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 / Winter 2013 / Issue 73(originally published by Booz & Company)

Business Literature: Best Business Books 2013

Best Business Books 2013: Digitization

One of IFTF’s forecasting tools is the systematic search for faint signals of change that might not make headlines today, but might portend systemic change in the future. Here, Gorbis details the signals of socialstructing in the production of scientific knowledge, in medical and pharmaceutical research, in finance, in education, and in governance—arenas that affect most people’s lives. Some of the author’s examples are eye-opening and compellingly credible, particularly the chapters on citizen science, sharing economies, and online peer learning. I was less convinced that the real changes Gorbis identifies in the fields of finance and governance will soon transform some of the biggest and most powerful bureaucratic institutions in the world, but certainly these fields are ripe for disruption.

Citizen science isn’t for the future—significant science is being conducted by communities of amateurs right now. Players of the online game Foldit have already identified important structural information about the protein protease, which is key to understanding HIV and the immune system. Hundreds of thousands of Galaxy Zoo participants have helped astronomers identify hundreds of millions of galaxies., a citizen-science biology organization, brought the price of an essential DNA sequencing machine down from US$10,000 to $600. Professional scientists aren’t going to disappear, but they are being aided and abetted by millions of citizens with powerful personal computers, broadband connections, and socialstructing platforms.

Healthcare is ripe for socialstructing. It is already enabling patients to not only take a more active role in their disease treatment, but also conduct their own research. For instance, by following established procedures in their own experiments and pooling their medical data, patients with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) on PatientsLikeMe, an online community of 120,000, made an educated guess that lithium did not provide relief as had been rumored—18 months before professional medical journals confirmed that finding.

What some call using social capital, enlisting the help of others to accomplish tasks outside formal institutions, is also augmented by digital media. A sharing economy has given birth to dozens of services such as Airbnb (people rent out rooms in their homes), Lyft (people put a big pink mustache on their cars and provide rides to other Lyft members, at a fraction of the cost of a taxi), and NeighborGoods (people lend and borrow everyday items). The sharing economy definitely has legs, but it is uncertain whether it will become as powerful as citizen science and patient communities or whether its growth might be truncated by corporations, such as Hyatt or Hertz, defending their turf by acquiring these services.

The social institutions of education at all levels are under enormous pressure to change as classroom models based on the era of factories and mass production break under the demands of 21st-century knowledge economies. At the same time, learning, monopolized by schools for thousands of years, is morphing because of digital texts and online learning communities. Khan Academy, MOOCs (massive open online courses), well-funded “edupreneur” startups such as Udacity and Coursera, how-to videos on YouTube, platforms for peer learning such as P2PU and Skillshare: These seem less like isolated signals than a cultural shift at this point. As a participant and explorer in the field of online social learning myself, I can testify that something big is afoot. But whether and how these emerging “socialstructures” will change the ancient, inherently conservative institutions of public and private education is not yet clear.

Probably Gorbis’s weakest argument for significant structural change is the chapter on the potential for socialstructed government. The signals she points out, however, are fascinating and hopeful. For example, Stanford professor James Fishkin has perfected and tested “deliberative democracy” in Texas and Mongolia, California and Brazil, by bringing together groups of citizens of all political stripes together, polling them on specific issues, enabling them to learn from and interrogate experts who have different viewpoints, encouraging discussion, then polling them again—a rigorous experiment in innovative governance that shows how people can together learn to make better decisions about issues. Another example is the rewriting of Iceland’s constitution in 2011 and 2012. The world’s oldest democracy enlisted citizens to propose new clauses and to deliberate online. These are indeed signals worth paying attention to. But do they portend real political change?

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