Future of Creativity: Convivial Creations & Collaborative Commons

“Man is born to inquire and create, and when a man or a child chooses to inquire or create out of his own free choice then he becomes in his own terms an artist rather than a tool of production or a well-trained parrot.”

Wilhelm von Humboldt (Chomsky, 1970)

Creativity is a fundamental feature of the creature called human. It’s not a plug-in. It’s not a bug. It’s the defining feature. Take away her freedom, her creative pursuits; you might as well take away her life.

Even as the whirlwind of technological changes transform our lives, the creative spirit of humanity remains alive – adapting and changing perhaps, but never getting extinguished. In fact, new technologies and platforms are enabling people to be creative in new ways- giving people power to be producers and not just consumers. With new found power, people are creating new currencies, building guns in their garage with 3d printing, imagining new governance models and even editing their own genes with CrispR. The brave new world is full of possibilities.

This is truly a watershed moment in the history of human creativity. The world is going through a creative renaissance. But can the same thing be said about Creative Agencies? It seems as if the world is racing ahead even as agencies remain fixated on the rear view mirror, its glory days.

It has never been as convenient as it is now to create asymmetric disruption with creative innovations. By Asymmetric, I mean the disproportionate impact that a small group of people can have. Consider WhatsApp. The company that created WhatsApp consisted of a handful of people. The app they made now facilitates communications between billions of people across the world. Or for that matter, consider the alleged Russian hackers causing havoc with US democracy. Both are cases of relatively small groups of people creating big impacts in the world.

Historically, creative agencies thrived in a world where the asymmetry didn’t exist to this extent. The brands with more money hired better creative shops and spent more money on media to create culture defining commercials. They created a shared consumerist utopia that continues to shape our worldview to this day.

The organisational structure, the technology they used, reflected this reality. The tools of trade were inaccessible to common folks in proximity & capability. The structure was hierarchical, reflecting the importance of a few people’s expertise in the organisation. The organisation practically revolved around a few stars. This suited well for a world where speeds of culture dissemination were comparatively much slower and people had few choices when it came to consumption of content or brands.

The world has completely changed now, but the advertising industry has not. Speeds of cultural dissemination and tool of creations have accelerated, but we still think through the prism of slow-moving culture of film scripts & print layouts. The hierarchy and culture of hero-worshipping doesn’t always allow for younger talent to autonomously react to emerging cultural memes. And lastly, the tools and capabilities in an advertising company now are in no way superior to that of a successful group of Instagram influencers.

How can advertising industry excite its creative people if the industry is a laggard now and not a vanguard? What new roles can agencies assume in this amorphous, ever changing world that is as exciting at its fringes as it is at its centre?

To answer these questions, lets first get a sense of the nature of the beast we are talking about.

1.     Shift focus from Titillating tech to Transformative Tech.

Digital technology has upended long established ways of working. People working in the industry are fundamentally confused about the impact of technology on the industry. There’s merit in revisiting the thoughts of the great Marshall McLuhan here. He famously said, “the medium is the message”. His statement suggested that a medium/ a technology, affects the society in which it plays a role, not by the content delivered over the medium, but by the characteristic of the medium itself.  We shape tools for our ends and in the process, the tools mould us.

When we talk about Technology, we have been focusing on the ‘content’ of technology – ‘which tools should our creative partners use? Which Social Network are people using?’ The truth is – these questions are trivial at the broader level. Facebook, the social media platform, didn’t upend our business models, by monopolising attention of people. The secret weapon of the platform is its egalitarian promise of enabling people to do what was not possible before. New platforms like Uber, Amazon, Facebook, Google create fundamentally new ‘agencies’ for people – new capabilities that people didn’t have access to before.

Platforms are egalitarian spaces for enhancing one’s agency – in a sense uber provides hyper limbs on demand, google is a vast brain at our disposal and Facebook is the nerve-centre of our social lives. These platforms are enabling people to supersize their capabilities and be creative in new ways. That is the fundamental promise of platforms.

The promise is not just about ‘liking’ a brand or dancing to a Tik Tok track. The promise is that of building on top of the new freedoms, new ‘agencies’ that platforms offer. Consider the brand ‘Glossier’ for instance. It turns its packaging into an interactive canvas for users to personalise their products with stickers, designed for Instagram followers. On the other hand, consider Google search and Amazon Echo’s impact on Brands. L2 Inc.’s research suggested that queries for non-branded products increased in every CPG Category, at the expense of branded products! For everyday use product categories, brands might soon become redundant. One of the freedoms that people expect from platforms is the freedom to not remember brand names!

To survive in this rapidly evolving world, agencies need to learn from these platforms.

 The tech that we should focus on is the one that helped them build the platforms: The tech that helped them create new agencies, new capabilities for humanity.  To do that we need to first look at how they built their teams – the way they work, collaborate, take in feedback and improve.

We don’t need to ape them. But we surely do need to learn from them and identify the systemic changes that technology can help us introduce.

Creative transformation principle #1

FOCUS ON THE WAY TECH CAN IMPROVE THE ‘SYSTEMS’ OF OUR INDUSTRY: THE WAY WE WORK, COLLABORATE, RESPOND. 
HOW CAN WE EXTEND AGENCIES OF PEOPLE TOO?
DON’T FOCUS ON THE PARTICULAR TOOLS OF CREATIVITY. THOSE WILL KEEP CHANGING.

2.
From mass media manufacturer of desire
To Culture Creator among people

Unlike past, when a cultural content would last for years, big campaigns made sense. In an age where even blockbuster billion-dollar films get consumed and relegated to past in a matter of a few months, do planned campaigns with long gestation period and diminishing lifetime, make sense?

Brands might as well play lottery with that money.

