Many market economies in the 20th century reflected traditional organizational models, with businesses owning production capacity and citizens seen primarily as passive employees and consumers, brought together in centralized, hierarchical governance structures. Ethical frameworks in those contexts were frequently only partially brought into governance practice, and often as post-hoc support for otherwise utilitarian and profit-directed activity, and were frequently adapted or selectively applied to promote the norms of those in power.

Many of those historical power asymmetries and inequalities are reflected in early structures of the digital economy, but its distributed nature is inviting renewed consideration of the possibilities and pathways to more ethically centred governance.

The end of hierarchy?

The power of distributed information systems is evidenced by the near universal adoption of the internet, which has effectively rendered blind traditional, centralized and hierarchical governance structures, since such hierarchies depend on centralized information flows for performance feedback, and they cannot monitor and control their operations as effectively in a distributed network.

While distributed information architectures are detrimental to hierarchical governance, they tend to nurture other, more participatory forms. In fact, a new culture of co-creation, collaboration and mutual participation is emerging as a significant new economic model of the 21st century. The broad adoption of distributed information architectures has dispersed historical authority and power. We now have a unique opportunity for foundational principles of human duty, ethics and morals to be embodied in the fabric of our global networked society that we pass on to future generations.

Whereas top-down hierarchies of the past solicited participation in the form of “consent” (that typically reflects passive trade-offs among limited options), the future of sustainable, resilient governance is about engaging stakeholders with active choices, not passive trade-offs. These emerging forms of distributed governance will depend on ethical constructions of governance to provide coherent narratives that can scale across jurisdictions and sectors, rendering individual and institutional behaviours in such systems reliable, predictable and trustworthy. These will also continue the participation that is the key to the sustainability and resilience of governance in distributed systems.

A holistic perspective of people

With ethical forms of governance applied to the plethora of available big data, we can all measure and gain insight into the value and impact of our full activity. We are no longer limited by the centralized boundaries of gross measures of production and consumption, such as GDP or other traditional economic measurements. The new opportunities to participate and collaborate will accelerate and expand the range of benefits beyond such early developments as “crowdsourcing” and “personalized advertising”. These changes will have massive implications for existing legal and economic governance structures, such as those involved in intellectual property, taxation, social welfare, health and of course business and innovation.

Ethically designed data governance can help provide a holistic perspective of people, to themselves and to others when appropriate, as an aggregate of their actions as citizens, producers, consumers, parents, employees and community members.

Through a more ethical governance design paradigm based on active stakeholder participation, we can reimagine the rules of our education, politics and business systems with a focus on distributed perspectives, discovery and wisdom. We can reimagine and redesign our relationship and relatedness to others in the social web. We can design processes that enrich our individual and collective capacities for interdependent care, integrated development, and deeply shared trust that arise from basic human kindness and well-being.

The Summit on the Global Agenda 2015 takes place in Abu Dhabi from 25-27 October

Authors: Scott David is Director of Policy at University of Washington, and a member of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Data-Driven Development. Mihaela Ulieru is President of the IMPACT Institute for the Digital Economy and Adjunct Research Professor, Carleton University. 

Image: Pedestrians are reflected on an electronic board showing a graph of market data displayed outside a brokerage in Tokyo May 10, 2010. REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao