumer debt, or sieving out triggers of dangerous boom-bust cycles in the macroeconomy. Only system actors working across large networks to build solutions, transmediary platforms, capable of reconfiguring nodes across the financial system can have a real impact on such problems.
So, whether the problem is how to ensure that credentials from MOOCs help address employment – skills mismatches or how to improve prescription surveillance to address antimicrobial resistance, neither social entrepreneurs nor commercial geniuses building discrete business models can fix it. Only transmediation and transmediaries can.
So, what is the call to action here then? I think the starting point is recognition. Narratives can direct energy and resources. The days of the heroic entrepreneur, mega-platform or statesman changing the world have been over for quite a while now. Yet, we refuse to truly embrace the power of networks. My duty is to sound the clarion call yet again.