Now, content is consumed and created instantaneously, built over, remixed & spread memetically. By the time an agency or a client catches hold of the coat-tails of the trend, the meme has transformed into something else. The MEME is ephemeral and yet leaves its imprint on the culture by letting others build over it. This duality of ephemerality and timelessness of memes is quite beautiful and intriguing. Even digital agencies, with their siloed structures, have not even begun to appreciate how to deal with this new beautiful beast. Agencies are simply not BUILT to host, curate or influence these memetic trends.

CREATIVE TRANSFORMATION PRINCIPLE #2

BUILD FOR INSTANTENUOUS CULTURE OF CREATION & CURATION. 
BUILD FOR PARTICIPATING AND CREATING AT THE SPEED OF CULTURE.

3. FROM IVORY TOWER OF EXPERTS TO
FERTILE GROUND FOR DIVERSE INTELLIGENCE

Digital collaborations are increasingly frictionless, due to the zero marginal cost paradigm. This has enabled people from across the world to network and work together in new ways, that was not conceivable even a few years ago.

Take the case of FOLDIT for example. It’s an interesting experiment that gets gamers to solve complex long-standing scientific problems. Anybody can participate in these ‘games’ – some are high-school students, some without a science background. Yet, this collective of video gamers helped monumentally in a decade long effort in mapping the structure of an enzyme used by retroviruses similar to HIV. (This is references from Joi Ito & Jeff Howe’s book, Whiplash)

The experiment harnesses the superior abilities of gamers of recognising patterns, an innate form of spatial reasoning that most of us lack. The organisers of experiment filtered through hundreds of thousands of people who are experts at this very specific skillset. This they did, by using the data generated by the game, intelligently.

Big Data’s big advantage is in finding the precise capabilities, trends, insights that would have been simply not possible to find otherwise.

Among the many other implications that this has for advertising, I want to bring to your attention, one fundamental myth that ails this industry. The myth of expertise behind closed doors.

If gamers can help microbiologists in their very specialised tasks, why can’t salesmen & bus conductors help us solve brand problems? Why can’t agencies harness big data to find and match expertise in ways that allow it a greater play in culture? (And Publicis’ Marcel is not the way for it. I have a few ideas, will share it in a book I am writing now.)

The way we leverage expertise is counter-productive. The prevalent practice is to hire creative talent and make them work exclusively on select client projects. But history tells us that best ideas come at intersection of minds, in open fields of free association, when mind delves in diversity-rich societies. The closed doors of agencies only accelerate the decay of creative thought processes.  

For effective creative transformation, agencies need to engineer greater diversity in our work-streams.

Creative transformation principle #3

ADOPT TECHNOLOGIES & POLICIES THAT ENHANCE DIVERSITY OF EXPERTISE.

4.   FROM AUTHORITY TO EMERGENCE

Diversity leads to dialectic dialogue. The organisational systems and incentives need to be designed in a way that these dialogues build over each other and not end in internecine politics. For that to happen, the management needs to cede control strategically. The power must move away from the centre and towards edges, become fluid and transitional. An organisational chart of an agency should be closer to the participatory democracy of Switzerland rather than the iron fist of Soviet communist party.

Joi Ito & Jeff Howe, in their book Whiplash, make a persuasive argument for this shift. Traditional systems depend on decisions made at the top. Consequently, the processes are slow, encrusted in layers of bureaucracy and encumbered by a conservative proceduralism.

To respond rapidly, the organizational structure must allow for ‘emergence’. Emergence is the ability of a collective to do something that individuals couldn’t do on their own. Ants exhibit it when they navigate challenges to their colony or to source food, without a central decision-making body. They do so, by following a few simple principles encoded in their genes that guide their behaviour around certain stimuli. 

There’s a lesson here. Organisations that institute simple principles which empower autonomous behaviours among its workforce can respond to new threats and challenges much more effectively. This is already happening to an extent with online tools that reduce much of the friction that defined business in 20th century – in raising capital (with Kickstarter), in communicating (with Slack/WhatsApp), in manufacturing (with 3d printers, Shenzhen supply chain) and so on. With on-demand manufacturing in Shenzhen, on-demand access to cloud with AWS, on-demand access to capital on Kickstarter/ VC, on-demand access to talent through gig-economy, anyone can respond to an emergent threat/ opportunity now and start an organisation. 

It’s a brave new world out there. To navigate changes in these rapid waters, we must take a few brave decision and pivot towards being an emergent organization.

Creative Transformation principle #4

RESILIENT ORGANISATIONS ALLOW FOR EMERGENCE. 
CREATE ENVIRONMENTS & SYSTEMS IN WHICH PEOPLE CAN BE FREE TO CREATE, INQUIRE & RESPOND AUTONOMOUSLY. 

5.    FROM WATERTIGHT SILOS TO PERMEABLE SYSTEMS

The creative industry clings dearly to siloed structures. When traditional agencies were found wanting in their digital capabilities, they created a separate department for that. Now digital transformation is the talk of the town and voila! There’s a sister concern catering to that demand. It is almost a knee jerk reaction. Need to increase gender diversity – hire a gender diversity officer. The ideas have been lagging in execution? Create a position of chief delivery officer.

For every objective, the modern agencies simply hire a person whose headache it would be to run the agenda. Agencies these days are ballooning with senior level hires who seem to spend more time convincing clients that transformation/ diversity hire/ delivery indeed is improving, rather than systemically doing something to solve those problems.

The costly hired hands can’t do much anyways. In a global firm, how can a person or a department truly influence other departments? The problem is systemic, the solution too must be systemic. It can’t be anybody else’s headache. It has to be the CEO’s headache.

How does an agency CEO deal with this situation effectively? By enabling a more permeable culture – getting more people to work/ interact with people from other departments – agencies can improve diversity of thought and create more opportunities for emergence of creative opportunities and responses to threats. Intellectually, the most fertile grounds for innovations are the intersections of an organisation.

