Posts about creativedisruption

The (continuing) institutional revolution

I just read a fascinating book by Douglas W. Allen, The Institutional Revolution, which attempts to explain England’s transition from its apparently illogical early-modern institutions — aristocracy, purchased army commissions, lighthouses, private roads, even dueling — to modern institutions. And today, we see many of those institutions challenged.

Allen, an economist, argues that in a period when nature — weather, mostly — had a controlling influence on the work of state, and before authorities had reliable measurements — synchronized clocks, the ability to navigate to longitude, standard units of length — there was no way for the crown to measure the performance of its agents, to “distinguish between shirking and sloth, on the one hand, and chance, on the other.” So they proved their trust through investing what he calls hostage capital: building large estates, sending daughters to the court, buying army commissions in hopes of earning spoils of war. New means of measurement, he argues, opened the door to more sensible and effective management structures. “[P]rogress,” he says, “has been often little more than the removal of randomness in outcomes.”

I’m fascinated with Allen’s examination of society’s institutions — as organizations and as sets of rules — as they adapt to or are made extinct by new technologies. He points out that the transition to modern democratic institutions and bureaucracies was slow and syncopated. “As a result,” he writes, “throughout the Institutional Revolution numerous circumstances would have existed where the old institutional apparatus was inappropriate for the new order of things. This mismatch would have acted as a brake on economic growth…. [T]echnical innovations by themselves created institutional problems at the same time they solved engineering ones. Because the institutions took time to adjust, the full benefits of the technical changes took a long time to be felt.”

Sound familiar? Allen does not attempt to extrapolate to today — and perhaps I should not. But he does suggest that “an institutional reexamination of the Industrial Revolution” could “help modern economists in their policy recommendations on matter of current economic growth and development.” (Or a lack thereof.)

I wonder how inadequate — or doomed — our institutions are today in the face of new and disruptive technologies, including — to echo Allen — profound new means of measuring behavior (which upends, for example, advertising, not to mention tracking government performance through its data). It’s that kind of question that gets me in the most trouble with people I’ll call institutionalists, who defend legacy institutions — journalism, media gatekeepers, the academy, government, et al — against the disruption I sometimes welcome. See, for example, Andrew Keen. But I’m not killing these institutions, merely asking uncomfortable questions about the continued viability — without, of course, any answer to the question: What will follow them?

* Is the institution of journalism adequate to our new needs and knowledge?
* Was copyright as an institution made obsolete when copying cost nothing?
* Are modern politics incurably corrupted by money? (To answer that question, listen to this episode of This American Life.)
* Are our schools designed to turn out managers in the industrial age — human widgets made to make widgets, all the same — instead of the innovators we need, who are more likely to succeed?
* Is the firm — or at least part of its raison d’ĂȘtre — outmoded by the ecosystem?
* What is to become of the untrusted bank? Surely it cannot survive as an oxymoron.
* Can our capital markets still reward only growth when technology produces efficiency instead?
* Haven’t our health-care institutions foundered completely attempting to deal with the cost of their success: greater longevity and thus more ailments to treat?
* What becomes of our notion of nations when we can find, form, and act as publics around their borders?
* Whither capitalism?

Allen sheds no light on what could come next, nor could he or anyone. Instead, he offers a means of analysis. “[I]n the Darwinian struggle between nations, firms, and individuals,” he writes, “societies are driven to find institutions that get the job done under the circumstances faced at the time.” The issue for society is not affection or disdain for an institution and its traditions but the task at hand. Wishful thinking will not preserve the power of unnecessary old institutions nor make new ones. “Institutions are arrived at in many ways, often by accident or by trial and error.”

