The Googleplex in Mountain View, California. (Credit: Robbie Shade/Flickr)
The Googleplex in Mountain View, California. (Credit: Robbie Shade, 'Googleplex'/Flickr licensed under CC BY 2.0) (via:

It is always difficult for policy to deal with systemic change. But systemic changes should not be seen as threats but as opportunities.

Whoever exploits these opportunities will have the upper hand in the digitally connected world. These opportunities are determined by the ability to spot emerging new entities early.

The ability to do this is determined by three factors:

  • The use of data-lakes;
  • Balancing ratios of power;
  • Merging opponents within an ecosystem.

1. Data lakes

It is official. The world’s most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data.[1] And it is in the hands of a relatively small number of companies (The Economist, 2017).

In 2003, IBM had 50,000 staff take part in online interviews where they were asked about key business issues, and the direction they thought the company should be heading in. Those interviews were fed into textual analysis software designed to pick out the most common phrases and themes, which became new company objectives.

In many ways, this was forward-thinking and encapsulates the idea of a company transforming itself into a data enterprise. Those at the top had come to the conclusion that data in most fields will always trump opinion – even their opinion – and surrendered themselves to something of a destruction of the ego: ‘letting go’ (temporarily) of the reigns and seeing what direction the company would take, steered by science and statistics, rather than the possibly jaded or entrenched ideas and opinions of directors and senior managers.

Since then IBM has reinvented itself as a data powerhouse, at the forefront of the current boom in business-to-business data infrastructure services (Marr, 2014).

2. The ratio of power

In 2012, I was invited to the Global Futures Forum in Rome by the US State Department and the Italian intelligence community to talk about the ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT). The outcomes of the breakout sessions of an estimated 150 intelligence and security professionals described the major current threats as military tensions, DIY biology, and the total breakdown of society because of the state’s inability to deal with digital technology.

When there is no more alignment between the intelligence services and the political models that they are supposed to serve, uphold, and secure, the end of that system is nigh. In fact, when key knowledge is distributed unevenly, the system is already dead.

We need to take the entire system to a new level, with new network protocols that do not have the IP dependencies or protocols that are IP friendly. To be clear, we need to break the current Silicon Valley hegemony by breaking the internet. In our architectures, we are used to dealing with three groups of actors:

  • Citizens/end-users;
  • Industry/SMEs;
  • Governance/legal actors.

These all are characterised by certain qualities. In our current models and architectures, we build from and with these actors and entities in mind. The data flow of the IoT will engender new entities consisting of different qualities taken from the former three groups.

These new entities should build new kinds of decision-making structures. One such new entity is the Estonian e-card. It has become a service that can be acquired even if you are not an Estonian citizen. Already, over 70% of services in Estonia run on the card. It has managed to engender massive trust.

Any region that wants to survive needs to secure its own data. It will only then be able to publicly install, secure, and exploit gateways between networks. It can thus create its own search engines, taxi services, hotel services, and business models, making sure that added value remains within the agency of the citizens who have paid for the systems with their taxes.

What could be more logical than issuing citizens smartphones for passports? How much more democratic can a system be that if every single person shared the same level of connectivity and agency?

Using identity management as a lever, it is possible to build secure, stable, and innovative devices which act as passports as well as controllers for home appliances. This device talks specifically to your platforms and cloud.

3. Merging opponents within an ecosystem

The Russian Beseda Circle organised itself loosely for 15 years before the 1905 Winter Palace Massacre that turned the popular tide against Czar Nicholas II. It consisted of a wide range of extremely conservative nobles and socialist and liberal gentry, as well as the oldest families in the Russian Empire. These groups were united in their common belief that without real reform and real changes in the decision-making structures of the country, bloodshed and breakdown would inevitably ensue.

These groups were not Kropotkins or Tolstoys. They had no anarcho-communist vision at heart and were largely motivated by self-interest. Yet they made the same analysis as the anarchists, Lenin, and the communist revolutionaries.

There was no common sense or balance in the systemic architecture that could be supported by a convincing structural belief system from which an everyday ethos for practical living could be derived and sensible business models deduced. The story had dried up, the protagonists were no longer believable to the audience nor the critics, the actors nor the author, and even the props started to complain.

The Beseda Circle was not able to organise a space where all parties could feel comfortable. Although not persecuted by Nicolas (as the members were too close to him), the Circle was banned and would never be productive.

For anarchists, it was nearly impossible at that time, without data, without an internet, without social networks, cheap hardware, software, data storage, and analytics, to see that there was a deep level of potential common interest between the Black Hand and the Beseda Circle. And as a new ontological space was born, it was filled with blood, violence, and petty minds.[2]

Imagine what a current equivalent of such an ecosystem would look like.

4. Where is agency now?

Agency lies with agile, lean ecosystems fed by new insights in real-time. At the edges, traditional systems like states can handle this. But at their core, a breakdown is inevitable. It is just a matter of time.

Traditional power and its allies – political hegemony, (threats of) violence, and shaming/exclusion from the public realm – are becoming more ineffective as drivers influencing the behaviour of younger generations. All over the planet the image of the custodians of the state – politicians – has sunk lower than ever before.  In a way, citizens really have to thank them for still trying, still maintaining the fiction that the nation-state is sound and alive. But their main agency nowadays lies in hosting and performing ever-more intricate remembrance and mourning services, as only in recalling the past can they reclaim some coherence. How long can this last?

As we speak, the state is losing the fight for its only significant mark of agency – identity management through the passport.

In Smart Decentralisation: Moving from the Cloud to the Fog, Dominik Schiener, co-founder of the IOTA Foundation, asks what the evolutionary transition towards smart decentralisation means for both the internet of things and our society? “With the introduction of blockchain, the internet of things will move away from the cloud and towards the fog – something that in turn could give rise to a fully autonomous machine economy, one that no longer needs the intervention of human managers” (Schiener, 2017).



[1] The data economy demands a new approach to antitrust rules.


[2] This section is republished from: van Kranenburg, R. (2016).