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The Internet’s Next Frontier: Getting Better at Getting Better Together

By Paula Reinman
Coauthored by Mei Lin Fung

Mei Lin Fung’s work is defined by her heritage, starting with her great-great grandfather who escaped famine in China by accepting indentured servitude in return for his passage British Guyana in South America. A self-made man who invested in education, he sent his grandson, Mei Lin’s grandfather Samuel, to study law in London. Samuel Fung became a respected member of the community in Singapore in World War II until he was unjustly “fingered” as an enemy collaborator and, in his innocent belief in the rule of law, bicycled to a scheduled appointment and was never seen again. Her mother was the first local woman to become a Medical Social Worker and spoke about how sad and silly it was to send hospital patients back to the very conditions that made them sick in the first place.

This family background gave Mei Lin her vision for the future and her passion for ensuring that the institutions around us earn our trust and keep that trust with by putting humanity first.

Mei Lin focuses on ensuring that the Internet, potentially the most disruptive tool since the printing press, is used to empower, enlighten and uplift people around the world.

Humanity faces a fork in the road and Mei Lin, along with Marconi Society Chair and Fellow Vint Cerf, are working together to achieve a People Centered Internet (PCI) where each human being can harness the Internet to realize her or his potential so that all have the opportunity to “Connect to Thrive.”

Mei Lin was gracious enough to some questions about her work at PCI and beyond.

Q.  There are lots of digital inclusion projects out there. How is PCI different and additive?

A.  When we think about digital inclusion, many of us think about putting the power of technology – the ability to learn, to connect with others and to contribute from wherever we are – into the hands of the half of the world that currently has no access. Those may be people in rural or developing areas that have no service, they may be people who cannot afford access or people who, based on their ethnicity, gender, income or other demographics have few or no opportunities for technical education.

Many digital inclusion projects are doing tremendous work in specific countries and in one or more focus areas. A few of the more broadly based are Alliance for an Affordable Internet (A4AI), the World Economic Forum Internet for All (I4A) initiative, the Internet Society and the IEEE Internet Initiative.

PCI is not a digital inclusion project. We weave into the waves of change the essential need to use the Internet to strengthen the human fabric. As we who have benefited know, the Internet can be a force for good. But only if we relate it to the aspirations, imaginations, cultures, hopes and dreams of people who may be very different from us. If we are to have an Internet of the people, by the people and for the people, that Internet must also provide pathways for ordinary people to be involved in substantive ways to shape the future Internet.

PCI’s Model for Keeping the Focus on People

Traditional approaches to working together in a network to achieve goals beyond individual and institutional agendas are faltering and being re-thought in the age of the Internet. PCI asks policy makers and technologists: How can we harness the Internet to track pipelines of Internet projects so funding delivers real outcomes?

A.  How does PCI envision the coordination of effort and funding so that people can connect to thrive?

A.  Culture takes years to change – institutions are resistant to new ideas. The Federal Health Futures Group, which I was part of and which spawned PCI, drew leaders spanning public and private boundaries. They recognized a unique opportunity to use connectivity to improve health and thriving by finding new ways to harness the emerging community networks. Looking out to 2045, they saw shared common aspirations and wondered how to achieve them.

The Federal Health Futures built on the learnings of the US Air Force Observe, Orient, Decide, Act (OODA) loop: Fast flying aircraft require adaptive response to the environment and the decisions and actions of other aircraft in the air, whether friend or foe. By using this feedback loop repeatedly, multiple participants could coordinate to get closer to goal.

Within a network where information is routed at the speed of light, where more information than one human brain can process arrives, where effective decisions with long-term implications must consider hundreds or even thousands of factors, only technology can handle the processing and relevant and timely presentation to people, so they can decide and act in service to higher goals.

A key outcome of the Federal Health Futures initiative is a strategic, operational and tactical feedback loop that coordinates action and information together in a network. The Triple Feedback Loop offers a compass by aligning the information flows in a framework for operating a network of disparate players with different goals who work together on an overarching goal. Dr. Douglas Engelbart is known for inventing the computer mouse. His greater insight was the concept of Networked Improvement Communities, where coordination and collaboration do not require knowledge by everyone of everything all the time. Overlapping interoperating actions, processes and strategies can be coordinated where multiple independently operating players are involved concurrently. This network sets up the best conditions for human insight and judgment to be developed, asserted, tested and validated.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The design and ongoing oversight of complex systems requires human judgment to assure that the technology serves the humans and is not hijacked by players with aims which would sacrifice the whole of humanity to achieve shorter term, individual or tribal objectives like power, influence and wealth.

