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The world is on the cusp of a global depression. The death toll directly attributable to COVID-19, while significant and still growing, could prove to be minuscule relative to the cascading effects of the disease and the impact on public health arising from social and economic deprivation. The pandemic has exposed the inadequacy of the current institutional infrastructures to deal with the emergence, escalation, and nature of such outbreaks. It has exposed a new class of vulnerabilities and risks; common vulnerabilities, built on shared risks operating at a societal scale, which cannot be effectively managed by individuals.

Indy Johar

Co-founder Project 00 & Dark Matter labs, Senior Innovation Associate Young Foundation

An Uncertain Future

It is increasingly clear that our model of the future as linear, predictable, with a low probability of deviation from the course charted is being challenged by a world that is increasingly fragile, interdependent, complex, sitting at tipping points, significantly vulnerable to shocks and cascading risks. This is a world where the mission and destination can be fixated upon but the pathway certainly cannot.


This future requires us to operationalise in a new way. 


Horizon 1: the known. Responding to the shocks emerging. Current national responses have surfaced a range of patterns that indicate the need for a fundamental reconfiguration of our governance systems, enabling us to deal more effectively with a new age of risk and to scaffold the rapid transition we are witnessing. In order to address the shocks we are facing, requires a new collective capacity to respond, at speed, scale and agility in a prefactual environment. 


Horizon 2: the knowable. The cascading risks we see emerging require a new capacity for investment in prevention, strategic task shifting and decentralised agency. The current crises of work, the social contract and trust, collective psychological trauma, and food security and supply, all call for a fundamental overhaul of public investment and financial management. We need to reduce future liabilities, make better risk provisions, and rethink our public revenue model. 


Horizon 3: the unknowable. Not only do we need to reconfigure our governance to deal with the risks & uncertainties, enabling us to withstand unexpected change, but we also need to be able to thrive on this uncertainty. This requires a new statecraft premised on a different institutional infrastructure, agile architecture for policy and regulation, new forms of legitimacy, and radical devolution of power and investment. A new framework for internationalism and global public interest is also necessary. 

The scale and scope of the challenges our civilisation faces cannot be limited to incremental evolutionary risk management alone. We will have to venture beyond the known, knowable, and unknowable horizons, redefining what it means to be human, as well as our relationship with the planet and with each other.

Uncertainty & Innovation at a Societal Scale

Beyond the horizons of risk and uncertainty, we are also starting to recognise the need to focus on another class of innovation crucial to our collective thriving— innovation at a societal level.


Whilst we have seen lots of work, advocacy and progress, focused on advancing innovation in products, platforms, services, and even social innovation, we have increasingly come to the conclusion that societal innovation is a different class of innovation with a different typology of outcomes, participation, investment cases, and institutional infrastructure.


Societal Innovation is a class of innovation , which  functions in the interest of public good (as opposed to the community good) at a societal scale and  is essential in driving the development of society. It is not limited to the collective self interest of a single community, but includes the interests of those who have not yet been born or arrived or are beyond the boundaries of one specific community.


A near perfect example of societal innovation is individual immunisation and vaccinations delivering herd immunity across a community; the use of urban big data to improve transportation offers like CityMapper; the unanticipated levels of connectedness afforded by platforms such as Facebook; the value public health infrastructure, urban growth and intensification strategies.


These large-scale interventions and societal innovations invite micro losses/trades of sovereignty at the individual level in exchange for statistical public benefits accrued at a societal level over the longer term. Be it the dramatic reduction of deaths by TB, the availability of transportation services at the predictive point of need, the predictive management of crime, the possibility of (both regressive and positive) societal behavioural nudges or the theoretical “collective” benefits of urban growth in terms of wages and value creation.


These innovations inherently rely on a progressive social contract  —  where we all contribute to the development of shared public good. A social contract for innovation.

In many of these cases, individuals are required to offer up their personal and property sovereignty in exchange for public value creation. Take for example how neighbourhood urban development might invite a local resident to accept the personal loss of rights to light, and experience of additional civic infrastructure “congestion” in exchange for urban intensification and its contribution to the capacity of cities for wealth creation (see Geoffrey West’s work); or individual vaccination and a little prick of pain which provides the benefits of herd immunity to the most vulnerable in society; or the “compromises” of “privacy in urban big data” can release a whole spectrum of new public health and social innovations and so on! (One could argue Facebook and Twitter are exactly these sorts of innovations which we are failing due to an inadequate social contract).

