Welcome to the open world: Don Tapscott at TEDGlobal 2012

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Don Tapscott

Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Don Tapscott has written 14 books about the digital, super-connected, hyper-collaborative world, and he has the distinct responsibility of officially kicking off Critical Crossroads, the first session of this year’s TEDGlobal conference. He gets a laugh early on: “Openness is a word denoting opportunity, possibilities, open-ended, open hearts, open source, open bar…”

Tapscott started studying children and technology 20 years ago. He admits that he thought his kids were digital prodigies, picking up every new tool with genius-level skill — only to realize to his chagrin that in fact their friends were just as adept. The net generation have been bathed in bits since birth, he says: “They have no fear of technology, because it’s in the air. It’s sort of like how I have no fear of a refrigerator.”

He turns to the topic at hand: openness. The global downturn has forced an opening up of society. Old systems are failing us — “The failure of Wall Street almost brought down capitalism,” he says — and this has made the world into a burning platform. Radical difference is our only option, and the combination of the push of both technology and demography and the pull from a broken global economy is causing the world to open up. “We’re at a turning point in human history,” he says. And he goes on to outline the open world according to four principles:

1. Collaboration
This is openness in the sense that boundaries of firms are becoming more porous, fluid and open. Tapscott tells the story of Rob McEwen, a man he knows not because he scoured the world for case studies but because the two men are neighbors. McEwen headed up Goldcorp, where he did a radical thing: publishing his geological data to see if anyone in the world could find gold in his lands. Submissions came in from all over the world, and for $500,000 he found $3.4 billion worth of gold. The company’s market cap went from $90 million to $10 billion. “As my neighbor, I can tell you he’s a happy camper,” adds Tapscott. Yet here’s the real moral of the story: some of the best submissions didn’t even come from geologists. The winning submission came from a computer graphics company. This marks a huge change in the way we can think about how to innovate to create goods and services, and public value.

2. Transparency
“Here we’re talking about the communication of pertinent information to stakeholders,” he says. People might be bent out of shape by Wikileaks, “but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.” After all, it’s not only Julian Assange who has information on our institutions. Companies have to be naked and transparent, and frankly, if you’re going to be naked, “fitness is no longer optional. You better get buff.” Companies better have value — and they’d better have values. And, he adds, this is good, not bad! “Sunlight is the best disinfectant. We need a lot of sunlight in this troubled world.”

3. Sharing
Sharing is about giving up assets or international property. Conventional wisdom said that you developed your own IP, and if someone infringed it, you sued them. But that doesn’t seem to have worked so well for the record industry, he adds. The industry that brought us Elvis and the Beatles is now suing children. The pharmaceutical industry, too, is in trouble, about to fall off the so-called patent cliff. Pharma needs to start sharing pre-competitive research, to share all sorts of clinical data, and provide the rising tide that will lift all boats.

4. Empowerment
In the Tunisian revolution, the new media didn’t cause the revolution, social media didn’t create the revolution — it was created by the young generation that wanted hope and jobs. But just as the Internet drops collaboration costs in business, it drops the cost of rebellion and insurrection in ways people didn’t initially understand. In the Tunisian revolution, snipers were killing unarmed kids. In return, kids were taking pictures and sending them to friendly soldiers who’d then come and take out the snipers. “You think social media is about hooking up online? It’s a military tool for self-defense,” says Tapscott. Looking at the ongoing unrest in Syria, he says: “Three months ago, you’d be injured, go to hospital with a broken leg and come out with a bullet in the head.” Now young people have used social media to improvise and create an alternative healthcare system.

This time of great change is not without problems, Tapscott allows. There’s little leadership at the head of these movements. Unsavory forces can fill vacuums left after the swift change. But it doesn’t matter. “We’re not putting this back in the bottle,” Tapscott says. “The open world is bringing empowerment and freedom.”

And this change is positive, he adds. Hundreds of years ago, knowledge was tightly concentrated in a system of feudalism and agrarianism. Then Gutenberg arrived with a printing press and knowledge began to distribute itself. We moved to the Industrial Age and now, with the Internet Age, the technological genie is once again out of the bottle, allowing us all to be a producer. “This is not an information age, it’s an age of networked intelligence, an age of vast promise.”

Tapscott concludes with some research he’s done recently, over some beautiful film of a murmuration of starlings. It’s spectacular footage that shows the synchronized, collective genius of the birds, which chase away predators and demonstrate leadership without having any one leader. The birds exhibit a beautiful sense of interdependence that we might want to understand and apply in our own lives. “I look at this and I get a lot of hope,” he says. “Could we create some kind of collective intelligence that goes beyond an individual or team to create a consciousness on a global basis?”

He concludes, “I’m hoping the smaller, networked world our kids inherit might just be a better one. Let’s do this.” Tears from those near me, and the first standing ovation of the conference. (Yes, there’ll be more.)