CEOs should work towards ensuring a permeable structure that rewards exchange of expertise, inter-departmental conversations and ability to self-govern.

Creative Transformation principle #5

USE TECH TO INCREASE THE OPPORTUNITIES FOR PEOPLE FROM VARIOUS DEPARTMENTS TO WORK/ TALK WITH EACH OTHER. INTELLECTUALLY, THE MOST FERTILE GROUND IS AT THE INTERSECTION OF DEPARTMENTS. 

Summation

At the heart of the issue of Creative transformation of our industry are people who create and inquire freely. The industry will thrive as long as these creative heroes have an enabling, free and autonomous environment. For them to rise to the challenge of changing times, their environment must evolve along the following principles.

  1. Focus on the way tech can improve the ‘systems’ of our industry: the way we work, collaborate, respond. Don’t focus on the particular tools of creativity. Those will keep changing.
  2. Build for instantaneous culture of creation & curation. Build for participating and creating at the speed of culture.
  3. Adopt technologies & policies to enhance diversity of expertise.
  4. Resilient organisations allow for emergence. Create environments & systems in which people can be free to create, inquire & respond autonomously. 
  5. Use tech to increase the opportunities for people from various departments to work/ talk with each other. Intellectually, the most fertile ground is at the intersection of departments.

It will do well to remember Ivan Illich’s famous words when we plan for creative transformation. People need tools that extend their freedoms, not limit them.

“People need new tools to work with rather than tools that “work” for them. They need technology to make the most of the energy and imagination each has, rather than more well−programmed energy slaves.”

Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality

Four Principles for Building Brands in the Climate Change Epoch.

How dare you.

You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.

Greta Thunberg

How dare we?

Even as ecosystems collapse, climate change exacerbates refugee crisis and our survival becomes more and more precarious, we continue to go on with our business as usual. We tell ourselves that it’s someone else’s job. We tell ourselves that market will correct itself. But will it really? Do brands & brand-creators really have no role to play in the fast approaching tragedy of climate change?

Brands alleviated the pain of the Sisyphean tragedy of modern capitalism. Brands taught the world how to want. Brands gave the notion of free will and choices when it comes to consumption. It made the powerless feel powerful – that their choices, their consumption mattered. The consumptive soma that advertising created, filled the world with euphoria, making people forget about the differences that divided them, for a while. The promise of abundance, growth, prosperity united the world in a beautiful hope.

Essentially, brands created the over-consumptive world that is now hurtling down towards climate catastrophe. If brands, collectively, had a role to play in getting us to where we are, we surely can find ourselves a role in the new world. We can be one of the guardians of humanity in the new epoch of reckoning with the abundance-without-consequence era. We must.

Gradually and then suddenly

We humans are reasonably capable of imagining future worlds, of estimating the possible shape of things to come. Climate change won’t come as a surprise to many. However, what we positively suck at, is estimating the speed with which we rush headlong into the future. No matter how well we might estimate the future, we always arrive there surprised.

 Most Brands too would find themselves unprepared to cater to a world that has suddenly shifted on its consumptive axis. Climate change awareness is increasing rapidly. Corporates and brands need to catch with the rest of the global population.

To ensure that brands don’t fall through the cracks when the chasm of climate-change-consciousness opens, we need to start charting a course for our brands for that future, right now. Like a stock exchange, where it is nearly impossible to gauge when a stock’s price will bottom out/ max out, it is just as impossible to predict when the cultural tipping point regarding climate change would pass.

Climate change will become an all-encompassing social reality sooner than later and there’s no time better than now to start working towards it.

Brands in Good faith

The problem with fighting an amorphous, all-encompassing situation is its overwhelming nature. There are no ready answers. There isn’t even a complete appreciation of the problem. At the first instant when humanity confronts reality of climate change, our faces are painted with shades of bafflement and our spirits shrink rapidly with the recognition of what we have collectively done.

Our instinct tells us to deny, to dust the awesome, under the carpet.

But the time has come for each one of us to be bigger than that: To muster the courage to see the situation as it is, to feel helpless along with others and to seek out help and help each other out.

Time has come for brands too, to examine the world it created, in good faith and be prepared to change RADICALLY: By seeking help, by collaborating with other organisations.

Climate change poses an existential risk. And as such, every organisation, every individual must be a soldier in the fight against our own extinction. It is not a fight that one can opt out of.

The primary ‘purpose’ of every organisation in 21st century must be to help humanity survive and thrive as climate change’s impacts become more and more apparent.

A comprehensive awareness of our brand’s impact on the world is critically needed, the assessment of which, must be done in good faith.

4 Principles of Building Brands in the Climate Change Epoch

Prof. Jem Bendell’s paper, ‘Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy’ has been deeply inspirational to me. I have used his Resilience, Relinquishment, Restoration framework to inform the four principles of brand building in climate change epoch.

We, the brand-builders and brand owners, must ask ourselves,

  1. Does our brand’s existence harm anyone in anyway? If yes, how can we change?
  2. How do we help people overcome emerging challenges?
  3. How much are we willing to give up in the interest of humanity’s survival? How do we plan to relinquish things that might make matters worse?
  4. What in our world can we help restore and strengthen against the coming dangers of climate change?

1. Does our existence harm anyone?

A brand might be fighting against patriarchal standards of beauty, but if its packaging ends up clogging world’s oceans, the net impact is negative, isn’t it?

The time where brands could externalise environmental costs is over. As climate change consciousness takes hold, a brand would be forced to reckon with every decision it takes, every act it perpetrates. ‘Eternal vigilance’ will be the price of humanity’s survival.

2.    How do we help people overcome emerging challenges?   

A consumer’s need is a market opportunity. With climate change, there will be newer opportunities for brands to cater to. However, unlike 20th century, where profit motive and shareholder returns were the Raison D’être of corporate (and hence brands) existence; 21st century brands cannot afford to be sociopathic. Profit must be balanced against ensuring equitable access. As economic inequality increases, brands that profiteer are bound to tip the world towards violence and anarchy.

