Thriving in a Hyperconnected World

Posted by Blogactiv Team on 23/01/13

A conversation between Robert Madelin and Marc Davis

The boundaries of our physical and digital worlds are melting away at unprecedented speeds, leaving many of our policy-makers, heads of government and business people unprepared to integrate new concepts into decision-making processes. Technologies have evolved and continue to do so, while vast amounts of data are sent and received by billions of interconnected devices. As interdependency grows between individuals and the systems they are a part of, what are the issues and opportunities to be grasped?

Q: What does it mean to be living in a hyperconnected world?


Marc Davis: We are in a position today where we have much more power and greater storage, so the amount of data has gone up. Different sources and kinds of data, from social networking sites and mobile communications for example, mean that we have very intimate information about people, which provides insights that help us to function better in the real world. Big data is not just a technical issue; it’s not even fundamentally a technological issue. It’s a question of the structure of the digital society and digital economy, what it means to be a person, who has what rights to see and use what information, and for what purposes might they use it.

Robert Madelin: For me hyperconnectivity is very like the human brain. Our conscious activity is a tiny tip of the iceberg of what’s going on in our head, we don’t know everything that’s going on every moment, we don’t have to think to breathe. And our vision of the hyperconnected world should be like that: that we are still in control, but good things are going on as a result of hyperconnectivity.

Q: What rights should citizens of the world have over their data?

Robert Madelin: In a democratic society we should collectively decide how we want to manage data. As an individual, I would like to know how data about me is being created. I want to know that I am in a society where the ways in which the feed from the CCTV camera in the shopping mall is used sits within a framework of law. I do not want a company or government putting all my data together and creating a profile of me without me knowing or being able to access it. But if you anonymize it, most people would say, “I am perfectly happy that my share of a bigger dataset creates a public good”. A cancer registry is a classic case. You take all the people suffering from a certain sort of cancer and put that data together, that’s gold dust in terms of driving medical research. But those individuals do not want their status to become public knowledge. So it is a question of how we reconcile the accumulation of knowledge with the preservation of my control of my personal profile.

Marc Davis: There are some cases when data is mine, and some cases where, for the public good, the data is ours collectively. But the vast majority is in the category of joint rights and joint stakeholders. We haven’t yet formalized and created the legal, technical, economic or regulatory structures to determine how various parties share and control the flow of data. One analogy – which illustrates why this is both an economic and a societal issue – is of the 19th-century transportation system: if we don’t have interoperability of rail gauges, it’s hard to have trains that work.

Q: How can we create greater standardization of privacy practices?

Marc Davis: The challenges of hyperconnectivity also contain within them the solutions. The fact that we’re so connected enables us to create greater standardization around the rights associated with data. We’re beginning to see granular permissions control, where you can opt to say “yes, you can have my location data”. Also, across multiple companies and, in the US, the National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace, there is this concept of a trust framework where multi-level parties together establish codes of conduct, standards around how they are going to be using data.

Robert Madelin: We can’t fix this debate in different ways in different bits of the world without diminishing the potential value of the hyperconnected world; you can’t hyperconnect the world technologically and divide it by imagining jurisdictional borders – and there is support in Europe for a framework that has interoperable global jurisdictional coverage. The big problem we still have is a lack of trust driving demand for disproportionate control.

Q: What is the role of trust in the hyperconnected world?

Marc Davis: Without trust there isn’t going to be an effective society or economy. But trust has to be earned, and that comes when you are transparent so that individuals understand what’s going on, and data actors become accountable.

Commercially speaking, trusted relationships powered by personal data are much more effective than the situation we have now where there is a lack of trust in the system. In a trusted relationship people can say, “I do want to share this information because I’m going to get a much better service back”. I think there is a common vision around the individual at the centre of the digital alliance that both benefits society and drives economic growth.

Robert Madelin: At the moment, “earning of trust” as a priority is not yet clear enough in the minds of all data actors. If we lose sight of the individual, we’ll trip over the individual’s objections somewhere down the road. We can avoid that – and the need for excessive regulation – if we talk to people and find out what they like and don’t like.

Q: Can the hyperconnected world make cities more efficient, sustainable and liveable?

Marc Davis: Absolutely. Big data, the observation of how the world behaves – people, goods, services – allow us to improve the way we organize ourselves. Of course, we have to do it in a way that preserves the dignity, agency and self-determination of individuals.

Robert Madelin: The smart city is smart because we can build hyperconnectivity into the energy and transport systems, but it will be smarter if we can create a city that is, through data, more effective for every citizen, more inclusive. The diversity of opportunity in a big city, whether it’s Cairo or Los Angeles, is so huge that we have to be careful that the smartness is not unevenly distributed. If the hyperconnected world accentuated social divides, it could get very “unsmart” very quickly. So, there is a downside, and we have to design it out.

Q: What are the shocks, related to hyperconnectivity, which might be coming in 2013?

Marc Davis: There will be greater realization by people around the world of what’s actually happening on the Internet in terms of the complexities of managing big data. I think the shock of this will result in people calling for, and regulators and industry working together for, greater transparency and accountability with regards to data.

Robert Madelin: The greatest risks would be a technical outage where cyber resilience is lost, or a big data breach causing a breakdown of public trust in the ability of the data actors and public authorities to manage data in the future.

Q: What issues should be priority for world leaders in Davos?

Marc Davis: Other than cyber resilience, which is a fundamental part of the ecosystem for every state and the private sector, I also think people have to realize that human beings are very bad at understanding the phenomena that are transforming our world. Leaders today have been trained in a world that no longer exists. Acknowledging this is the first step, and the next is working collectively to form a new organizational structure that is resilient, adaptive and supports the goals that we all share.

Robert Madelin: The threats of the cyberworld are understood by experts, but they are not owned at the top level by boards of large corporations or by governments in a collective way. So I think we are seriously underweight in our collective response to this threat. And I think in a hyperconnected world, we have to connect the overlapping issues that form part of the complex system that we human beings constitute. We don’t really acknowledge that complexity.

Robert Madelin is European Commission Director-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology. Marc Davis is Partner Architect at Microsoft Online Services Division. The Outlook on the Global Agenda is available for download, free of charge at wef.ch/outlook2013

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