Will new technology change us back to a village a community society, even if those communities are virtual? The defining feature of homo sapiens is our ability to communicate ideas at scale and organize around those ideas (Ref 1). The next wave of technologies creates the ability for distributed communities and organizations to link together at massive scale without the need for centralization of processes and systems, opening the door for us to take full advantage of this unique ability to communicate. So how have we got here and what could be next?
15th Century BC – The agricultural revolution – We start the move from being roaming, hunter gatherers to fixing on settled locations. These grow over time from villages to towns to majors cities, supported by trading, as individuals and communities specialize.
19th Century- The Industrial Revolution – Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the bulk of the work of needed to sustain the population had to be carried out locally, due to high manual content and the challenges and cost of distribution. The Industrial Revolution changed this moving work from local communities to centralized manufacturing. Local manual jobs were automated out of existence to be replaced by a new wave of centralized jobs, supported by new distribution networks. The consequence has been the growth of urban communities and large cities, as people concentrate around the work locations.
20th Century - The Information Revolution - Information Technology has enabled new forms of communications and more efficient and effective manufacturing, leading to a boom in new products and services, but it has encouraged the centralization of services, due to the inherently centralized nature of IT platforms and systems. It has enabled the interconnection of these communities on a global basis, breaking down barriers of distance and language. However, communications has remained primarily broadcast or push, driven by large ‘hubs’.
21st Century - The Digital Customer Revolution – the growth of mobile phones, social media and related technologies of cloud and big data have enabled new forms of ‘social’ communications, further breaking down geographical boundaries but also shifting the balance from central push to user pull and peer-to-peer communications. This has enabled the ability to test and scale ideas very rapidly, creating a boom in innovation through start ups and incubators.
Now – The emergence of the sharing economy - The social and mobile interconnectivity is creating the opportunity for distributed businesses and the emergence of the sharing economy. In this model small centrally run, technology enabled organizations can distributed work and share assets across very large communities and customer bases. Uber, AirBnB and ZipCar are but a few examples.
Near future - The move to IoT enabling distributed asset and energy management – There is a rapid growth in renewable energy through solar power, wind and other forms, which is enabled by availability of low cost control and monitoring systems through the use of IoT (Internet of Things) devices. This high level of sophisticated control allows optimization of energy generation and usage, at a personal, local and regional level. The net result is that individuals and communities can become energy self sufficient reducing and even removing the need for centralized generation and distribution of power. This is already having a major impact on the power generation and distribution companies in certain parts of the world.
Near future – the growth of 3D printing -3D printing platforms are starting to change the model in certain areas from centralized production to very local personalized production, potentially re-empowering the local community.
Near future - The next waves, AI and distributed processing –The rapid growth of processing power is enabling new levels of Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and Robotics. These technologies will create new levels of automation, potentially doing away with the need for centralized processing and manufacturing operated by people. At the same time we are seeing the rapid emergence of truly distributed systems and services, stimulated by the emergence of Bitcoin and Blockchain. These technologies are enabling people and communities to bypass centralized systems of banking and even government to create information and value exchange without reference to geographic or political boundaries, or reliance in centralised systems.
Conclusion – is technology creating a new community and business model, changing the direction from centralization to distributed? Adding these technology trends up we can see manufacturing and processing becoming very highly automated and potentially more centralized (with very few people involved) whilst individuals can operate (and live) in smaller and smaller distributed groups, which are globally interconnected.
- Sapiens, a brief history of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari.