Internet guru: Digital self-organisation will spur growth


This article is part of our special report Broadband: driving recovery?.

Beneath the current gloomy economic perspective in Europe, there is underlying opportunity, says Internet guru Don Tapscott. But in order to unleash this, companies, individuals and governments must embrace the transforming power of digital innovation, he told EURACTIV.

Don Tapscott is a Canadian business executive and chairman of the New Paradigm think tank and a professor of management at the University of Toronto. Tapscott is the author or co-author of 14 books on the application of technology in business and society, including ‘Wikinomics’ and ‘MacroWikinomics’. He spoke to EURACTIV’s Jeremy Fleming on the fringes of the Innovation Convention in Brussels this week.

Do you see opportunities for growth in the digital economy?

There is such a negative prevailing view at the moment that we are in for 20 years of stagnation and global depression. I have a different view. The future is not to be protected but to be achieved. We need to know what the problem is and identify that properly. The problem is something different from what people think it is, and I have never been more hopeful about the situation. For all these failing institutions, for each one you can see they are spreading new models of institutions, you see many people ‘self-building’ using the Internet, that is what I find inspiring.

Where is this ‘self-building’ going on?

There are huge innovations underway and this is happening where people are self-organising across a variety of sectors: government services, private sector and large corporations. It’s a time of great change for traditional big industry, but in each case there are opportunities to seize control of the inert parts of these businesses.

Can you give specific examples?

General Motors, which went bankrupt, was the industrial-age model, and on the other hand you have the micro-macro model of Local Motors. This was the invention of someone who realised the problems with the sclerotic motor industry. His company utilises the web to bring in designs from thousands of freelancers and basic assembly plant to put together high-quality output.

Is this phenomenon only happening in the US?
There is competition for this model from China. For example there are motorcycle units which are being built by hundreds of users who meet and assemble their ideas on an ad-hoc and Internet-based community. This means that some meet in tea rooms to discuss marketing whilst others deal with assembly and design issues on-line. This model is spreading in China to the general automobile market and Europe should prepare itself for the €1,000 car. These are radical innovations slaying the architecture of the old model of industry.

What impact do you think this change will have?

People used to say that the most important assets of a business get out of the elevator at the end of each working day. That is no longer true because they may never arrive in the office. Look at even huge companies such as Proctor & Gamble, which employs 7,000 scientists working in-house, but a further million work for the company from a distance, communicating on-line. I call this development ‘Ideas Agoras’ since these are open markets for deploying qualified minds.

You talked about the competition from China, what do we need to learn from and heed about this market?

On the one hand we need to learn that there is a role for government. This is a serious discussion in the US at the moment. Ron Paul, who is currently polling number two for the Republican Party in the US, wants as little government as possible. What these people are missing is the kind of strategic oversight that the EU is deploying with Horizon 2020, which is a positive kind of thing and an antidote to the antigovernment point of view.

But we also need to be cautious about the Chinese model; they have factories with as many as 900,000 workers, where people live military-style working existences. That may be suitable for the mass assembly of microchips but it is not good for an innovation economy. At some factories there are nets outside the windows to stop people successfully committing suicide. It’s like working in a prison. What is required for an innovation economy is a vibrant, open, competitive, but also fully transparent society, in which core IT is a basic right of people to use.

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