3.     How much are we willing to give up in the interest of humanity’s survival? How do we plan to relinquish things that might make matters worse?

Going forward, relinquishment would be an integral part of our way of life. We can’t have it all. Science tells us that there are limits to resource exploitation and their rate of renewal.

This impacts the fundamental aspect of capitalist economies: competition. Competition can’t externalise its cost anymore. Competition can’t run unchecked.

Industries and brands would need to compete in a new scenario where the most aggressive player gets kicked out. Sportsmanship, if not exhibited, will be enforced soon enough with regulations.

In this scenario, brands must be willing to relinquish things that might give them an advantage but are detrimental to people. Can brands relinquish profit margins that affect access to critical medicines for climate affected refugees? Can a fast food brand relinquish its star of the menu – beef burgers – to reduce methane emissions? Can an electric motor company relinquish its IP and help accelerate adoption of green tech?
Some brands are already doing the right thing. Consider Tesla and its open sourcing of IP for its electric car designs and Neuralink.

4.    What in our world can we help restore and strengthen against the coming dangers of climate change?

Would you want your children to grow up in a world where lakes don’t exist, where urban birds are extinct, where traditional dances and festivals have been confined to documentaries?

Over the last few centuries, we have been losing much of humanity’s treasure trove of indigenous knowledge systems and cultural practices. Embedded in these knowledge systems are secrets to ways of living in harmony with the world, ways of appreciating beauty, methods to survive with natural world.

 Brands can find purpose in helping restore some of these. Restore a lake, restore a cultural practice, restore a community’s way of life.

***

The world is too beautiful and wondrous to give up on. It’s time for brands to engage in good faith with the world. It’s time for brands to help humanity thrive as climate change accelerates.

I would be happy to work with brands in this journey.

The Mad World of Monopolies Over Brains

Microsoft bought semantic machines.

Google, FB etc keep buying smart companies all the time.

A handful of global companies keep buying smart companies before they can get a product out to the market.They are essentially creating monopolistic moats over not just cutting edge intellectual property, but also the intellectuals – the men and women capable of creating/ leveraging new technologies.

So many startups now start with the end in mind, the vaulted ‘exit’. What happens when all the technological advancements get concentrated in fewer and fewer hands? The only anti-dote to Marx’s dystopia of ever accumulating capital was the intellectual capital that allowed anyone to give it a go with limited risk and succeed. Is that anti-dote of intellectual capabilities relevant any more?

Any body can learn to code, etc. But can everyone access the infrastructure and the necessary accelerating feedback loops to improve as fast as these few companies can? That pace of accelerating innovations is the new Capital for 21st century.

If we don’t want an increasingly unequal world, we will need to view this capacity to rapidly innovate as a capital that needs to be seen similarly to other capital assets – land, machinery, channels of access to consumers.

Which means, it is time for regulations. We can’t let ever fewer investors and companies to corner the ability to rapidly innovate.

This is essential. Unlike 15 years ago, when a zukerberg could code out of his dorm and build an empire. Now another zukerberg could code just as well, but if his idea & code is any good, it will either get copied by these juggernauts or get bought early on. Look at how FB is copying snapchat to its death. It is not a level playing field anymore. A successful digital company now will require a war chest of billions. There are investors ready to fund these war chests. But the problem is, that these investors are same few folks from California (and one notable Japanese guy).

There is no Nigerian, no Indian, no Brazilian, no Greek, no Swedish….(and a 190 countries later) person among those few people who control the new engine of human innovations.

A side effect of this narrow competition is the poverty of ideas that the best minds are working on – google glasses, automated vehicles, AI assistants … are these the biggest challenges for the humanity? As Climate change, growing inequality and rising xenophobia tear the world apart, should the people who can create the infrastructure of the new world be spending their times on elitist pursuits?

It is not difficult to copy them and become the new age capitalist. However they have created a high-entry barrier by turning it into a mad game of bluff. Their tactic is to value companies at ridiculous valuations. The valuation is divorced from reality and based solely on the potential of possible monopolistic leverage. Naturally, most sensible people, stay away from this capricious game.

These people are feverishly gambling with the intellectual capacity of humanity. It is a mad mad world. They need to be stopped if we want a better world.

Platform as commons

Power and public good

Most governments, as agents of power, bother about creating and maintaining public good only so far as it helps the cause of those in power. Governments are shaped by the need of those in power to remain in power. Govt can afford to bother about public good only when the electorate is wide enough – when there are many essential and influentials. (Refer ‘The dictator’s handbook‘ for the concept, or this video for a quicker appreciation of it.)

With the rise of digital platforms we have seen rise of super rich, super powerful corporations and individuals. Their rise has contributed to the the deepening of inequality. They have  boldly ‘disrupted’ lives of many for concentrated profit for a few people. Economically, platforms are disenfranchising people while creating a few super powerful elites.

What does it mean for democratic power?

Rising inequality means fewer ‘essentials’ needed for rulers to remain in power. (In a dictatorship typically, there is a ruler, a few essentials and many ‘interchangeables’: Whereas in a democracy, there is no absolute ruler, ideally there are many influencers, many essentials and few interchangeables.) Rising inequality directly affects the power and leverage that people hold. It leads to dictatorial power relationships. In a sense, in the domains of knowledge, markets and online relationships, Google, Amazon & Facebook are quite dictatorial, even if their beliefs are egalitarian. They can dictate the terms of accesses to their services. Indeed, have you ever thought of disagreeing to their ‘terms of conditions’? Is there a space to negotiate? and what happens when you start depending on these services completely, but cannot engage with these services meaningfully to negotiate with them?

