A New Proposal: Measuring Social Impact in an Exponential World

When Peter Diamandis and Ray Kurzweil founded Singularity University, they did so on the radical notion that exponential technologies could play a fundamental role in solving our biggest social problems. In particular they believed that digital technologies—which rapidly fall in cost, increase in sophistication, and globally scale—can create a world of abundance.

In my role as Vice Chair of Global Grand Challenges at Singularity University, I see this core thesis playing out every day in both our own ecosystem as well as the broader world. For example, consider 360Ed, which was created during our Global Solutions Program (now Global Startup Program) in 2016, closed a deal in 2018 to deliver high-quality digital student-centered learning to 1.3 million children in Myanmar with plans to expand globally—or Iron Ox, the first autonomous farm in the US, recently announced they can generate food yields 30 times greater than a traditional farm—or the growing cultured meat industry which expects to produce healthy, environmentally-friendly cultured meat at $2-$4 per pound by 2020—or ICON, which announced plans to build high quality affordable 3D-printed houses for $4,000-$10,000 in 24 hours. Given these are technology companies, their products and services should continue to fall in cost and rapidly scale around the world.

As we move into a world where exponential technologies are driving down costs and democratizing access to basic goods and services including the tools people need to solve their own problems, I believe we are seeing a new field of social impact emerge. This is a field where our scarcity-based social problems will go away, and a new set of social problems, primarily related to ethics, equity, governance, purpose, and resilience, are emerging.

When any new field emerges, it becomes important to define what the new problems are, as well as what success looks like in solving those problems. In this post, I make the case that we can actually use Peter Diamandis’ and Steve Kotler’s “Six Ds” framework, originally created to describe why digital technology is so disruptive, as a framework for actually measuring what social impact looks like in an exponential world. To be clear, this is early thinking and is not comprehensive of all social problems, but it is an area I believe worthy of exploration and deeper thinking. I would love to know your feedback and reactions as well as other ways you think we might measure social impact in an exponential world.

6Ds

A New Framework

One of the foundational courses we teach at Singularity University, “Introduction to Exponential Technologies,” covers our core concepts about how exponential and digital technologies behave. In particular we teach the “6Ds,” a framework which explains how exponential technologies go from being deceptive, where few people see them coming, to disruptive, where they became the main way of doing things in the world. In particular, during that transformation, exponential technologies go through a set of steps including being digitized, demonetized, dematerialized, and democratized.

You can check out a refresher on the 6Ds here.

While we are initially using this framework to explain how exponential technology behaves, we can also flip it to use it as a way to understand how well the benefits of exponential technologies are serving everyone in the world and how well we are controlling for the challenges they might also create.

For example, what percentage of your country’s social services and basic goods are digitized, de-monetized, dematerialized, and democratized?  And what percentage of your citizens are resilient and can thrive in a world of disruption and accelerating change?

Below I have used the 6Ds as a framework for digging deep into these questions and their social implications. While the original framework was created by Peter Diamandis and Steve Kotler, I have added my own questions based on my career working in social impact, and especially under the mentorship of Bill Drayton, the founder of the field of social entrepreneurship, when I worked with him for nearly ten years at Ashoka. In addition, I chose to think about it from a policymaker or governmental leader’s perspective, but anyone leading a community, company, or institution could adapt it.

Globe

Digitization

Using the digitization framework, we want to understand how well citizens can access basic goods and services through digitization. For example, we might ask:

  • What percentage of your citizens can access high-quality learning opportunities online? For example, does your country have a digital education system similar to what 360Ed is building in Myanmar? Or how far away are we from a world where every person can access a high-quality, student-centered, and modern digital K-12 education system available in every language?
  • What percentage of your citizens can access efficient government services online? For example, does your country have a system similar to Estonia’s, where citizens can access 99% of government services online, pay their taxes in 3-4 minutes, and vote simply and securely from anywhere in the world?
  • What percentage of your citizens can access high-quality healthcare services online?  Can your citizens access high-quality health information, remote doctors, digital medical records, simple and efficient insurance and payment information, and more?
  • What percentage of your country’s other social services are digitally available and accessible? And are not only the social services digitized but the internet and communications infrastructure in place? Does it work in a reliable way?

Demonetized

Using the demonetization framework, we want to understand how far digitization has driven (or can drive down) the costs of products and services that are basic goods and essential to human thriving in society. For example, we might ask:

  • If your citizens can access learning, healthcare, governance, and other social services online, is it also affordable or free?
  • For other industries that are in the process of being digitized—for example, food, water, shelter, and energy—how demonetized should these industries become? If we are using the best tools in robotics, advanced manufacturing, and even biological manufacturing, how low can we get the prices of things like food, clothing, transportation, or shelter? Two dollars per pound? One dollar per pound? Ten cents per pound? Perhaps premium and freemium versions? While it can be hard to imagine physical goods falling in cost as have information-based products, according to exponential trends, they should indeed do so as we digitize the equipment and processes that produce these goods.

