A Literacy of the Imagination

a deeper look at innovation through the lenses of media, technology, venture investment and hyperculture

Consumer Activism in the Social Era #innovation #networks #change

What does consumer activism actually look like?


Well, for starters, if you can accept that people (consumers) do have some control over their commercial behaviors and outcomes, then we’re getting somewhere. Purchasing behaviors themselves are sort of like a tug-of-war between personal ideology, mass messaging, crowd wisdom and the bottom line. And consumer culture tends to win these battles with institutions.


But let’s look at this from a more refined angle, which is that a new kind of activism is already in play, and I don’t simply mean the counter-institutional behaviors associated with Occupy or Wikileaks.


Don Tapscott recently gave what I thought was a terrific talk on how new global non-state networks are offering powerful new solutions for cooperation, problem solving and governance.

George Por wrote a great follow-up piece that goes into further detail on the nine types of global networks Don refers to in his talk, and lends some insight on how these networks manifest themselves through super-structures like cities, or more agile structures found within them.


So what does this all actually mean?


I’d maintain that people (consumers, brands and institutions) have developed their own ways to create positive change through resilient structures, and it is only a matter of time -- a relatively short window -- before we see these disintermediating solutions become a predominant part of the social, economic and political fabric.


I call these “networks of vigilance, responsibility and reciprocity”.


In research and analysis I did some time ago on the retail banking industry, I created this graphic which represents the cultural dynamics driven by technology and globalization, as we move from centralized structures to more networked structures.

As the graphic explains, there are four main elements to this shift: movements, archetypes, cohorts and industries.

In a more liberalized market -- one that affords us a system of choices, false, dichotomous or “other” -- economic empowerment is achieved through the wisdom of friends, or what some might consider to be “collective intelligence”.

In this process, the traditional archetype has shifted (kicking and screaming, I might add...) towards a more engaged and empathetic role.

So, you might ask something like: “Have bankers really become better people?” Probably not quite the right question to ask. The better question would be: “Can banking really make us, or allow us to be, better people?” (The short answer is “yes”.)

As archetypes change, we see a distinct supplement of monetary capital gains with intellectual capital or currency. This simply means that exchanges of goods and services are not only social contracts -- those fortified by trust and transparency -- but they change what money means because the information associated with those exchanges is more valuable.

What all of this creates is a dynamic ecosystem of non-banking institutions and disintermediary businesses, whose sole purposes aren’t necessarily to replace the banking super-structures themselves, but to complement them, and in some cases, buffer them. Some argue that super-structures are collapsing under their own weight and corrosive natures altogether, which only amplifies the position.

What’s interesting about this shift in particular is how disintermediation degrades the verticality of industry, renders it “flatter”, and provides more profound efficiencies through collaboration. Some have described this as “disruptive innovation”, but I think the term tends to relegate these efforts into a corner. I also think that this is less about innovation as an output of products and services, and more about the mindset of adaptation -- seeing shifts, preempting problems and reacting to changes in a far more agile fashion.

Granted, it’s difficult at times to see all of this really happening, especially as mass media channels fill our heads with doomsday scenarios and the like. Conspiracy theories also don’t help to keep us focused on these shifts. But the truth of the matter is that resilient communities are everywhere... And this kind of change will happen whether institutions like it or not.

Within these contexts, do you see yourself as an activist? How so?