When power relations are conducive for dictatorships, why would governments or corporates bother about the public good? What incentive do they have?

Platform monopolies are a threat to democracies. The possible knee jerk reaction to their hegemony, would be as well.

Facebook, Google, Amazon… are behemoths shaping our world. They are doing so not for public good, but rather private gains. Consider Amazon’s stock market performance for example. Why would people be investing in a loss making company? They are doing so for the long punt. People are investing in a monopoly of tomorrow in the form of Amazon. They are investing in Bezos’ vision of a complete monopoly. They want a piece of that monopoly’s obscenely fat profit. That is why investors allow him to put all the money at its disposal to expand its reach and locking consumers in its value chain. Consider the impending value explosion when Amazon can start leveraging the IOT (Internet of things) at its disposal – usage, user preferences, supply chain intelligence, user financial wherewithal, spy called alexa, vendor data… It is about to become the single biggest market that consumers across the world would have to deal with. It will not make economical sense for consumers to pursue an alternative. Amazon plans to be the default platform of economic exchange. Do you really want the complete global market to be owned by a few individuals?

Amazon hopes to become the ONLY global market platform for a majority of earthlings.

Similarly – Google is almost the ONLY global definitive knowledge and information platform.

Facebook hopes to be the ONLY global online relationship building platform.

Thank god, Uber faltered and hopefully can’t be the ONLY mobility platform.

Uber faltered because it very visibly threatens existing economic exchanges and consequently current livelihoods. It is visibly pitting one labour force against another. Amazon does too, though it is surprising that it hasn’t faced public wrath yet. Wars have happened for lesser losses of power & economic leverage. Consider the Knights Templar in 13th Century, the early European Banking Platform. They were burned at the stake by France’s king then, to take back the financial leverage that he had ceded to them. It is not 13th Century anymore, but it isn’t an utopia either. There are massive number of people who are getting left behind with the platform revolution and they are bound to react, in modern ways perhaps, hopefully peacefully, but there will be a reaction.

The most plausible reaction could be regulations. There is a trade-off there. The libertarian ideals of most of these platform owners meant that the digital realm was a egalitarian & non-judgemental space for conversations, exchanges. That libertarian ideal is under threat from regulations. China has successfully managed to create an internet for its citizen that is heavily censored and spied through. Unfortunately, other governments would be just as keen to use the economic loss to legacy businesses due to platforms as an excuse to change the nature of platform instead – from trustworthy exchanges to tools of surveillance.

Understanding the power of platforms

I define platforms as enabling environments/ infrastructures, that –

  1. Gives egalitarian access to other people/ services through
  2. Unique and valuable exchanges that would not be possible outside of that platform
  3. And allow people to improve upon, enrich the platform – either with APIs or engagement

Historically, such platforms were either pre-existing, or created and maintained by governments or community collectives. No private enterprise had the incentive or wherewithal to create platforms. Consider a road that gives access to people to move through that would not have been possible without it – a road is a platform then. It was cost intensive to build, so governments built it. It was a public good. It was part of the ‘commons’.

Consider a river. Communities access water for their use through it. Communities built dams, turbines, irrigation channels for the benefit of the collective. As such, a river is a platform for access to water that is also a part of ‘commons’. No one, in right conscience, would think of owning it.

Consider the 6 inch of top soil that the earth is blessed with. Without it humanity would not have existed. It is the platform of food supply. It enables farming, forests and the food cycle. No one can own it, unless they want to destroy humanity.

Consider the renewable energy decentralised grid that is powering much of Denmark. In this grid, people with solar panels installed on their roofs, sell their surplus electricity to the grid and can tap into that grid electricity when they are in want. Now this is a platform with an exchange of electric power too. Many private companies facilitated its creation, installation and maintenance.  However, they don’t stake a claim on the electricity thus generated. They understand themselves as enablers, not usurpers or rent-seekers.

Soil, water, electricity, roads… these are fundamentally empowering platforms, the access to which is a fundamental human right.

In the 21st century, similar access to knowledge, financial exchange, access to markets, relationships-at-distance… are all fundamental human rights.

Can you imagine a life today without being plugged into these various platforms? Such a life is possible, but it would be very disadvantageous for the minority activist. Without access to google & FB powered intelligence and communication, without amazon’s substantially cheaper goods, without uber’s efficient mobility, without convenience of credit cards/e-money, the minority activist is at a severe disadvantage.

So if these accesses are that crucial, can we trust them with far removed private interests? Typically, a white male from California is embedding his biases in these platform’s algorithms. A few of these men own the vast platforms that men and women from the farthest corners of the globe depend on. Even if they were to be epitome of moral righteousness (which they clearly aren’t), they are still just individuals amenable to influence of their investors, their immediate social circle, the government where they operate from. Consider Facebook’s misuse to influence election in US for example.

There is a fundamental conflict of interest. Lack of subjectivity allows for evils such as hate speech to gain access. But imposing a certain subjectivity curtails freedom of speech for another set of people, perhaps as an unintended consequence. There is no easy way out of this catch-22 situation. Consider the example of facebook banning breastfeeding pictures. It had to #freethenipple eventually. But the same issue will get vastly different responses in more conservative countries. How does a global platform manage such differences? Facebook is trying its luck with denial – “we are not a media company“.
But soon enough, it will have to take sides. Like when Scott Galloway implies for it to be American first!

In his otherwise excellent talk here exhorting these big platforms to be broken up, he brings in nationalism and suggests a smaller solution – to break them up. If global platforms earn revenues through global operations, why should they put any one nation first? Why should they prioritise paying tax in one country? They must give back in every country where it gains from. To be a global entity is to be globally accountable, globally responsible, globally adaptable.
Secondly, the solution of breaking the companies up – is inadequate. If the ownership does not change, what difference does it make if Zuckerberg presides over one large corporate or a dozen smaller ones to the same effect?

