NEIL GIBB believes that one simple idea which underlies virtually all today’s new mega-businesses is transforming the world, making all kinds of apparently unrelated things fall apart. He calls it the Participation Revolution, and he says it constitutes a seismic shift on a par with the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution
HAILED as the father of modern science, Galileo Galilei had the historic insight that the Sun, not Earth, was at the centre of the universe. His thinking was crucial to the great social and economic transformation that we now call the Renaissance and, like all great insights, it now seems completely obvious.
Nevertheless, it challenged the fundamental beliefs of the time and a lot of people didn’t want to hear it. Galileo spent the latter part of his life under house arrest, having been lucky to escape execution.
That resistance is worth bearing in mind as we seek to navigate our way through a period of societal transformation very similar in scale and magnitude to the Renaissance. In my new book The Participation Revolution, I show that we are witnessing the birth of a new world order which is blowing apart the beliefs, certainties, social systems and economic models that most of us thought were in place forever.
‘We are witnessing the birth of a new world order which is blowing apart the beliefs, certainties, social systems and economic models that most of us thought were in place forever’
We’ve all observed the disruption. Political systems are breaking down, economic models are malfunctioning, opinion polls are no longer working, markets have become irrational and once-solid industries are being shaken apart. At the same time, social media is reshaping the way we communicate, the unprecedented mass migration of people is putting cultures under huge pressure and national identities are being challenged.
This transformation is impacting our collective mood. Across the globe, cultural wars have broken out – between progressives and conservatives, multiculturalists and nationalists, atheists and those with faith, vegans and meat-eaters. It doesn’t matter what the issue is and which side you are on, someone is shouting at someone. Fear, anger, and conflict have become contagious.
The words ‘change’ and ‘transformation’ are often used interchangeably, but they mean very different things. Change is an orderly process: it is linear, predicable, and manageable. Transformation is disruptive: it is non-linear, challenging, and often traumatic.
That’s what a group of Nottingham lace workers experienced 200 years ago when they protested at the loss of their jobs to mechanisation. Remembered by history as the Luddites, they thought they were fighting against chaos and collapse, because they couldn’t see the future.
We are in a similar transitional phase now, as a whole social economic model, based on producers and consumers, is becoming a thing of the past, changing how we work and make money.
When Sergey Brin and Larry Page first set up Google in a friend’s garage in 1998, they were very clear why they were doing it: to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. Central to their thinking was the concept of integrity: either a system could be trusted or it could not.
Crucially, that put Google on the side of the user. Creating a clear demarcation between their system and any commercial advertising, they put the wants and needs of their users above everything else. Securing that trust was crucial to their success, and made them very rich. In 1999, Google’s revenues were $200,000. This year, they will exceed $100 billion.
Jan Koum had a similar sense of purpose when he set up the messenger tool WhatsApp: to provide the means for people to communicate with each other without being snooped on. Like Google, the app’s allegiances were firmly on the side of its user. All messages would be encrypted, and no data would be collected, stored or used. That reliability became WhatsApp’s brand – and, again, it translated into massive commercial success.
In February 2014, Facebook bought WhatsApp for $19 billion, the largest sum ever paid for what was essentially still a start-up. By the end of 2016, one in six of the world’s population were regularly using WhatsApp.
Traditional music companies made and sold music, but the primary purpose of the music streaming service Spotify, launched in 2008, is the fulfilment of a social mission: to give people legal access to all the music they want all the time. In early 2017, the singer Ed Sheeran clocked up more than 273 million streams on Spotify for his album Divide in just seven days—a new record for the platform. Spotify pays around $0.005 per play. That’s peanuts when only a few hundred people listen to your music. But when you are Ed Sheeran, assuming everyone listened to all 12 tracks of the album, it generated $16.5 million.
This is how the Participation Revolution works: revenue is generated from people joining in, not from the sale of a song or product. The value to the user is the system, not the individual parts, and what makes these businesses so successful is that they made it easy to take part.
‘This is how the Participation Revolution works: revenue is generated from people joining in, not from the sale of a song or product. The value to the user is the system, not the individual parts, and what makes these businesses so successful is that they made it easy to take part’
There are obviously casualties. Businesses following the old model of selling things to passive consumers are particularly vulnerable, and so are the people who work for them. In the next ten or twenty years, as many as seven in ten current jobs will disappear and half of today’s corporations will no longer exist. As that process bites, it leads to insecurity and rage – with unpredictable political consequences.
Nevertheless, the change is bigger than any individual, and it is happening whether we like it or not. As the Luddites learned, resistance is futile. We can therefore choose to see the transformation either as an end or a beginning.
For me, there is plenty to be optimistic about. At a time when consumerism has hollowed out our societies and left us wanting and craving something far deeper, we have shifted from passive consumption to active participation – and I think that’s a good thing.
There is a real possibility of the emergence of a new golden era for humanity; one in which technology enables the liberation of the human spirit, communities are built around common interests and goals, work has purpose and life has meaning.
It really is possible, on the other side of the wild waves of disruption – provided we know how to stay afloat.
NEIL GIBB has worked for more than twenty years with companies large and small, helping them apply new thinking and technology to improve their businesses. His clients have ranged from Shell, Barclays, the European Space Agency and the Nationwide Building Society to dozens of small tech firms.
His book The Participation Revolution – How to ride the waves of change in a terrifyingly turbulent world is out now from Eye Books, price £8.99