And so we have begun the process of negotiating new norms and building new institutions, while seeing whether incumbents can adapt. In the face of social services and the means to speak and share and connect anyone to anyone anywhere anytime, we are trying out new norms of privacy and publicness, etiquette and rudeness. Governments sense the threat of the internet and try to control it — under the guises of piracy, privacy, decency, security, civility — and contrary forces use the net to challenge their power. Journalism, publishing, and education face new, more efficient competitors. #OccupyWallStreet demarcated battle lines between the 1% — the modern aristocracy — and the 99%. As the aristocrat’s of Allen’s early modern period traded in social capital, so do we today, though we constantly recalculate its source and worth. Just as early modern roads were first maintained and run privately, so today are our early digital roads privately owned, and we are negotiating whether that is best for society. (At the start of the 19th century, Allen says, commerce and civic services “demanded that the roads ‘accomodate the traffic, rather than the traffic accomodate the roads.’” That is our battle today, eh?) Prior to the Institutional Revolution, labor was a matter of master and servant; will the current relationship of company and employee continue? And on and on.

In his conclusion, Allen writes:

Life is filled with examples of institutions that get the job done. Look around. Grand and broad systems such as ‘the rule of law’ and written constitutions exist, as do firms, churches, tribes, universities, societies and clubs, aid agencies, professional associations, unions, consumer’s groups, political parties, condominiums, cooperatives, and so on. But many more informal examples abound of social systems that can be just as binding and often more interesting: families, friendships, social networks, peer pressures, customs, social norms, mores and religious values, and the like. All of these social factors — these collections of economic property rights that affect an individual’s scope and ability of decision making — work together to make people behave a certain way: it is hoped in order to create a community that is prosperous, regenerating, and competitive. Not all societies are successful at achieving this end and often institutions are chosen that fail to meet the regularity of behavior that is desired. Stagnation is common for a period of time, but in the competitive environment of institutions, successful one often win out.

That is why I celebrate the competition.

Mapping new opportunities in technology and news

At CUNY’s Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism, we believe technology provides many still-untapped opportunities for news. So we commissioned Dr. Nicholas Diakopoulos to research and map that territory. He came back with a very good and readable paper and with an exercise/game to help media folks find that opportunity. We’re offering that game to journalism schools and media companies.

Here is Andrew Phelps’ report on the research at Niemanlab. See my longer post about the effort here; see Nick’s paper here as PDF, here on Scribd.

Online News Association members: Nick and my CUNY colleague Jeremy Caplan have volunteered to run brainstorming sessions at this year’s conference. So please vote for their session here. We’ll bring lots of games to give to participants. You can also email us to ask for them here (but — as with anything free — supplies are limited!).

Says Phelps: “The paper is high-concept but short, and everyone who wants to reinvent journalism should read it…. Breaking down the problems makes solutions a lot more attainable.” That’s the idea.

The importance of JOBS

The JOBS bill being signed by President Obama today is critical to the emergence and growth of the next generation of industries as ecosystems.

Those ecosystems are made up of three layers: Platforms (Google, Amazon, Salesforce, Facebook, Kickstarter, Federal Express, Foxconn), which make it possible for entrepreneurial ventures to be built at lower cost with less capital and reduced risk at greater speed. To provide the critical mass that large corporations used to provide — to, for example, sell advertising at scale or acquire distribution or acquire goods or services at volume — sometimes these ventures need to band together in networks (Glam, YouTube, Etsy, eBay). This is how I simplistically draw it in a whiteboard:

Our economy — equity markets, regulation, taxation — has been built to support The Firm: large companies that controlled the entire chain from design to manufacturing to marketing to distribution, gaining efficiency and control as they gained size. The new ecosystem still benefits large companies if they are platforms, as today much — perhaps most — of the value created via the net falls to new corporate behemoths: Google, Amazon, Facebook….

But it’s at the entrepreneurial layer that the real work is being done, the real efficiency is being found, and the real value is being built. But they need capital — not much, but they need it. And they need to be able to recognize the value they create. That’s what I hope Steve Case and others worked toward with the JOBS bill. Andrew Ross Sorkin is worries that the new law’s loosened regulation for some companies will mean that more will lose money. But Henry Blodget counters that it’s not the SEC’s job to save you if you’re stupid enough to invest in Groupon (told ya!). The lighter regulation certainly bears watching.

But the part of the bill that encourages me is the ability of small companies to raise small amounts from small investors. I see this as economically democratizing on both sides of the transaction: more small companies disrupting large firms and more real investors able to get in on the opportunities (and risks) of a platform-enabled entrepreneurial economy.