Besides, the integration of amazon, aws, alexa etc makes sense. It makes markets more efficient. The aggregate efficiency due to integration increases, which is good news for Humans who are going to soon suffer with human-excess-led climate change.

Scott Galloway has a soft corner for capitalism and its potential. He doesn’t want to see the obvious socialist ramifications of his argument.

Platforms as commons ruled by the principle of self-rule

The integrated platforms are powerfully useful for all. They should not be broken up.  The ownership has to be broken up. More accurately, they should not be privately owned at all. Private ownership creates disparity of wealth, invites biases and prioritizes innovations that serve the needs of elite, instead of the majority. And unlike other businesses, platforms are critically important for civic life. Would you want water, road or soil to be privatised? For the 21st century that list will include mobility, relationship, intelligence and market platforms too.

Ideally Bezos, Zuck and Sergey should create a plan to divest their companies’ ownership to the commons. They should steward their companies into becoming true platforms relinquishing their direct control. If Buffett and Bill Gates can give away their wealth, why can’t these platform makers instead give away control? Keep the wealth created thus far. Let the future wealth go into commons to make the platforms more resilient, useful and responsive to the diversity of the global exchanges.

Imagine all these platforms employing open source principles, becoming openly accessible, and evolving with the people they serve.

Imagine, all cab drivers, logistic companies, courier companies having access to the Uber algorithm, modified to serve their needs; modified to give every driver and rider a say in formulating the policies that govern them  and others like them in their locality. Imagine, all businessmen and individuals with access to amazon-based markets, governed by direct digital referendum based consensus making.

Amazon and Uber cut out the middle men. In turn they themselves became giant middlemen. It is time we do away with them too.

A solution like this would not have been possible 5 years ago. But with blockchain technology, there is a potential for mass democratic participation in platform management.

Blockchain based democratic platform management

Blockchain is an elegant solution to an important societal problem Earth is facing. It’s most promising feature is its ability to enable strangers to cooperate and trust each other. It enables ‘decentralised consensus’. This is a powerful ability that, I believe, has the biggest possible impact in democratic processes in every aspect of civic enterprise.

This technology would enable governing of platform by direct participation and consensus among users and vendors possible.

Watch this interesting documentary by Mr. Jeremy Rifkin. He talks about the three essential enterprises that shape us – energy, communications and mobility. And with digital technology and principles of open source, humanity can finally increase the aggregate efficiencies, productivity of human enterprise and bring down marginal costs of these enterprises down to almost zero. Why does this matter? Because, without this idea, we are at an economic and ecological dead-end.

Again like Mr. Scott Galloway, Mr. Rifkin too is afraid to unsettle the capitalists and shies away from taking his argument to logical conclusion. (look how he cleverly deflects the TTIP question. I won’t hold it against him though. He has a great idea and he needs to sell that idea to humanity. Tact is more powerful than hardheadedness when you want to bring about real change.)

Now consider this – every conceivable platform – energy platform, utilities platform, knowledge platform, mobility platform, market platform… Consider all platform are components of collectively owned infrastructure for humanity. Like with renewable energy platform in Europe, there might be an initial cost that consumers and vendors would have to pay in the form of taxes to help build them or buy them off. But then the marginal cost of running them in the future is minimal.

Imagine that world – People being able to access platform services in their context whenever they want, on their terms and without the fear of losing control of one’s own agency, one’s own destiny.

I believe that that would be a better world – a world which won’t depend on a single currency (read the first section on the link to understand why single currency ‘money’ is not that good an idea). The integrated platforms would enable seamless exchanges of products and services, the utility of the individual to the collective becoming the currency du jour.

The world would not need the ‘universal basic income’ that is being touted now as the solution to the impending mass class of ‘useless people’ and the Goliathan inequality that AI revolution will engender. If we charter an integrated platform access to all humanity as a human right, we will, in a sense, enable basic welfare of all individuals. Rifkin’s view of bringing the marginal cost down to zero is critical here… which means that there is gradual upfront cost of creating that infrastructure, that integrated platform of platforms. But once that is done, the costs would be manageable.

To make it a reality, it will require a ‘disruptive’ shift in corporate ownership, structures of governance and redrawing of notional national boundaries. All tall orders. It is a humongous project that would pan the globe and require cooperation among all governments. Not an easy task at all. But I am convinced of it being an essential disruption. Let me know if you have a better idea.

The knowledge grid

*this post is not related to advertising.

Foucault (can’t understand him) says something interesting in this video. He talks about history of science (consequently progress of humanity’s thoughts) as discontinuous grids stacked on top of each other. which I didn’t understand until Chomsky clarified it – essentially how 19th and 20th century ‘sciences’ discredited psychology, philosophy, linguistics. and how these sciences are trying to emerge in the new century.

It reminded me of the topic of indigenous knowledge systems – tribal understanding of the flora and fauna, of astronomy and body, of history and time… or for that matter, the resurgence of ayurveda.

In today’s world of make-your-own-facts bubbles and social media, it feels as if these grids are colliding and all that would be left of it is a rubble of human scientific endeavour – a full stop to human progress.

To arrest that, myth-busting is not enough. We need to create knowledge ‘grids’ that people can subscribe to and support, to participate in and contribute.

So here’s the idea – maybe, someone’s already done it. all the better. here it is –

A global map across time and space – of sciences, of ways of thinking, of meaning making.

We need it to ensure the best perspective, thoughts do not evaporate with changing moods of the world. That they survive and grow stronger. That we acknowledge a plurality of sciences and perspectives.

