THE BLOG

New Individuals, New Context: The Citizen and the Sharing Society

04/02/2014 13:22 GMT | Updated 05/04/2014 10:59 BST

Following a presentation I gave at a conference in Copenhagen last autumn, I have been exchanging emails with trendspotter and business thinker Susanne A.C. who blogs at www.consciousandcurious.com. She is one of those driving the progress of what is known variously as 'collaborative consumption' or 'the sharing economy', something that is in the headlines recently after much discussion at the World Economic Forum in Davos, and our conversation has been about the overlap between this and the concepts of citizenship that I have been exploring.

Our joint contention is that we are entering what has the potential to be an age of empowerment; with the emerging role of the individual in transition from consumer to citizen as the social context makes a parallel transition from linear, hierarchical and transactional towards becoming far more interactive and focused on sharing and collaboration. We share the belief that this is a new paradigm. In what follows, we explore together a few places where these changes are becoming manifest, and try to look ahead.

New technology, new values, new identity

From the perspective of the individual, there is clear evidence of a generational shift in values. Surveys conducted by Havas, Telefonica, Globescan and others highlight that those currently coming to maturity as the generation in charge - call them millennials, prosumers, aspirationals, or whatever you like - are moving away from depending on physical objects and ownership to create our sense of identity, preferring to define ourselves by our social interactions and relationships.

This shift is very much related to the shift in technology and possibility. In a world where the web facilitates sharing of objects and resources - whether rooms in your house through Airbnb, electric drills through Kingfisher Group, or pretty much anything through yerdle - we simply don't need to own things; access is the new ownership.

Add to this the 'maker movement', which adds personal decentralised production to the picture of collaborative consumption. This movement is a trend revolutionizing the way we design, produce and trade goods from everything to recycling, upcycling, DIY and recently the development within 3D printing. More importantly though, it is a change in behaviour patterns which sees people creating their own products and demystifying the brands that have dominated identity creation. UK brand Technology Will Save Us, with products like DIY Gamer, is one of our favourites in this space.

In such a world, it's open to debate (and we have debated!) whether what came first was the change in mentality or whether we are just reacting to having needs and wants met in new ways. In many ways, though, it's a moot point. Both causal directions are in play. And the consequences for the identity construct of the individual are the same regardless. As one big name CEO in Davos put it, "this new generation simply don't see themselves as Consumers."

New skills, new intelligence, new currency

And what will come as a result will be dramatically different.

As we focus increasingly on sharing and collaboration, subject expertise will become less important than facilitation skills - those who create platforms for others, arenas for the wisdom of the crowds to aggregate and become wholes greater than the sum of the parts, will be far more important than the hero specialists we currently worship.

As we develop our social interacting skills and we experience the new benefits for "me" via "us", we could be developing a new social intelligence, a change in thought patterns and subsequently behaviour. Susanne expects this idea of social intelligence - SQ - to become a new important trend in behaviour patterns and an important asset in human resources.

In the wider world, this is something we're already seeing measured in the form of trust ratings in the new economy. This is something that first started on ebay, but people like Rachel Bottsman, author of collaborative consumption bible 'What's Mine Is Yours', reckon these ratings will become more important than your credit rating as this future unfolds. These ideas are already affecting the development of alternative currencies like bitcoin, and will only become more important.

New people, new power, new politics

So far, most discussion of this space has focused on its impact on the economy and the market, arguably the dominant institutions in global society today.

But we believe that these trends will actually see the market recede in importance, or at least become rebalanced with wider society. As commentators like Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel have put it, we need to and are finding a way to have the cake of a market economy but eat it without needing to sacrifice ourselves to a market society.

This will happen because we are experiencing a rapid development moving from power of few to empowerment of masses in form of access to information, knowledge, tools and resources and with that the opportunities to create and hack - and that is happening in politics not just in business.

When individuals get together, sharing in this empowerment, they are creating new ways of doing things. This is developing across the world, from Citivox in Mexico and the US to Autresphere's app Gov in France to Ushahidi.com in Kenya and across sub-Saharan Africa... we could go on.

As a result of initiatives like these, it is clear that the days of government as we know it are numbered. Where before we needed representative government just like we needed multinational companies, these lowest common denominator approaches will become swiftly outdated. In their place, we will discover not just direct but deliberative democracy, where we design ways to come together to navigate the running of our societies.

Brave new world?

Fulfilling this potential will not happen easily.

The challenges of misuse as ever are there: the old powerful will cling on; the inherent uncertainty of collaboration will scare and lead some backward; and new nodes of power, as susceptible as any in the past to the temptations of such power, will for a time be created. Perhaps most significantly, at the same time as this world of authentic participation becomes possible, the same technological advances will make a far less authentic world of synthetic pleasure (not unlike Aldous Huxley's dystopia) equally possible.

But this is a huge era of opportunity. It is now possible for us to work together on a scale never known before to design and create a truly inclusive world. Our shared hope in this working on this piece together is that if we can see this picture, we can seize it.

Jon Alexander is Founder and Director of the New Citizenship Project.