4 trends shaping the emerging "superfluid" economy
Image by Erica Glasier
April 29th, 2011
12:42 PM ET

4 trends shaping the emerging "superfluid" economy

Editor's Note: Venessa Miemis is the author of the technology/futurist/media blog Emergent by Design. You can follow her on twitter @venessamiemis. The image above is by Erica Glasier, who you can find on twitter @ericaglasier.

By Venessa Miemis – Special to CNN

Humanity and technology continue to co-evolve at an ever increasing pace, leaving traditional institutions (and mindsets) calcified and out of date. A new paradigm is emerging, where everything is increasingly connected and the nature of collaboration, business and work are all being reshaped. In turn, our ideas about society, culture, geographic boundaries and governance are being forced to adapt to a new reality.

While some fear the loss of control associated with these shifts, others are exhilarated by the new forms of connectivity and commerce that they imply. Transactions and interactions are growing faster and more frictionless, giving birth to what I call a "superfluid" economy.

Business will not return to usual. So let's discuss 4 key concepts to help us  better understand the shifts that are underway:

1. Quantifying and mapping everything

Technological acceleration isn’t just a phrase. Whether looked at through the lens of the Law of Accelerating Returns or the trend described as Moore’s Law, computing capabilities continue to increase exponentially. Our devices are becoming smaller yet more powerful. Cost continues to drop.

This may lead to technologies becoming so tiny that they simply fade into the background experience of our lives.

So what? What is the purpose of faster, more powerful technology? What are we trying to accomplish?

Think about it this way:  The whole of human history has been spent trying to understand ourselves, our environment and what it all means. Whereas a guru might advise “Know thyself,” a technologist might suggest “Quantify thyself.”

Technology tackles the challenge of self knowledge through the pursuit of full-systems quantification - creating a simulation and map of everything.

This is already happening all around us at the individual level.  Our location is being tracked by our mobile devices.  Our preferences, buying behaviors and social connections are being tracked online.  Our providers and 3rd party agencies are tracking our financial histories and medical records.

The aggregated information forms a digital profile of who we are and what we care about. This information can be helpful in creating personalized recommendations for products and services. It also makes governmental surveillance or manipulation that much easier. On the other hand, making previously invisible information transparent means it can be quantified and measured, so economic value can be tied to it.

On a larger scale, we’re seeing how data can be converted to become a useful tool for crisis mapping and visualizing real-time information. Supply chains can be mapped to help us assess the carbon footprint of the products we purchase. There’s even an initiative to map the real-time statistics of the entire planet, dubbed the Earth Dashboard.

The big picture is that the more information we’re able see, the more effective we can be at making intelligent decisions that have positive effects on our lives and our environment.

2. Everyone has access to the internet

One of the effects of cheaper, web-enabled devices is that we’re moving towards getting the world online. Half a billion people worldwide accessed the mobile internet in 2009, and that number is estimated to double over the next 5 years. A recent forecast by In-Stat projects close to a billion smart phones will be shipped worldwide by 2015.

In countries and emerging markets with low or no connectivity, the financial and infrastructural challenges of laying down cables will be leapfrogged as these places transition directly to a wireless web via mobile devices.

In addition, the ‘unbanked’ are being brought into financial inclusion through innovative services like M-PESA that enable the transfer of money via mobile phones. So within a few short years, we may see billions more people connected to the internet and capable of participating in economic transactions.

For those that are already connected, the move to mobile is making the distinction between being online and offline disappear. It’s estimated that about 788 million people will access the Web solely through their mobile device by 2015, meaning the web will simply go with us wherever we go.

Add in mobile augmented reality (LayarWikitudeAcrossair), which provides an information layer onto our immediate environment, along with near-field communication technologies, which enable contextual information to be sent to you based on your location, and we have an extremely empowering tool literally at our fingertips at all times.

3. Self-organizing expands

How we feel about things, how we organize collective action and how we exchange value with others are central themes to social, political and economic life. Each of these areas is now being expressed online in more robust and granular ways.

Comments, Facebook likes, recommendations, and reviews all contribute to the growing layer of social metrics that reveal general perception around brands, people, events, issues and topics of interest. Not only could this alter the way democracy works by gathering real-time sentiment and developing positive feedback loops for improving civil society, it also shifts the way people make decisions about purchases or lifestyle behaviors. Businesses are finding that customer engagement is becoming a more collaborative and co-creative experience - a partnership instead of just one-way communication and pushing a sale.

The ability to express sentiment and then self-organize around shared interests or common causes also has far-reaching implications for how the world operates.

As we’ve seen in the recent uprisings in the Middle East, networking tools can empower people to unite and organize collective action. In less disruptive scenarios, they enable businesses to form new partnerships, organizations to share resources or individuals to collaborate on a project at the neighborhood level.

4. Peer-to-peer exchange changes the future of money

All of these tools offering ways for people to connect, quantify, collaborate, and take action add up to new infrastructures for building trust and exchanging value at every level. You can explore Collaborative Consumption to see the hundreds of peer-to-peer marketplaces that are springing up around the world, or check out The Mesh Directory to see how businesses are leveraging social networks and resource sharing to up their efficiency.

As money and exchange increasingly go digital, our assumptions about what “currency” means are also being challenged. Facebook Credits, for example, are Facebook’s internal virtual currency used to purchase digital goods within their game ecosystem. There are already apps being developed to reward potential customers with discounts and free merchandise in exchange for playing social games and brands are rewarding users with Credits to perform certain actions on their behalf.