 

Essential Mutations for the 21st Century Brands

1. Rise of the walls

21st century weather report

The world is reeling under the hate wave of right wing xenophobia, binaries of ‘Us vs. Them‘. The hate wave is projected to continue and expand as people turn their back on ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity, which had yielded unequal fruits for the globalised citizens of the 20th Century. While the globalisation opened up the barriers for free-flow of money across the world, the flow of people has been artificially impeded creating great pressures at the arbitrary borders. The potential energy arising from the stalled flow is bound to turn into kinetic energy, overpowering the borders – eventually. That possibility of bursting of dam obviously scares people on either side.
Uncertain times, uncertain times.

In times of uncertainty, people seek certainty –the privileged seek Certainty of ‘walls’ to save their way of life. The underprivileged ‘others’ seek certainty of the better life on the other side of the wall. Hence, we have Trump’s wall, refugee crisis across the globe and right-wingers gaining political power.

Netherlands, India, Australia, Nigeria, Philippines… xenophobic demagogues are gaining political power everywhere. Are we collectively getting more selfish? Or is there something else beneath our collective psyches that needs recognition?

The new Modernism: From globalist to Nativist

For the purpose of this essay, understand ‘Modernism’ as essentially blinkered optimism and ‘Post modernism’ as the recognition of futility of Modernism’s idealism. So most –isms (Capitalism, Socialisms, Casteism, Communism or even Taliban’s vision of Islam or even art movements such as Dadaism, Constructivism) that imagine a simplistic utopia, that propagate a simplistic worldview are essentially modernist imaginations. Modernism is about believing that utopia is within reach and that ‘only if these things change, the world will be perfect and harmonious’. Those who want walls are also modernists in that sense – they believe that closing their worlds to others would solve their problems.

Post-modernism is about recognizing the tragedy of modernism – that the world is simply way too complicated for any utopias to come to fruition. Dissolution of Soviet Union, Quantum Physics, LGBTQ pride parades, Crypto-currencies, Tech Billionaires eschewing suits, memes… Events like these puncture worldviews of modernists. ‘Sacrilege’/ ‘Blasphemy’/ ‘Traitor’ they yell. The edifice of certainty comes crumbling down. Nothing hurts as much as disavowal of a dearly held worldview – the source of one’s identity, the coordinate of one’s perceived reality.

When the pace of change becomes unbearable and humanity needs a carpet to dust away its confusions and dissonance under, modernist rail against the symbols of authority, symbols of status-quo in an attempt to ‘reset’. They hope to start over to ‘do it right this time’. Hence, Americans want to make America great ‘again’ and Chinese & Indians want to ‘regain’ old glory.

What does this have to do with brands?

The cultural role of brands is now fundamentally changed. It is an important shift that marketers must understand. In the last century, global brands were at the forefront of propagating western values of individualism, freedom to enjoy & dreams of building personal wealth, accessing evermore-exclusive lifestyles. The globalist philosophy of brands marginalised national, cultural, tribal identities & associations. There was one ideal lifestyle, one ‘-ism’ shaping the global culture most stridently– that of individualistic consumption over everything else. Slavoj Zizek qualifies this cultural force engineered by brands as the ‘obligation to enjoy’.

However, people are reacting to that imposition now. Some by questioning their consumptive choices, some by questioning the globalist legacy of brands and some by outsourcing their consumptive choices to search engines/ suggestion engines/ Alexa.

Let me illustrate this with two recent historical events.

From the Berlin wall to Trump’s wall

November 1989 – The Berlin wall was brought down by the will of people.

November 2016 – Americans elected a real estate developer as their president for his promise to build a ‘beautiful wall’ at the southern border of USA.

What had changed between November 1989 and November 2016?

In the 80s, East Berliners craved for the choices that the West Berliners had – to own stuff, to travel, to listen to music, to use deodorants, to smoke cigarettes. A thirst for freedom to choose one’s own destiny brought down the Berlin wall in November 1989. Eventually, the freedom to choose destinies was conflated with the freedom to choose brands. Bbrands used that confusion to their advantage.

27 years since, the realisation is setting in – choosing brands of your choice is not the same as choosing your destiny. A recession and a few maxed out credit cards later, a typical consumer is beginning to realise that the very act of consumption is ensnaring him/her in a vicious cycle of debt, instead of setting him/ her free.

It was implied with overwhelming branding, that the consumer would succeed, would be happier due to his brand choices. Instead, it only helped him project his success and happiness at the cost of actually gaining success & happiness. Without actual success, the credit card loans caught up with him. Without actual happiness accruing from individualist brands, he was left in want of social relationships, a cultural identity. He was left feeling powerless – he had to suffer in the recession and then the bad economy, even as he was doing what was expected of him. That resentment was amplified by accelerating inequality.

Since we cannot accept our own powerlessness, we direct our blame at ‘others’ – South Americans, Africans, Muslims… It is psychologically easier to find a scapegoat, rather than confront our own powerlessness against the real tyrants. Hence, people elected a real estate developer promising to build a ‘beautiful wall’ at the southern border of USA.

Implications for brands

  1. The role of brands in our culture is changed. Brands are not beacons of progressive ideals of individualistic freedom and fraternity anymore.

In a walled-in world wanting out, brands were symbols of freedom, of free globalist identities.
In a wall-less world wanting in, brands are addictive identity crutches that must be pared down, in favour of collectivist identities.  

This is the reason for meteoric rise of brands like Patanjali in India (which is positioned on Indian heritage and traditional know-how) or rise of agitations against global brands (such as these ones in China).