Q.  How are you approaching this problem? What are your key strategies and top priorities?

A.  We must learn to get better at getting better together. Our institutions have grown in a “top down” world that has developed over millennia. When things go wrong, we instinctively look to an authority figure to tell us what to do. When we try to collaborate, someone often steps up and says, “let’s do it my way.” Network capability exists now but in general, we do not yet know how to take advantage of it. After reading and writing were invented it took centuries before universal education became a priority. Breakthroughs can emerge from the most unlikely places. Internet inclusion can unleash new frontiers of innovation by teams of unlikely people.

PCI’s strategy is for people to work in learning networks of communities where people learn from others to improve their own communities. Breakthroughs by any one community or team or person can spread rapidly across the network and be adapted to the local situation, by local people who then contribute back their learnings.

It is a very different way to work and interact – we leap off the 2-dimensional hierarchy and take advantage of the power of a network to track, to learn and build capability. We must develop trust and learn to listen and think adaptively. We can set goals as a network and work together as a network to realize them. We can learn faster.

In the Federal Health Futures initiative, we realized that the power of networks was the most effective for getting better health at lower costs. Dr. Jonathan Woodson, Undersecretary for Heath Affairs at the US Dept. of Defense, convened a multi-stakeholder summit over two days with federal health leaders, jointly with his counterpart Dr. Howard Koh at the Dept. of Health and Human Services in September, 2012. We examined what was stopping progress and where breakthroughs had occurred. Both Dr. Woodson and Dr. Koh said that this came down to leadership.

Interagency Leadership Competency Inventory

We needed new competencies for leaders operating in a networked world. Our discussions surfaced 163 leadership behaviors that were not currently recognized as needed, and were not being learned or actively practiced amongst federal health leaders. These were distilled into the diagram of 13 competencies above.

Our priority at PCI is to connect digital inclusion projects within networks of improvement communities so we can achieve our overarching goals together, and to use our technological tools to augment our human capabilities to work together better.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals provide the set of overarching goals approved by over 190 countries. Coordinating and collaborating to achieve these provides clear direction to technology companies, digital inclusion proponents, actors and change agents to look for shared Sustainable Development Goals in common.

Q.  What can readers can do now to help solve the problem of digital inclusion in a people-centered way?

A.  The original Olympics in Greece brought the best athletes together for the few months of training and preparation before the finals were run. For many it was the first time that they had been out of their village or met others from far away. It was intended as a move towards a more peaceful Greece to offer other competitions that did not involve war to be a winner.

When they returned the Olympians became the leaders in their community – the first who had experience interaction with those far away, that had travelled further than any other in the village.

We are now at the digital frontier.  Marconi Society Fellows, Young Scholars and supporters, like members of other science and technology associations, are leaders in a position to help the communities they are part of to improve the lives of others in their communities and to inspire the young people to take advantage of the opportunities in the digital frontier. We must also help protect our communities from the dangers and risks of being on this new frontier.

  • Consider digital inclusion in your own life. Look at what you are doing today and consider whether the human systems you are part of – at work, at home and at play – are operating in a networked way that can take advantage of digital tools to improve our lives and the lives of the vulnerable and underserved. Use the insights you, as leaders in our networked world, gain to steward your community as the people you care about move into the digital frontier. Look for ways to expand opportunities for your community by connecting networks who could discover synergy from joint activities.
  • Push for more people-centered approaches. Think about the risks and dangers of digital technology and the Internet and, in your own sphere of influence. drive for more resilient communities and organizations that operate in a people-centered manner.

The power of digital technologies can be used for good and for bad. We can harness technology to benefit humanity, or passively watch technology spreading like wildfire. It will take all of us to work to assure digital inclusion provides opportunity for all, and to minimize the risks to all by setting up the new institutions and oversights that will be needed. To do this, we have to get better at working with each other.

Learn more about people-centric concepts and the People Centered Internet:

New York Times – How the Internet Is Saving Culture, Not Killing It

Devex – Vint Cerf: Google’s internet evangelist on the next steps in connectivity

The Economist – The Dawn of Artificial Intelligence

Stanford Engineering and Computer Science – The Internet: Bringing people together virtually or pushing them away physically?