Don Tapscott is chief executive of the Tapscott Group and the chancellor of Trent University. With his son Alex, he is the co-author of Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin is Changing Money, Business and the World and the co-founder of the Blockchain Research Institute, a think tank conducting 70 projects about blockchain opportunities and challenges.
The theme of this year's annual meeting of the World Economic Forum was "Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World." Delegates were asked to consider a renewed commitment to international collaboration to solve global challenges. "Our first response must be to develop new models for co-operation that are not based on narrow interests, but on the destiny of humanity as a whole," WEF founder Klaus Schwab said.
Two points of view dominated Davos.
On the one hand, U.S. President Donald Trump thinks the best way to make a better world is to focus on national interests and build national economies. He said his strategy is to "always put America first, just as the leaders of other countries should put their countries first." He believes this strategy benefits everyone. "When the United States grows, so does the world."
Mr. Trump briefly uplifted spirits by saying, "America first does not mean America alone." However, he explained this meant companies from other countries were welcome to invest in or trade with the United States. His country was "open for business."
This view is linked to the belief that an unfettered private sector is required for success, saying "regulation is stealth taxation." The view was expressed by others at Davos, including Republican Congressman Mark Meadows, who argued against government involvement in, well, almost anything, including early childhood education. "When governments get involved, they screw things up," he said.
Mr. Trump boasted again that he was the first real business person to be elected president. Previous presidents had either been generals or politicians. As a business person, he appears to measure success by a climbing Dow and a growing GDP.
On the other hand were speakers such as Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President Emmanuel Macron of France. They spoke of the urgency of global co-operation. They know first-hand how much blood can be spilled when tensions between and within countries are ignored.
There were countless discussions about how business, government and the civil society are key to success. I chaired one session about how GDP growth was increasingly a woefully inadequate way to measure national success. There were discussions on the role of business in fighting climate change; rethinking the workplace in the digital age; inclusive growth; capitalism and inequality; solving the refugee problem; rebuilding social-safety nets; sexual harassment; fragile cities; sustainable development; pandemics; bigotry and bias; disaster resilience and driving cultural understanding.
I counted two-dozen sessions about managing the impacts of new technology – "the fourth Industrial Revolution" – on society. Often attendees argued we will need a new social contract for the digital economy.
Delegates I spoke with said they felt Mr Trump's speech was a direct attack on the spirit of co-operation that had dominated discussions of the previous days.
The United States used to be concerned about such matters, with initiatives such as the Marshall Plan after the Second World War. Domestically, the U.S. government had laws and programs to ensure that wealth would be shared fairly. The economy grew. Americans moved to the suburbs, enjoyed green grass and a picket fence, 2.4 children and a modern car in the driveway. The common assumption was if you went to school, stayed out of trouble and worked hard at your job, you would climb the middle-class ladder.
As president John F. Kennedy said in the early 1960s: "A rising tide lifts all boats."
But that's no longer happening in the United States. The economy is booming, but the only boats being lifted are the megayachts. Income inequality is getting worse, not better.
As Robert Freeman wrote in Salon, "median income adjusted for inflation is lower today than it was in 1974. A staggering 40 per cent of all Americans now make less than the 1968 minimum wage, adjusted for inflation. Median middle-class wealth is plummeting. It is now 36 per cent below what it was in 2000."
Surprisingly, the digital age is causing a new set of problems. From the early days of the emergence of the internet as a transformational force, the dominant view has been optimistic with respect to its levelling effect. It would disrupt a highly hierarchical preinternet world in which power was held tightly in the hands of few and power structures were hard to climb and even harder to break down.
The internet would bring about low-cost and massive peer-to-peer communication, which would enable the undermining of traditional hierarchies.
Some of this has occurred. There have been mass collaborations such as Wikipedia, Linux or Galaxy Zoo. Technology has helped some entrepreneurs launch new businesses and, today, two billion people collaborate as peers through social networks.
However, these positive developments have been overshadowed by bigger developments. It has become clear that the original democratic architecture of the internet has been bent to the will of economies and societies in which power is anything but distributed.
There has been a fragmentation of public discourse, where powerful people, including the President of the United States, have been able to undermine the influence of the free press.
In the digital age, government architectures and policies have not evolved. Data, a new asset class, has been captured by powerful corporate forces. One result is the relentless erosion of personal privacy.
More broadly, we can see that the social contract – the agreements, laws and appropriate behaviours that people, companies, civil society and their governments adhere to by consensus – no longer serves us well.
In our book Blockchain Revolution, Alex Tapscott and I called for nothing less than a new social contract, because of the need for new multistakeholder approaches, whereby governments, the private sector, civil society and individuals could agree on new understandings and action plans.
We believe the next era of the digital economy could bring epoch-making wealth, with new networked models of global problem solving to realize such a dream.
To recognize, realize and enforce these rights, we need profound changes to our industrial institutions and infrastructures including education, health care, labour unions, food-supply chains, transportation and energy systems and, above all, governments. Networks enable citizens to participate fully in their own governance and we can now move to a second era of democracy based on a culture of public deliberation and active citizenship. Mandatory voting encourages active, engaged and responsible citizens.
In the name of global competitiveness and short-term shareholder value, we have let business off the hook for far too long. It's time for business leaders to come to the table as responsible and active participants in the new social contract – for both their own long-term interests as well as in the interest of a healthy society and healthy economy over all. Even – or especially – in a time of exploding information online, we need scientists, researchers and a free press to search for truth, examine options and inform the ongoing public discourse.
I had no trouble finding delegates in Davos that shared my point of view. They fear the world is fragmenting and that the U.S. administration is leading the way. As Mr. Trump says, "America First."