  1. There is no single ideal that can be universally understood as ‘progressive’. Is wearing a burkha patriarchal or is it a will-full choice? Are revolutions always desirable or not? Is science always progressive or should we be worried about its advances? (For instance with GM foods). Does individual’s rights matter more than nation state’s priorities? The right answer is – it depends! There are no absolutes. Contexts matter. Hence, brands need to be cautious about their stances.
  2. Local relevance: In the pre-liberalised world, accessing an ‘imported’ Dove moisturiser in South Asian countries was in itself an adventure, an occasion to celebrate and talk about. Never mind the product was not made for the skin type or the weather. One was happy to be able to access an international quality brand. That is not true anymore.
    The profusion of brand choices means that people are used to accessing brands that are more sharply relevant to them. There is no incentive now to go for a global brand that does not answer the local, contextual need.
  3. Cultural currency: The internet was supposed to open the world. Instead, it has created ‘filter bubbles’ – echo chambers for people who exchange local cultural memes at warp speeds. In such a world, language, ideas, cultural heroes, stories mutate and gain layers of meaning on an hourly basis. To be relevant to different cultures, different ‘bubbles’, one must be immersed in it. You cannot skim it; you must devote a part of you to it. That necessitates a fundamentally decentralised and spontaneous way of working.
  4. Rise of the need for ‘Authenticity’:
    A wall-less world is a free-fall world where there is no concrete identity, no concrete reality. For example, ‘If you are defined by your profession alone, how are you different from the hundreds doing the same job across the globe?’If you are a global citizen, where do you exactly vote?’
    Hence, in an uncertain world, we need the buoys of brands to shore up our identities. For example – ‘I might be a replaceable software engineer, but I am an irreplaceable Indian who likes classical music’. It is easier to build a seemingly authentic identity by wearing a FabIndia kurta (a traditional shirt from South Asia) and to ‘like’ a local artist on Facebook.

A walled world is concrete world, not just of concrete walls but also of supposedly ‘real’ culture – with predefined customs, biases, beliefs, rituals and heroes. It is a more comforting world with lesser cognitive tax of building identities by simply subscribing to an existing one, instead of building identities independently.

2. Rise of platforms

Brands in a world of mediated choices

1989: From freedom to choose

To

2017: Unlimited scroll of choices accessed through few platforms

Prof. Byron’s influential book ‘How Brands Grow’ suggests that advertising should build and reinforce associated memory structures. But the nature of these very memory structures is changing now. A Columbia University study found that Google and other search engines are literally changing the way our brains process and retain information.
We forget things that we are confident we can find on internet.
Brands are on internet.
Ergo… Google, Amazon, TripAdvisor become the primary portals of brand discovery. Now you do not need to remember brands, the search engine and the suggestion engines would do that for you.

This dependence on internet to remember things is an illustration of a concept called transactive memories, where one depends on others to recall a memory. This is in contrast to independent memories, which rely on one person providing complete recall. The interdependence to remember, to consider, to prioritise has accelerated with platforms. We are dependent on others’ reviews, others’ opinions and platforms’ ability to serve these to us. For instance, you will not straight away go to Dove’s website to buy its moisturiser. Most probably, you would search for the best moisturiser for your skin type for your local weather on Google or Amazon.com. Based on consumer reviews and suggesting engine, you would choose a brand to buy.

This has profound implications for brands as more and more people shift their memories & decision making online.

The strategic perspective towards building brands must change accordingly. The goal of branding then is not necessarily to build ‘memory structures’ of individuals, but rather to make it easy for the brand to be recalled by the transactive memory of the hive-mind of platform-users combine.

There is an important nuance to understand here. Brands can still build ‘memory structures’, but that is not ‘essential’ anymore to grow. What is essential is to be ‘available’ for the hive mind to find you and like you. The profound shift is that of addressing the ‘memory structure’ of a collective instead of the ‘memory structure’ of an individual. This perspective, if understood well, can give tremendous competitive edge to marketers.  For instance, imagine the savings on ‘not doing commercials for Superbowl and instead putting that money in improving product access, product experience, encouraging consumer to review it or instigating a cultural conversation in the platform-users hive.

Platform brands & brands sold on Platforms

There are essentially two kinds of brands – platform brands and brands that are sold through these platforms. In the new economic ordering, there can exist a limited number of platforms, but almost an unlimited number of ‘long tail’ brands (precarious, unless governments regulate online platforms). Understand what you want to be and adapt accordingly.

Becoming the next platform is very different from winning in the long tail.

To succeed as a platform,

  1. One must understand that it is a race for monopoly. It might be a specialised platform, but for that particular purpose/ consumer set/ needs targeted, there can exist only one platform in the long term.
  2. The growth strategy is about building a network of users and leveraging the network effect’. Network effect is the phenomenon of some services to become more valuable as the number of its users increases. For platform, this is universally true. With each new user, the platform gets better data, improves its service and enhances its relevance. Therefore, to succeed, it is imperative to recruit the biggest segment of users and to incentivise them to stay in that platform.
  3. Platform brands succeed when they create egalitarian access to valuable exchanges that were not possible earlier. Hence, the focus of the brand has to be on making such exchanges possible and communicating the value of it.

To win in the long tail,

  1. People key in their queries, as against asking an attendant to help or seeking a brand directly. This is true even in some retail shops these days as the attendant key in keywords on consumer’s behalf). This behaviour shapes the nature of brands that would come on top. It is in the nature of keywords to be linear and additive – People get more and more specific until their needs are met. To acquire a consumer before he has to get specific, brands need to build ‘memory structures for the hive of platform-users’ for the specific need it uniquely fulfils.
  2. This incentivises brands to be specialists – the sour tasting chips, the scented toilet papers etc. Be a specialist.
  3. There is a limit to growth for ‘a’ brand. The flip side of this level of segmenting and specialisation is the limit to the size of addressable segments. The brands would necessarily be not large or global.
  4. The key branding considerations for a brand are how to become easier for the consumer to find it, use it, and recommend it?

The essential mutation

There is no escaping change. In a world of resurgent nativist identities, global brands need native mutations. Brands must audit their local relevance and the authenticity of their engagement with culture. Secondly, technology is changing the nature of exchanges between consumers and brands. To succeed in this new reality, they have to appreciate and leverage the fundamentally different market dynamics of platforms.