A good lesson for someone traveling the world in search of innovation is that you can also learn about it by staying in one place for a few days. This happened to me at the Netexplo Forum, held March 15-16 at UNESCO'S Paris headquarters.
According to Thierry Happe, who co-founded the annual event with Martine Bidegain, there are three "lignes de force" (defining features) marking innovation this year:
First, big data, “We are going to make more decisions with a real-time databases than we do based on experience and intuition,” Happe said. The second is SoLoMo, the term used to describe the fact that our online activities are becoming increasingly social, local and mobile. The third is activism 2.0, which, as last year's Arab Spring showed, can no longer be ignored..
The conference was structured around a trend report authored by sociologist Bernard Cathelat after Netexplo and its global network selected 400 startups (of these, 100 are selected to compete for 10 awards at the event.)
Tracking and profiling. Everything we do online leaves a trace, a trace used by governments and corporations to better understand us and our actions. Transparency becomes a service offering. We live in a “world of glass” where it's easy to learn how much any doctor in the US receives from pharmaceutical companies. (“$ for docs”, the app that does this, was created by ProPublica.org, which has won two Pulitzers for data journalism.)
This can create a veritable “identity crisis” that forces users to choose a personal or enterprise strategy that considers both how we're tracked and demands for transparency. It's an ambiguous area, since we'll always ask for the transparency of others, while preserving their own private space. Social networks are becoming tools to manage our sway capital, our influence as potential revenue source.
The last point is match marketing, which, unlike mass marketing, uses existing data to create pinpoint relationships between users and brands. FreeMonee.com uses credit-card data to offer users branded “gifts,” is the best example of this.
It's essential to understand that we're passing from a moment where the emphasis is placed on connection (social networks) to one where it is placed on big data, from the dispersion of power to its concentration. As long as users don't demand more transparency, in order to restrict access to their data and to prevent its collection in linked databases open to a handful of actors – Google and Facebook, for example.
The advantage of tracking trends like this is that they're simple; the disadvantage is that they seem inevitable. You can either be part of them or profit from them. We might be better off presenting them as tensions delimiting the areas where the actors should position themselves.
What I got from Cathelat's speech is the tension that simultaneously links with and opposes big data's ability to know, collect and save everything, and the right for forgetting, for discretion, for individual and group secrets. As well as the tension between transparency as a social demand and opacity as exploitative system used by corporations and institutions.
Fortunately, there are a lot of innovators whose interests are primarily humanitarian. People like Selene Chew, a graduate student from Singapore, who was awarded the conference's grand prize for Blindspot, a cane for the visually impaired that uses GPS to locate users, to detect objects and find nearby friends and contact them via smartphone. It's amazing.
I learned a lot in my two days at Netexplo Forum. But the tensions on exhibit at the conference are not lived the same way, with the same balance of powers, everywhere. To see the differences, you need to be on the ground. Next step: Brazil.