Understanding how to harness the power of platforms and systems will be critical to address the challenges associated with the Fourth Industrial Revolution and maximize the benefits to society. John Hagel III, co-chair of Center for the Edge, Deloitte, and co-chair of the Global Future Council for Platforms and Systems, says that although you cannot control a system, you can shape its direction and evolution over time, using platforms to accelerate learning within it.

Can you explain what we mean by platforms and systems and why they are so important?

The concept of systems has become central to the work that the World Economic Forum is doing because there is an increasing recognition that by looking at narrow silos you rarely come up with the most effective answers or ideas. The notion is that in all parts of our lives, we are participating in systems of others; people, institutions that interact with each other. To really have impact, you need to understand the dynamics that drive system behavior and outcomes.

Our belief is that platforms have to do with defining governance structures, in terms of deciding who can participate, under what conditions participants get ejected from the system, when disputes occur, how do those disputes get resolved? Then a set of standards and protocols that just facilitate interaction within the system, so that when somebody makes a statement does everybody understand in the same way what that person has just said? What are the standard ways of communicating?

The belief is that platforms, appropriately designed and deployed, can significantly amplify the impact of systems. So we are exploring the intersection and interaction between those two. What are the platforms that can have the greatest impact on systems? And how can systems harness the potential of these platforms to have even more impact?

What do you think will be the main themes to arise in the Global Future Council on Platforms and Systems?

There is a growing sense, on one hand, of significant opportunities created by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, but also some very significant challenges that still need to be addressed: everything from climate change, to poverty, to inclusion of everyone in the relevant systems. So the focus is how can we harness platforms and systems to address more effectively both those challenges and opportunities.

How can the concepts of systems leadership and the platform economy help us maximize the benefits of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and minimize the risks associated with it?

There is a tendency for all of us to narrow our horizons and really focus on us as individuals or us as individual institutions, rather than thinking about the complexity that exists in terms of systems and how all these independent parties interact with each other.

Part of it too is a belief that the systems need to embrace multiple types of stakeholders. It’s not just bringing together companies, it’s bringing together commercial institutions, government institutions, NGOs; identifying all the relevant participants that could make a difference in addressing a particular challenge and opportunity, and mobilizing them as a system to address that, using platforms as a way to help coordinate activity and accelerate problem solving.

What else needs to be done to ensure we successfully manage these systems and the interaction between them?

A lot of it is understanding and appreciating the complexity. There is a tendency to impose top-down solutions and those are rarely effective, given the complexity of systems and the interdependencies. You get all kinds of unexpected, unanticipated results that sometimes are good, sometimes are bad.

The notion here is that, while you can’t control a system, you can shape its direction and evolution over time and accelerate learning within the system, so that the system becomes more and more effective in terms of addressing the challenges and opportunities. Platforms can play a significant role in accelerating learning through things like providing more real-time feedback loops, where system participants can see what results their current actions are producing and reflect and adjust and refine based on real-time feedback.

What role will emerging technologies play in all of this?

A dramatic role. Certainly the existing technologies of basic communications networks and the internet has helped to facilitate a much larger scale of interactions within systems. Previous to this technology, you were limited to the people in your community. Now instant communication on a global scale, across an ever-expanding number of participants, becomes a foundation for evolving systems to the next level.

On top of that, we now have more ability to capture data. So you can take aspects of our lives and our world that were previously invisible and start to capture data that makes it visible, so you start to see the patterns of what activities are going on and what kind of impact they are having.

Then there’s another set of technologies that have to do with the analytics. More and more data at one level becomes overwhelming and very hard to deal with unless you have powerful analytic tools that can allow you to investigate the data and come up with insights from it and make it more broadly available to the participants.

Our belief is that a key theme in the Fourth Industrial Revolution is that we have got a set of exponential digital technologies that are dramatically increasing the scale and potential impact of systems.

Where will we be by 2030? What will have been achieved in terms of systems leadership and the platform economy?

The opportunity is unlimited. The belief from the World Economic Forum is that systems have what is known as ‘an increasing returns dynamic’ to them; the more participants you get in a properly functioning system, the more rapidly the value and the impact of that system increases. So it’s not a linear increase, it’s an exponential increase in impact.

By 2030, I would hope that if we have more insight about what’s required for systems to effectively operate and what kind of platforms can support that, that we will actually make significant progress both in addressing some of the global challenges we still face, and also addressing major new opportunities to create value for society through systems and platforms.