Societal Innovation 

We have been witnessing the emergence of three distinct horizons of innovation. The first horizon is focused on innovation at an individual level; user-value or consumer centric, manifesting clear transactional gains for both parties exemplified by product and services innovation. The second horizon is focused on collective innovation models — which seeks to deliver definable and bounded multi-stakeholder gains — perfectively exemplified by Collective Impact strategies.


Innovation at a societal level produces ambient, diffuse but statistically relevant, intangible gains  —  where individuals are required to surrender aspects of their sovereign rights in exchange. In this class of innovation it is difficult to evidence personally or to feel the impact at the point of intervention (therefore difficult to build easy political legitimacy around). Even with hindsight, the benefits are difficult to ‘feel’ physiologically and personally  —  “I would not have got TB anyway  therefore that vaccination was of  no benefit to me”  —  and perhaps most significantly, even though they manifest on a measurable statistical level, they are usually impactful longitudinal and intergenerational.


This third horizon of innovation is built on our capacity to structure and utilise trust, our ability to account for and leverage future outcomes and the emergence of real time, adaptable models of governance. This requires a fundamentally different mode of operating, new infrastructure and new understanding of institutions.


This reading and philosophical comprehension of public goods as requiring individual sovereign losses is not new  —  it underpins Rousseau’s social contract where people relinquish rights to share the benefits of shared public goods. But what is perhaps new is how we imagine the social contract for innovation  —  what are the rights, duties, and accountabilities for the innovation of shared public goods?


Whilst, we need to acknowledge this model of innovation has existed for many centuries, we increasingly think this class of innovation crucial to the future of Civilization, for multiple reasons:

what is perhaps new is how we imagine the social contract for innovation  —  what are the rights, duties, and accountabilities for the innovation of shared public goods?

  1. A Systems reality: we are increasingly becoming both conscious and aware that no innovation is discrete or isolate-able, we are acknowledging the reality that no product exists in isolations, and all innovations change “the landscape of future possibilities”, further all innovations draw on public goods, produce known and unknown externalities for all of society (the illusion of the private and isolate-able impact is just that, a convenient illusion  —  see the Diesel Cars exhaust scandal  —  which has literally driven massive air pollution issues and associated deaths in cities around the world), and increasingly in an Internet of Things age  —  this connected reality of “products” relies on massive interdependence at a societal level. This is an age where we are designing into systems and rely consciously on public and societal goods, from citizen produced data, to things.

  2. Technical viability in the 21st century: Through the emergence of big data/data science, new preventative investment models such as social impact bonds, and the radical efficacy of organising large scale interventions driven through such things as connected smart contracts  —  we have created the capacity to understand, democratically contract and intervene (beyond the state) with society itself as “minimum viable unit” as opposed to the individual, the user, the consumer, etc.

  3. The Interdependent World: we increasingly are heading for Urban World where some 70% of the world's population live in cities. This urban future is a future of non divisible, full entanglement, built on economies of agglomeration. This is a future fully reliant on societal innovation  —  in which we are all participants.

  4. Finally and perhaps most critically, the increasing viability of societal innovation is matched by an equally increasing (and urgent) need for new models of intervention to tackle those obstacles to us thriving as a civilisation  —  be it climate change, structural inequality or the impacts of poverty and social injustice  —  which will require us all to trade our individual sovereignties and rights to shared societal returns, resilience and renewal.

But whilst these needs have been evident for a while and the technical possibility is already here, what is perhaps most urgent to grapple with is our lack of enabling environment  —  our lack of institutional trust and source code errors are limiting this new age of innovation.


Actually, in stark contrast to the emerging need and opportunity, we are witnessing the fundamental erosion of the conditions for this model of innovation in democracies across the world.


