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Reflections on the digital age: 7 improvements that brought about a decade of positive change

The new digital age enabled billions of people to collaborate and mobilize to fight climate change.

The new digital age enabled billions of people to collaborate and mobilize to fight climate change. Image: Photo by kazuend on Unsplash

Don Tapscott C.M.
Executive Chairman, Blockchain Research Institute
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The Digital Economy

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September 2030. The early 2020s were full of dramatic turning points in global history.

Powerful new technologies like artificial intelligence, blockchain, the internet of things and the metaverse upended traditional systems, institutions and ways of life. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020-22 accelerated these trends as people everywhere moved much of their lives online. The pandemic also exposed deep problems in our governments and systems for everything from supply chains to public health data.

Moreover, the early 2020s were jolted by political upheaval. Notably, in January 2021, the American election was challenged, exacerbating deep fissures in the United States and emboldening populists and extremists around the world. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, global sanctions and significant disruptions to food supplies further convulsed the global economy and exacerbated tensions. These challenges, among others, created a perfect storm and resulted in extraordinary social anxiety and unrest.

Fortunately, a miracle of sorts occurred. Driven by a deep hope for a brighter future, people everywhere began to reimagine the relationship between government and civil society, ushering in a new societal framework for the digital age. This was not some kind of academic process but rather the result of mass mobilizations around broad change.

Reflecting on the digital age

Today, looking back a decade, let’s examine seven key improvements that stemmed from this period of positive change:

1. New models of prosperity and work

Given the bifurcation of wealth and structural unemployment in many economies engendered by the new digital age, expectations of employment shifted, with people understanding that the private sector cannot provide jobs and prosperous life for all. New rules and regulations were instituted that created a strong social safety net for workers. These reforms helped mitigate the gross inequality that plagued the early years of the 21st century. New technologies also brought more underserved people into the global economy and readied workers for lifelong learning.

2. New models of digital identity

New regulations allowed individuals to own and benefit from the digital data they create. This ended the era of “digital feudalism,” which was characterised by a centralized group of “digital landlords” who collected, aggregated and profited from the data that collectively constituted our digital identities. Furthermore, Web3 gave people the ability to harvest their data trail and use it to plan their lives, enhancing their prosperity and protecting their privacy.

3. More informed digital age society

Through public and private partnerships, media systems were rebuilt in ways that safeguarded independence and free speech. New tools were implemented that enabled citizens to track the veracity and provenance of information. This helped reduce the ability of bad-faith actors to spread false information about everything from climate change to public health. Clear rules were also set that ensured large media companies were prohibited from supporting hate on their platforms in the digital age. These reforms helped us rebuild public education systems to ensure that every young person can function fully, not just as a worker or entrepreneur, but as a citizen. Media literacy programs were also introduced into schools to help young people develop their capabilities to handle the onslaught of information and discern the truth.

4. Renewed trust in government and democracy

Innovative technologies and other modern reforms enabled us to create a new era of democracy based on public deliberation, transparency, active citizenship and accountability. Technology also helped to embed electoral promises into smart contracts that allowed citizens to track and engage in their democracies through the mobile platforms they use every day. These reforms helped boost trust in politicians and the legitimacy of our governments as leaders are now more beholden to the people and not the powerful interests that funded their campaigns in the years prior. Moreover, these improvements helped stifle radical populists and extreme politicians on both the right and left.

5. A new commitment to justice

It was clear that new technologies exacerbated racial divides, so governments and organisations throughout civil society committed to ending racial inequities. In the United States, action was taken to end the era of mass incarceration and the financial hamstringing of minority groups. The criminal subjection of indigenous peoples as evidenced by Canada’s “Residential School System” was also readdressed. These steps helped move racism, class oppression and subjugation of all peoples into the dustbin of history, along with those who perpetrate these vile relics of the past. The reforms also went past the tropes about bad apples and forgiveness. They recognized that racism and oppression are systemic and must be addressed society-wide.

6. A deep commitment to sustainability

Through major reforms, the world is now on track to reduce carbon emissions by 90% by the year 2050. The new digital age enabled billions of people to collaborate and mobilize to fight climate change. This included not just governments but businesses large and small, commuters, vacationers, employees, students, consumers – everyone – from every walk of life. Public pressure and new regulations have also forced business executives to participate responsibly in the reindustrialization of our planet and embrace carbon pricing.

7. Global interdependence

The crises of the past decade—the COVID-19 pandemic, the political legitimacy crisis, the war in Ukraine and the climate catastrophes—demonstrated that no country could succeed fully in a world that is in trouble. And while significant national differences remain, countries have embraced common interests and an understanding of a common fate. The new way of thinking also allowed governments, companies and NGOs to better organise around solving major problems like public health, education, social justice, environmental stability and peace.

These positive changes did not bring about a utopia. But they were improvements—and ones that were achieved through bottom-up struggle.

Victor Hugo said there is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come. In our case, there was nothing so powerful as ideas that had become necessities.


How is the World Economic Forum fostering a sustainable and inclusive digital economy?

This article is abridged from an major essay written by Don Tapscott called “A Declaration of Interdependence: Towards a New Social Contract for the Digital Age” and a recent short essay entitled Why We Built a Social Contract for the New Digital Age.”

Don Tapscott is author of 16 widely read books about technology in business and society, including the best-seller Blockchain Revolution, which he co-authored with his son Alex. His most recent book is Platform Revolution: Blockchain Technology as the Operating System of the Digital Age. He is Co-Founder of the Blockchain Research Institute, an Adjunct Professor at INSEAD, and Chancellor Emeritus of Trent University in Canada. He is a Member of the Order of Canada and drafted a framework for “A New Social Contract for the Digital Economy.”

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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Institutional update

World Economic Forum

May 21, 2024

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