Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

Reimagining the new social contract for the digital age

Don Tapscott is one of the world’s leading authorities on the impact of technology on business and society. He shares his future vision of a new social contract for a digital age based on the devastating impact of COVID-19 pandemic in the next decade.

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Don Tapscott is one of the world's leading authorities on the impact of technology on business and society having authored 16 widely read books. He has coined many concepts that are part of the business lexicon today and is sought by corporate and government leaders globally. Tapscott is currently co-founder and executive chairman of the Blockchain Research Institute, an adjunct professor at INSEAD, recently a two-term chancellor of Trent University in Ontario, and a Member of The Order of Canada. Tapscott is ranked the second-most influential Management Thinker and the top Digital Thinker in the world by Thinkers50.

Tapscott recently wrote an article about a new social contract in 2030, a decade after a post-COVID-19 world. The opening paragraphs said: 

"January 2030. Looking back a decade, the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 to 2022 did more than take five million lives and devastate the global economy. It revealed with searing clarity, weakness not just in our political leaders, governments, and society, but in our systems for everything from supply chains to data and public health. The second era of the digital revolution had started to come of age with powerful new technologies like blockchain, AI, machine learning, robots, and the internet of things showing how the traditional systems and their institutions were outmoded. These technologies also created transparency that further revealed deep problems in society.  It was one of those dramatic turning points in global history."

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Don Tapscott, co-founder and executive chairman of the Blockchain Research Institute.

Tapscott noted that the crisis revealed all the weaknesses of our underlying social contract as we transition fully to the digital age and unleash a new set of forces for profound change. He identified five weaknesses that were the most damaging from 2020 to 2030: 

  • Systemic inequality and racial injustice. 
  • Elusive prosperity. 
  • Commandeering of our data. 
  • Fragmented public discourse. 
  • The destruction of our biosphere

Tapscott also highlighted that the countries around the world assembled around some new principles. "Driven by fear and also a deep hope for a brighter future, people everywhere began to undertake a new process, to reimagine our social contract -- the basic expectations between business, government and civil society for a new digital age," said Tapscott. The six principles were: 

  • Inclusive models of global problem-solving. 
  • Rethinking democracy for citizen engagement. 
  • A new commitment to justice. 
  • New models of work and education. 
  • New models of identity. 
  • A commitment to sustainability

To better understand the weakness of our existing social contracts and learn more about the new social contract and its principles for a digital age, Ray Wang, CEO and founder of a Silicon Valley-based advisory firm Constellation Research, and I invited Don Tapscott to join our weekly show DisrupTV. Here are my takeaways from our conversation with Don Tapscott.

The pandemic has super-charged the dark side in the age of networked intelligence. Tapscott talked about the promise of the Internet, the web, and the age of networked intelligence. Tapscott warned us 20 years ago about the potential challenges of the internet and the web. Tapscott wrote about privacy concerns. He also warned us about big companies capturing our data that would lead to growing social inequalities. He forecasted that technology will create jobs, but a new wave of technologies can create structural unemployment. Tapscott referenced truck drivers and cashiers as the most popular jobs that will be impacted by new immerging technologies. The pandemic has super-charged the dark side of the networked economy. The pandemic is exposing all of these problems. Tapscott believes that we need a new social contract for the digital economy. The agreements between citizens, governments, and businesses must change in the new digital age.   

We can use new technologies to address the existing crisis of legitimacy of democratic institutions. Young people are not voting. What is the alternative to democracy? The idea of legitimacy is that you may disagree with who is in power, but you agree that the system is the best system. Today, our leaders are questioning the system. We need to rethink how we engage our citizens. Some of the division that exists is due to the Internet. Technology should be used to address these issues. Tapscott believes that one of the problems is that politicians are not accountable to citizens -- they are accountable to the people to help fund their elections. Tapscott shared an example: 94% of Americans believe that there should be background checks for firearm purchases, yet congress cannot pass a law to reflect the will of the people. Tapscott acknowledges that the first era of democracy is the best alternative to what we had in the past. In the second era of democracy, we can use new technologies to ensure politicians are accountable to citizens. We have a culture of public deliberation, active citizenship, smart voting, smart money, ways of finding out the truth. We can have the ability to vote for programs to ensure government official accountability. 

"Networks enable citizens to participate fully in their own governance. Let's rethink how we achieve public safety, perhaps shifting from top-down surveillance and enforcement to grassroots prevention and intervention. We can now move to a new era of democracy based on a culture of public deliberation and active citizenship. Mandatory voting encourages active, engaged, and responsible citizens, but only if voters can cast their ballots easily, securely, and without intimidation. Technologies such as blockchain, for example, enable us to embed electoral promises into smart contracts and to secure other forms of direct democracy through the mobile platforms citizens use every day," said Tapscott. 

New models of identity. The pandemic has a lot to do with data or lack thereof. An example is health data. Data is captured in silos. We do not own the data. Data cannot be aggregated across all of our individual identities. "Let's move away from the industrial-age system of stamps, seals, and signatures we depend on to this day. We need to protect the security of personhood and end the systems of economic exclusion and digital feudalism. Individuals should own and profit from the data they create from the moment of their birth," said Tapscott.   

"Data is the most important asset in fighting pandemics. If any useful data exists now, it sits in institutional silos. We need better access to the data of entire populations and a speedy consent-based data sharing system. The trade-off between privacy and public safety need not be so stark. Through self-sovereign identities, where individuals own their health records and can freely volunteer it to researchers, we can achieve both," said Tapscott. We discussed the power of wearable technologies that can enable us to use real-time data to manage our health and well-being. Data ownership and access is a key success factor in the new digital age. We must be able to use our data to plan our lives. Tapscott talked about how we can use blockchain to create a self-sovereign and portable identity. 

We concluded our conversation with Tapscott about how Blockchain can help the economy and businesses in the pandemic. Tapscott referenced five ways blockchain can help in a pandemic.   

  1. Self-sovereign identity, health records, and shared data 
  2. Just-in-time supply chain solutions 
  3. Sustaining the economy: How blockchain can help 
  4. A rapid response registry for medical professionals
  5. Incentive models to reward responsible behavior 

 I recommend that you watch the video conversation with Tapscott, Wang, and me in order to fully appreciate Tapscott's brilliant vision of the new social contract in a digital age and the key principles for the next decade to come.