Institutional ‘Trust’ is in structural decline and declining rapidly through this COVID-19 crisis  —  for the first time in 2017, the Edelman Trust Barometer study found “a decline in trust across all institutions. In almost two-thirds of the 28 countries surveyed, the general population did not trust the four institutions to ‘do what is right’  —  the average level of trust in all four institutions combined was below 50%.” This systemic decline in trust  —  is perhaps reflective of a foundational failure of clear accountability and governance. Our bureaucracy has struggled to evolve beyond industrial mindsets, practices and techniques to address our new network, systems economic reality and fairly attribute societal contribution and preserve shared societal goods.


This reality is not just hampering the possibility of unleashing new Innovations it is unwinding existing societal goods  —  be it through the anti-vaccination movement, the rise of NIMBYism in reaction to urban development, the negative sentiment around the use of big data in health, urban innovation, the increasing anti-Facebook, social media discourse. Whilst some of these interventions are rightly being challenged, what is central to their failure is the failure of governance, accountability, regulation and institution design to create the legitimate societal conditions for citizens to trade sovereign rights and goods for the creation and innovation of new shared public goods.

Societal Innovation & the Source Code Errors 

The scale and scope of the challenges our civilisation faces cannot be limited to incremental evolutionary risk management alone — moving beyond tinkering with the reality we have. We will have to venture beyond the known, knowable, and unknowable horizons, redefining what it means to be human, as well as our relationship with the planet, technology, the future and with each other.

Even if leveraged by systems orientated innovation, this is likely to prove insufficient to overcome the technological, cultural, governance, emotional, and organisational leaps that are necessary.


We will need to move beyond the Horizons; move upstream to address the systemic origin of the risks and uncertainty we face, reconfiguring the sources that generate them. Their foundations are defined by ideologies that shape our human relationships. We have made the future a slave to our immediate needs, nature a hostage to our economic exploitation and efficiencies, and technology an insufficiently understood mechanism for centralisation and control. Inequality and nepotism underpin how we conceive of our societal relationships and expose the broken social contract that leaves many exposed and vulnerable. In this context, the pandemic is a product of our relationship with nature, but a broader view of the cascading risks are also a function of our relationship with ourselves and our future.

A Foundational Risk to Democracies

In contrast, more centralised regimes are driving forward with these societal innovations and experiments (see China  —  its use of predictive policing and social credit system, is succeeding in pushing forward this class of innovation and has during the COVID crisis been systematically more effective in addressing health risks). We are in no way arguing democracies need to replicate this reality. Rather, democracies need to find new ways to create the conditions for societal scale innovation — as this reality is upon us we must realise and continue to show how Luddism is no solution. There are opportunities for real civilisation gains, driving a new class of social economic justice, if we can create fertile democratic conditions.

Society as the Minimum Viable Unit
for the Future of Innovation

It is increasingly evident: we have an opportunity and a need to unlock the societal innovation capacity of AI, smart connect contracts, machine learning, big data, sustainable urban and rural development, peer2peer infrastructure, next generation welfare 2.0 etc. But unlocking this equitable future needs us to build the shared accountability, trust and democratised capacity to innovate.


This future is fundamentally reliant on us to:

  • Redesign Governance, legitimacy, accountability fit for the fully code and systems age of uncertainty by reimagining accounting, provisions for risk, regulation, incentives, data rights, etc.

  • Develop Democracy 2.0, a next generation of democracies beyond our current industrial, representative models.

  • Democratize the capacity for Innovation both in terms of production and its return of societal investment, for these futures to be structurally legitimate they cannot be the domain and reserve of the gilded few but imagined and made by the many.

  • Build new unions of innovation. We need to construct new institutions which  recognize there can be no single owner or agent in this domain. This innovation unleashes our collective intelligence and collective responsibility to our shared tomorrow. This innovation invites us to transcend personal interest and enhance the public interest for all our futures.

  • Recognize, our globally interdependent lives are at the break point of this future. They present the convergence of our greatest challenges (climate adaptation, inclusive economies, post automation economics, etc.) and our greatest capacities to respond, with their increasing devolved political, economic and social legitimacy, agency and power.

This is a model of innovation in which the ‘I’ — the individual, consumer, citizen — must become ‘us’. An open and unbounded us. And we must all invest together and reap the rewards of a 21st Century civilization.

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