Tapscott: There is a very real risk that capitalism can be replaced

"It is ridiculous to call Uber a sharing economy company," argues Don Tapscott. [Don Tapscott]

Don Tapscott, whose books have been used by Barack Obama, gave a TED-type inspirational speech to senior members of the in-house think tanks of the EU institutions on Thursday (12 November). In his view, either we share wealth, or it will be the end of capitalism.

Don Tapscott is a Canadian business executive, author, and consultant. He is widely regarded as one of the world’s most influential thinkers on innovation, media, and the economic and the social impact of technology.

Tapcott spoke to EURACTIV’s Jorge Valero

It seems as though the impact of the digital revolution has been more significant on the private sector than on the public sphere. Why?

That is a true statement. The private sector has market forces better accelerating change. And entrepreneurship is at the source of innovation. But governments by law are typically not startups. The Treaty of Westfalia was a long time ago, and nation states have been around for a while. But in the private sector, anybody with a good idea can create a business.

On the other hand, there have been some changes in both the architecture of governments — how we orchestrate capability to create services and public value. The big change is ‘open data’. This is not about transparency at all, but about governments giving up access that enables companies and civil society organizations to self-organise to use those assets to create public value. When it comes to democracy itself, we have done almost nothing. And that is very disappointing to me, reflecting on the last 30 years.

In the private sector, we are witnessing the rise of the so-called ‘Internet of Things’, ‘Industry 4.0’, etc… What is the corollary in the public sector?

We could have changes to ‘government’ and changes to ‘governance’. Governments could become more like networks. The model of government today is “I am a government. I collect tax revenues from citizens and corporations. I have people inside my boundaries that create services and laws, and deliver those back to citizens. We hope you enjoy them and reelect us”. The new model is: “I am a government. I do all of that, but I also create a platform upon which other parts of society can self-organise to create public value.”

Some public goods, like security, are quite sensitive. Which sectors could be dealt by these networks?

Everything. Let’s take healthcare. In Spain, every baby should get a website, being half a health record and half a social network for health. Clinicians provide the data (for) your personal web portal. And you have full transparency into your own record. Then you start taking responsibility for your own health. Because you not only have information and knowledge. You also have the ability to collaborate with others.

This already exits with web platforms like patientslikeme, where 25% of all people in the US that have ALS are collaborating in this platform. This is different from the industrial model of health, which is “I am a doctor and I deliver healthcare to you, and you only get it when you are in the system.” That is why it costs so much. Why could we not move to a collaborative model of health?

Speaking of collaborative models, you have stressed that platforms such as Uber are not so revolutionary. Instead, the real change-maker is the technology behind Bitcoin’, the so-called blockchain. Why is that?

There is no sharing in Uber. It is a 45 billion dollar corporation that aggregates services. It is ridiculous to call it a sharing economy company. The first generation of the internet enabled us to communicate information only. The second generation, based on blockchain technology, enables us to communicate value and money in a peer-to-peer way. So you don’t need a bank, a government, a powerful social network or a credit card company in the middle. This creates an extraordinary opportunity and really a turning point in human history: the dream of a more peer-to-peer collaborative economy, where everyone gets to share the wealth they create.

But this digital age also has a dark side, like the destruction of jobs or privacy concerns, for example. You have proposed a new social contract to address these issues. What should be included in this new pact?

If we have wealth creation, but we don’t have prosperity, then we need to do two things. We need to redistribute wealth, and we need to find new ways of distributing wealth in the first place. Therefore, new distributive models of wealth creation, where many more people get to participate in the creation of companies, and more people like musicians that create value get to keep the value, to share the value they create, rather that all going to tiny institutions.

If we have growing economies but we don’t have commensurate job growth, then we need to start thinking about the work we do. And possibly, for economies growing enough to support it, to think about proposals like a guaranteed annual income. This is not socialism. This is businesses, governments and civil society coming together to come up with a new compact on how to save democratic capitalism. Because if we don’t find ways to make democratic capitalism work then it will be replaced by other systems. And some of the alternatives are not desirable, as they can take us backwards in history.

Is there a risk that capitalism could be substituted?

It is a very real risk. We have a crisis of legitimacy of our democratic institutions. Youth voting is declining everywhere. And young people are starting to look for alternative ways to bring about changes in society. It is important that we take the necessary steps to make sure that democratic capitalism can work, or it will be replaced.

In Europe, we have a refugee crisis unfolding on top of an ongoing economic crisis, while this digital revolution is taking place. Is there a risk that more autocratic governments will emerge from this?

Of course. There is a huge risk. When you have a disparity between peoples’ expectations and reality, you get problems. Right now there is a huge and growing disparity. People expect prosperity and to have a good life. If that is not possible, then things start to come apart. You have polarisation of political views, you have social unrest, and eventually you get big problems, like insurrection, calamities, violence and even revolution. Or strong governments and dictators, and the military coming to power to try to bring order. We don’t need that. We can avoid that, but it requires everyone to work quickly now.

Is the so-called ‘Old-Europe’ well-equipped to take governments and governance to the next improved stage?

There is good news and bad news. The bad news is that Europe has a whole series of deeply entrenched institutions, and traditional, very hierarchical and in some cases bureaucratic governments at all levels.

The good news is that Europe also is civilised and it has many processes for discussion and debate and consensus. That makes Europe quite different from other countries, including the US, where right now there is a complete bipolarisation of the political spectrum, where you just have a battle, not a real discussion. 

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