Data-driven societies

Alex Pentland
Toshiba Professor of Media, Arts and Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
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Alex “Sandy” Pentland is Toshiba Professor of Media, Arts and Sciences, at  MIT, discusses how Data is shaping all aspects of society.

Back in the 1800s, the Industrial Revolution spurred rapid urban growth, created huge social inequities and caused significant environmental problems. New thinking was needed for building a healthy, safe and efficient society. No different than today, these solutions needed to be both resilient and fit for a changing world.

A century ago, however, the response to these challenges was to build specialized and centrally controlled networks that solved each problem separately. Solutions were developed to deliver clean water, enable commerce, remove waste, distribute energy, facilitate transportation and offer access to centralized services such as healthcare, police and education.

Unfortunately, those century-old solutions are now showing their cracks … by not connecting with one another.

We need to radically rethink our approach. Rather than separating systems by function – water, food, waste, transport, education, energy, and so on – we must consider them holistically. Instead of focusing only on access and distribution systems, we need dynamic, networked, self-regulating and resilient systems that take into account the complex socio-economic interdependencies of today’s hyperconnected world.

With billions of people and devices technologically connected throughout the world, we now have a feedback loop that can deliver the dynamic resilience a complex world requires. To ensure a sustainable future, we must leverage this new feedback loop to create a “nervous system” that maintains the stability of government, energy and public health systems globally.

Big data – the lifeblood of our new global nervous system – is the resource for addressing the big global challenges of today. Leveraging the ever-increasing power of networked computers, big data provides the clearest lens for examining how society functions in fine-grain detail.

Big data is about connected and linked data. In that light, the flow of information is central for understanding and building this new world. Not only is this because timely information is critical to efficient systems but, more importantly, because the spread and combination of information is the basis of innovation. When we use big data to look beyond aggregates (such as markets, classes and parties) and instead examine the fine-grain patterns of society, new opportunities and discoveries emerge. With these discoveries we can deliver greater innovation, transparency, stability in market behaviour and improved social outcomes. Just as importantly, data analytics provide unprecedented instrumentation for how policies are performing so they can be quickly adjusted.

Much work is needed to align on the shared values of this new complex and constantly changing world. Forging these principles into a working “nervous system” that is equitable and inclusive will take time. The interactions are too complicated to talk about in the abstract. Field tests are needed so that real-world impacts are fully understood. But make no mistake. There is growing awareness and consent on the need for data-driven approaches that are resilient, built upon the dignity of individuals, extraordinarily transparent and fully accountable.

Author: Alex “Sandy” Pentland is Toshiba Professor of Media, Arts and Sciences, at  the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the World Economic Forum’s lead academic for its Big Data and Personal Data Initiatives.

Image: A woman uses her smart phone and laptop REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

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