Demonetization, of course, opens up a number of other questions related to profit distribution, business models, economic models, political models, and values, which we will address under the “Democratization” framework.

Dematerialized

As products and services are digitized, they also dematerialize. Dematerialization not only makes accessibility easier (imagine students in a war zone able to access digital education or healthcare online) but can also be very important to environmental impact and sustainability.   Here we can ask:

  • What percentage of your products, services, and economy are dematerialized?
  • What percentage of human-made materials harmful to humans or the environment have been removed from the environment?
  • What percentages of resources, such as energy or food, are generated with renewable resources and technology rather than mined or harvested from the earth in ways that cause permanent damage?

Network

Democratized

Once products and services or digitized, demonetized, and dematerialized, in theory they should be democratized. Peter Diamandis originally used the term “democratized” to explain how products and services become ubiquitous and available to everyone, rather than only those with large amounts of resources such as the wealthy, governments, or large organizations. In this framework, I would like to expand on that definition to address some of the challenging questions that emerge around digitization related to ethics, equity, politics, economics, and ultimately our values. While this section reflects my own values and initial thinking, I encourage others you to explore what it would look like to incorporate your own values into this section.

  • What percentage of products and services are truly democratized and available to everyone? For example, are products easily available to people living in war zones, to lower-income communities, to people with disabilities, and to the elderly?
  • What percentage of your population is not only able to access and consume products and services, but is also using them to create solutions to their own challenges and the challenges in their communities? Taking inspiration from Ashoka—an organization where I previously worked—what percentage of your population sees themselves as changemakers now that they have access to the tools of innovation? Is the majority of your population vibrantly innovating and creating change for the good of all, or is it only a handful of people and institutions?
  • If your population does have access to digital products, services, and tools, are they safe, secure, and ethical? What percentage of your digital infrastructure is owned and controlled by individual citizens versus governments, companies, or central authorities?  What percentage of your digital infrastructure and data is accurate and intended to empower others versus inaccurate, false, propaganda, or aimed at manipulating, exploiting, controlling, or abusing others? What percentage of your existing legal and ethical frameworks have been adapted and applied to your digital infrastructure? What percentage of your data is secure from hacking and private?
  • Finally, as you digitize and demonetize products and services, what percentage of your economy is based on abundance-based business models, rather than extractive business models? What percentage of the profits created by technology is distributed to workers in terms of higher wages or consumers in terms of lower prices (or more sophisticated goods), versus only owners and investors? And how are those profits being reinvested in the economy? What percentage of profits should policymakers try to redistribute or reinvest into the economy through policies like robot taxes or technology taxes that might be turned into universal basic incomes or new public infrastructure projects? What percentage of the economy is decentralized vs. centralized? These are questions our world has struggled with for centuries, even fought enormous wars over, and we need to understand how these questions may or may not change as products and services demonetize, as machines and software perform traditional human labor, and we can digitally track any financial or labor transaction we can imagine and thus create new business models.

Artificial Intelligence digital concept

Deceptive to disruption

The deceptive and disruption frameworks exist to help people understand how a digital product or service can so quickly go from being unknown to the majority of the world, to suddenly becoming a product or service that millions or billions of people are using, in the process possibly driving certain companies out of business, spawning entirely new industries full of opportunities for new companies, and changing our social, cultural, and economic patterns. We can use this framework to ask how resilient our population is to disruption and if our population can thrive in world of accelerating change. Here we can ask:

  • What percentages of your citizens have access to learning opportunities to develop exponential mindsets, new social and technical skills, well-being, and a clear sense of purpose in a world of increasing technology and accelerating change?
  • Do you have programs and institutions in place to research and understand the short- and long-term impacts of technology on your citizens and society and to deal with the resulting ethical issues that may emerge?
  • Do you have specific programs and policies in place aimed at helping legacy and linear institutions and companies transition into exponential institutions? These could range from training programs to innovation incubators and accelerators to custom-designed programs aimed at creating bridges and collaborative projects between linear and exponential institutions, companies, and industries.
  • Do you have the appropriate safety nets in place if disruption does happen?
  • Do you have a strategy for how to handle technological unemployment or big shifts in the economy?
  • Are your leaders and policymakers trained for and aware of the big opportunities and major challenges that can emerge from disruption? Are they able to work with other leaders and policymakers as well as the new innovators and large companies who might have an exceptionally large influence on society in ways that innovators and companies did not in the past?
  • Are your leaders and policymakers able to do this work with empathy and wisdom at a time when there might strife, confusion, and chaos?

Sound off and share your thoughts!

Do you think exponential technologies are creating a new field of social impact? What do you think of using the 6Ds as a framework for measuring social impact? How do your values intersect with the process of digitization, dematerialization, and demonetization, and what are the implications for society, economics, and governance? I would love to get your comments here.