Such small-scale investment has already been possible in the U.K. — not just possible but encouraged through 30% tax break on investments. Recently I got email from a company set to benefit, Escape the City (soon to be renamed escape.co), which helps would-be refugees from London’s financial district build new and one hopes better lives outside it. Cofounder Mikey Howe kindly wrote to me because he’d read What Would Google Do? and said it helped him think in new ways. (Thank you, Mikey.)

Howe wrote on the occasion of the company sending a letter to its 57,000 members inviting them to pledge to invest in the venture. Within one hour, $6.6 million was pledged. I checked back with him three weeks later and 2,200 members had pledged $15 million (more than they will end up raising). What’s exciting is not just that a small company can more easily raise investment funds but that this small company knows its potential investors. They are members of the service already: a community of customers and investors. Imagine what that relationship could do to help a startup, when your users, your customers have a stake in your success. (I also enjoy the notion that their venture attempts to disrupt the financial district they left.)

Start Something You Love: Escape the City…1 year on from Escape the City on Vimeo.

Until the JOBS bill, about the closest thing we had in America was Kickstarter. My entrepreneurial journalism students are eager to try to use it to raise funds — perhaps a bit too eager, I caution them, for funding a single product or project does not a sustainable strategy make (any more than begging for grants from foundations). But properly used, Kickstarter reduces risk by performing the best possible market research (pre-orders) and allowing an entrepreneur to use her customers’ capital to start her venture while also turning customers into marketers. Kickstarter could not sell equity. Should it? I think that’s an entirely different proposition. In any case, now we can see Kickstarters of a new sort help more new companies. See also the U.K.’s Funding Circle, which loans capital to startups (and which just got an investment from New York’s Union Square Ventures).

The irony of the JOBS bill’s title (it stands for Jumpstart Our Business Startups) is that it may end up killing more jobs than it creates as it funds highly disruptive and highly efficient new ventures that will try to replace large and now inefficient companies in old vertical industries. (See my post, the jobless future.)

But if the disruption is inevitable — and I believe it is, across many industries from media to retail, banking to travel and even manufacturing — then the only sane response is to find the opportunity in the change. The JOBS act helps more people, entrepreneurs and investors, find more opportunity. That, more than bailouts, is the wise role for government to play in the shift from an industrial to a digital economy.

Davos, disrupted

I’m among the disrupted of Davos. Outside, there’s an #OccupyDavos encampment in igloos (really). Down the road, someone will be giving out an award to the worst company of the world. But the disruption is no longer outside. That’s what I sensed in past years; that’s what they wanted to believe here. Now the disruption is inside. Every institution is challenged. Every.

The World Economic Forum issued a list of global risks (though Google’s Eric Schmidt countered on his Google+ page that he’s optimistic; that’s because he’s a disruptor). I’m sitting in a room here with a debate on capitalism about to begin. Even the sacred science is disrupted. I’m having conversations and sessions about disrupted banking and retail and education and media, of course.

I began this trip to Europe with my pilgrimage to the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz (blogged earlier). I recall Jon Naughton’s Observer column in which he asked us to imagine that we are pollsters in Mainz in 1472 asking whether we thought this invention of Gutenberg’s would disrupt the Catholic church, fuel the Reformation, spark the Scientific Revolution, change our view of education and thus childhood, and change our view of societies and nations and cultures. Pshaw, they must have said.

Ask those questions today. How likely do you think it is that every major institution of society–every industry, all of education, all of government–will be disrupted; that we will rethink our idea of nations and cultures; that we will reimagine education; that we will again alter even economics? Pshaw?

Welcome to Davos 1472.

LATER: Thanks to Andy Sternberg, here is a Storify of my tweets from an opening session at Davos, a Time debate on the future of capitalism (sorry for the long link; having trouble with the WordPress app on my iPad; also can’t get the embed code from Storify on the iPad; will fix it later): http://storify.com/andysternberg/jeff-jarvis-tweets-from-davos?awesm=sfy.co_W6q&utm_campaign=&utm_medium=sfy.co-twitter&utm_source=direct-sfy.co&utm_content=storify-pingback