The earth is flat: Digital tipping points from Melbourne to Moscow
- 10 October, 2017 14:00
Digital business holds the world up on its shoulders, like ancient Atlas. Digital giants create global platforms that are making our world ever flatter and more homogenous with each expansion of their reach and hold.
From Melbourne to Moscow we citizens of a common digital world use the same gadgets and games, share the same stories and news in moments, and adopt similar cultural norms.
And it becomes ever more tricky to unearth elusive and surprising competitive differentiators with the promise of disruptive potential. This year I have found at least one, in a most unexpected place.
One of the privileges of being a Gartner analyst is constant travel and unique access to business insights from our clients around the world. This year I’ve already been to nearly 20 countries. The more frequently I travel, the more I see the signs of sameness, the result of our love, trust and adoption of digital technologies.
In digital business, disruption spikes when triple tipping points synchronise: technology, culture and regulation. In 2017, as I have travelled, I’ve observed faster spikes and then faster global synthesis across those triple tipping points.
First a new application of technology is invented and brought to market, available for the first movers, the trend setters, to try. Then if people like what they experience, the word spreads to a mass market of adopters who quickly change their behaviours to a new norm.
Then ‘regulation’ notices, at first squirms and protests and debates policy positions, before evolving to catch up with technology and culture. The triple tipping points whirl like fidget spinners and constantly spark ingenuity and change.
In 2017, from Melbourne to Manila to Moscow I cross borders, currencies and languages, but don’t have to change my digital habits. I can rely on my contactless wallet to pay for my coffee and cabs.
Or I could choose to uber everywhere, as I note that ‘to uber’ is now a verb in all dialects not just a brand. I switch social sites effortlessly to suit the country and friends and purpose, from Facebook to WeChat to WhatsApp, and if sometimes the local regulation has not caught up and blocks me, I just switch again to a more open platform. Brands and devices blur.
The ubiquitous uptake of smartphones means all global citizens assuming ‘the posture' – eyes down, shoulders hunched, fingers zinging. Except when taking selfies and photos of everything, everywhere, when they look up, if only to look at themselves. (I wonder: how many shots are there of the iconic tourist spots? Where are they all stored? Who will look at them in 3017? What would an alien learn from our global digital big data?) Human behaviour fascinates as it evolves because of digital disruption.
Yet the more I experience the numbing creep of global homogeneity, the more I seek out difference and celebrate uniqueness. And so on my latest excursion across our little planet I was delighted to be surprised to find a distinctive application of creativity and capability in a place where I had, naively perhaps, least expected it. I found it in the vaults of the Kremlin.
Deep in the Russian bureaucracy I discovered real disruption is alive and thriving. There are signs of the powerful potential of digital business to create radical social and commercial change. Change that I’ve been imagining for years. But eureka, I’ve seen it. In Russia’s tax department.
The three tipping points have aligned in this instance.
Technology: cloud storage, big data lakes, connectivity, digital payments, digital commerce and identity management as infrastructure.
Culture: people using digital payment for almost everything and trusting their suppliers, both traditional and digital, with their transaction data.
Regulation: government creating open data policies, sharing data and datasets across business and government. What emerges is a working public sector digital business platform, which I was able to witness in Moscow a few weeks ago.
The platform captures value-added tax (VAT) inputs and outflows from many millions of citizens, algorithms calculate price fluctuations of the GDP and the ‘basket of goods’. On screens around the room we could see current volume use of different power sources (and pricing).
We switched effortlessly from a whole country view of VAT flows to a drill down into a single transaction. We digitally peered into a cafe across the street where someone had just bought a beetroot juice. Open data sets are shared with ecosystem partners, so that they too can benefit, experiment and evolve.
The next, even more powerful step is visualising economic indicators and scenarios projected by experimenting with variables to test hypotheses.
What if the electricity grid goes down around St Petersberg? What if there’s an earthquake in Vladivostok? What if the wheat harvest fails this year in Bondarksy as global weather conditions change? What if the price of carrots goes up in Moscow? What I saw was the powerful potential of ‘what if’ enabled by real-time comprehensive datasets and AI, which adds up to a digitally-enabled revolution.
You may well ask: platform innovation in government, access to our transaction data – isn’t that a bit ‘big brother’? No bigger a brother than any of the global digital giants we constantly give up detailed data about our lives to, freely and indiscriminately, with full disclosure and trust.
Think of the information available to Facebook with two billion users, or WeChat which is fast approaching a billion users. One country’s transaction dataset pales in comparison to the data available to Alibaba or Amazon, Yandex or Google, Baidu or Apple.
We stand today on the shoulders of digital business giants and digitally enabled governments. We look both deeper into ourselves and further out to foreign lands and beyond into space. The future is here, and it's becoming ever more evenly distributed.
Jenny Beresford is a research director with Gartner's CIO Advisory team. Previously, she has served as a CIO in global enterprises, held VP and GM roles in consulting and technology firms, worked as a hands-on enterprise agile coach, an innovation lead and a digital transformation director. She will speak about ‘CIO Futures in 2030’ at Gartner Symposium/ITxpo on the Gold Coast, 30 October – 2 November 2017.