February 12, 2013

Solving the world’s problems differently

Some of the world’s leading thinkers on globalization are pointing to a fundamental change emerging regarding how global problems can be solved, and perhaps how we govern ourselves globally.

New non-state networks of civil society, private sector, government and individual stakeholders are achieving new forms of cooperation, social change and even the production of global public value. They address every conceivable issue facing humanity from poverty, human rights, health and the environment, to economic policy, war and even the governance of the Internet itself.

Enabled by the digital revolution, these networks are now proliferating across the planet and increasingly are having an important impact in solving global problems and enabling global cooperation and governance. Call them Global Solution Networks.

Until recently little has been done to evaluate what makes these networks tick, how they succeed or fail, what impact they have and how they address the tough issues of legitimacy, accountability, representation and transparency.

The Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto, in partnership with a number of governments, foundations and corporations, including Google, Hewlett Packard and MasterCard, has launched a multi-million dollar study investigating “how these new models can be more effective and fulfil their enormous potential in helping to fix a broken world.”

The team of thinkers from 30 countries has already developed a new framework to discuss the new models. There are nine types of Global Solutions Networks, each very different from the others and each of them already having a material impact on improving the state of the world.

1. Advocacy networks
A self-described lightning rod to channel broad public concern into a targeted campaign, Avaaz.org orchestrates the voice of 16 million members in more than 190 countries. It seizes on the “tipping-point” moments of crisis and opportunity around the world, when a massive, public outcry can decide an issue. Because Avaaz works in so many countries on so many issues, tipping-point opportunities crop up several times a week. Avaaz decides which causes to support with weekly polling of 10,000 randomly selected members.

Avaaz is a prime example of the thousands of advocacy networks that seek to change the agenda or policies of governments, corporations or other institutions. Global advocacy is a relatively new phenomenon, paralleling the rise of globalization. In 1969 there was a global movement advocating withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam, culminating in a global day of protest on October 15, 1969. That day of demonstrations was 18 months in the planning and was coordinated primarily through postal mail and telephone calls.

2. Operational and delivery networks
Some networks actually deliver the change they seek, supplementing or even bypassing the efforts of traditional institutions. Crisis Commons brings together a global community of volunteers from technology, crisis response organizations, government agencies and citizens. These people work together to build and use technology tools to help respond to disasters and improve readiness before a crisis hits.

Since 2009, Crisis Commons has coordinated crisis event responses such as during the Haiti, Chile and Japan earthquakes and the floods in Thailand, Nashville and Pakistan. Some observers argued that networks like Crisis Commons played a more important role in the Hurricane Sandy relief effort than traditional institutions like the Red Cross.

The Global Health Program, a subset of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, seeks to catalyze advances in science and technology to focus on and eradicate major-impact health problems in developing countries.

3. Knowledge networks
Prior to the Internet, there were various associations of researchers or research institutes that attempted to create new knowledge that could help improve the state of the world. Their efforts were hampered by the speed of the postal service or people flying on airplanes to events. Today there is an explosion of knowledge networks developing all kinds of new thinking, research, ideas and policies. Their emphasis is on the creation of new ideas, not their advocacy.

TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) is a global network owned by the private non-profit Sapling Foundation, formed to generate and disseminate “ideas worth spreading.” Their videos alone have been viewed by hundreds of millions. The Global Network for Women and Children’s Health Research (GN) seeks to develop knowledge about mortality rates facing women and children in the developing world.

4. Policy networks
The International Competition Network is an informal, virtual network of agencies designed to promote discussion and consensus around competition policy principles spanning the global antitrust community. It is the only international network solely dedicated to competition law enforcement.

Such policy networks are non-state webs that include non-governmental players in the creation of government policy. They may or may not be created, encouraged or even opposed by formal governments or government institutions. Their activities cover the range of steps in the policy process, beyond policy proposals or lobbying, including agenda setting, policy formulation, rulemaking, coordination, implementation and evaluation.

5. Watchdog networks
Watchdogs scrutinize institutions to ensure they behave appropriately. Topics range from human rights to corruption, the environment and financial services. One of the more effective and influential networks is Human Rights Watch. Its members are individuals, government and media. With more than 250 staff, the group investigates human rights conditions in over 70 countries. It relies on individual donations for its funding and with the rise of the Net relies fully on technology as a platform for its work.

6. Platforms
Some networks seek to provide platforms for other networks to organize. One example is Ushahidi, a platform that was initially developed to map reports of violence in Kenya after the post-election fallout at the beginning of 2008. Kenyans could use texting, email or the web to report incidents of violence.

Today Ushahidi offers a mapping and content management system for anyone seeking change. Its goal is to help early warning systems and also data visualization for response and recovery. The system focuses on mobile phones, since many areas of the world do not have reliable Internet access.

To date, the versatile platform has been used in Africa to report medicine shortages, in Gaza to track incidents of violence and in India and Mexico to monitor elections. The Washington Post even partnered with Ushahidi in 2010 to map road blockages and the location of available snow blowers during the infamous Snowmageddon, DC’s largest snowfall in nearly a century.

7. Global standards networks
There are non-state networks developing standards and specifications in virtually every area of technical specification. Whether for brick size, rail gauges, electricity, telephones or computers, standards have been critical to economic development and prosperity.

When it comes to international standards, state-based institutions such as the International Standards Organization have led the way. However given the growing domains requiring standards, the complexity of standards, the need for truly global standards and the requirements for vast numbers of stakeholders to be involved, the new networked models of standards setting increasingly make sense.

8. Governance networks
Amazingly, there are now networks that have achieved or been granted the right and responsibility of governing something globally, even though they do not involve governments. The most striking example is Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the non-profit organization that coordinates the Internet’s system of unique identifiers, ensuring consistent access for people around the world.

ICANN’s vision is “One World. One Internet.” It uses a “bottom-up, consensus-driven, multi-stakeholder model” whereby members of sub-groups can raise issues at the grassroots level and almost anyone is welcome to volunteer for most of the working groups. This gives ordinary citizens around the world the chance to offer their points of view and influence the future directions of the Internet.

9. Networked institutions
Some networks provide such a wide range of capabilities they could be described as networked institutions. They are not state-based, but rather true multi-stakeholder networks. The value they generate can range from knowledge generation, advocacy and policy development, to the actual delivery of solutions to global problems.

A good example is the World Economic Forum. What started more than four decades ago as a meeting for European executives in the Swiss ski village of Davos has evolved into a platform to discuss and solve pressing global problems. The Internet plays large in the transformation of the Forum from a series of meetings to a 365-day-a-year collaboration involving thousands of leaders from business, government, civil society and academia.

As it evolved from a think-tank into what might be described as a “do-tank” the Forum has developed a number of communities that are researching and taking action on many global problems.

In 2013 the partnership on New Models of Global Problem Solving will complete 20 projects investigating what makes Global Solution Networks tick and how to make them tick better in governing a shrinking planet. Stay tuned.

Don Tapscott is the author of 14 books and the executive director of the partnership on New Models of Global Problem Solving Cooperation and Governance. Follow him on twitter @dtapscott.


Under the direction of Don Tapscott, the Martin Prosperity Institute at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto has launched an investigation of new models of global problem solving, cooperation and governance. The program welcomes participation and support from Canadian government departments and individuals. Contact program managing director Joan Bigham Joan@Tapscott.com.

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