On the fringes of society exists the complementary currency market - a range of mechanisms that allow for peer-to-peer value exchange through mutual credit systems like LETS or via decentralized currencies like Bitcoin. When the tools are in place to allow individuals or groups within a local area to easily exchange value without using traditional/centralized currency, it’s reasonable to expect a serious challenge to the ingrained public perception of money.

How to be "superfluid"

We live in a vast series of interconnected and nested systems, each affecting how the others operate. The shifts we’re seeing aren’t siloed or isolated, but rather systemic changes that have been happening throughout evolutionary history. They’re now happening at an accelerated rate, which means we have to adapt by finding ways to stay resilient and agile in a constantly changing environment.

Those finding success are adopting a “both/and” approach, rather than a black and white “either/or” solution. It is not necessary to abandon every time-tested practice and jump headfirst into something radically new. But, it is wise to integrate new approaches as a sort of hybrid “coopetition” - going from push to pull, defining a new capitalism, and welcoming “social” as a 21st century strategy.

The future we aspire to consists of business practices and ethics that are not zero-sum, meaning that cooperation and trust can lead to benefits for all. Unused or mis-allocated resources are channeled to unmet needs. Wealth is not just a number on a financial statement, but rather a celebration of sustainable and resilient communities, a clean environment and an educated and informed society.

It is our choice to enable such a future or not. In the end, we’re all in this together.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Venessa Miemis .

Topics: Global • Science • Strategy • Technology

soundoff (35 Responses)
  1. KingofthePaupers

    As money and exchange increasingly go digital, our assumptions about what “currency” means are also being challenged. Facebook Credits, for example, are Facebook’s internal virtual currency used to purchase digital goods within their game ecosystem. On the fringes of society exists the complementary currency market – a range of mechanisms that allow for peer-to-peer value exchange through mutual credit systems like LETS, it’s reasonable to expect a serious challenge to the ingrained public perception of money.
    Jct: He mentions LETS but hasn't the global version UNILETS timebanking.

    April 29, 2011 at 3:50 pm | Reply
    • Venessa Miemis

      hi kingofthepaupers!

      thanks for the heads up on UNILETS, i hadn't heard of that. (ps – i'm a "she", not a he). :)

      a cool tool i discovered recently was http://communityforge.net/ – which offers free currency design software compatible with time banks. it's being used by about 50 communities around the world right now.

      – venessa

      April 29, 2011 at 8:08 pm | Reply
  2. Alvis Brigis

    Imo, this piece provides essential context for what's happening at home (wherever that may be) and globally. The trends you point out are very real and transformative and it's about time we updated our collective narrative accordingly. These are systems principles that should be taught to kids and adults alike. The sooner this knowledge spreads, the better off we'll be as a planet – probably.

    April 29, 2011 at 4:39 pm | Reply
  3. gnp in d island

    Sometimes I think people live in a fantasy world of their own making. Not to say this tech stuff isn't effective and fun BUT let's not forget the 3 to 4 billion on the margins who haven't a clue what you're talking about. They're hungry and will work for a bowl of rice, or maybe they're scavanging the local dump. In any case these tech saveys are taking advantage of, what can only be termed, slavery, out of sight, out of mind. The real world is NOT that pretty picture, it's pretty rough for way too many folks.

    April 29, 2011 at 4:44 pm | Reply
    • Alvis Brigis

      the potential for leapfrogging in connectivity and mobile banking is enormous for those on the margins. there's no guarantee that the world and local economies will smoothly navigate the transition, imo there's much growing pain ahead, but i see REAL promise and hope in technology as a globally distributed actualizing force. remember, this stuff is accelerating. computers and other efficiency generating devices are flooding the world and people everywhere will get to use them. i am curious, what solutions that don't involve emerging technologies do you see?

      April 29, 2011 at 7:09 pm | Reply
    • Venessa Miemis

      hi gnp!

      i completely hear you, and i guess from my perspective i hope to see these mobile web-connected devices/smartphones as increasingly powerful yet inexpensive tools that could enable and empower the 'bottom of the pyramid.'

      there are actually so many incredibly inspiring and amazing things happening in those areas already, with people gaining access to tools and information they never had before. unfortunately, the mainstream media doesn't seem to report on them, and so people not deeply embedded in the tech field are not aware.

      i mentioned M-PESA in the article.... mobile money is having a big impact in africa – http://www.voxeu.org/index.php?q=node/6216

      also check out what nobel peace prize winner Mohammad Yunus has facilitated with the Grameen Bank and microlending – http://www.grameenfoundation.org/

      i think there are some incredible opportunities right now for bringing the bottom 4 billion into financial inclusion via mobile device. there are a lot of new structures being formed for digital asset management that obliterate the need for a traditional bank as we think of it. combine that with the power of a global communication infrastructure to connect with others and access free information and knowledge, and i truly see hope.

      sure, we can point fingers and blame and be angry... but really, that doesn't do anything productive. (maybe it inflates our sense of being "right").

      there ARE solutions being worked on, and they are worth paying attention to and celebrating. it's obviously not going to be easy to try and liberate humans around the planet through a cell phone, and that's not even realistic. but i think it's worth noting the things that are working, and seeing how we can amplify them and build upon them, verse just giving up.

      there is definitely hope, and momentum is building so fast, whether you can feel it right now or not.

      – venessa

      April 29, 2011 at 11:10 pm | Reply
    • Venessa Miemis

      gnp,

      just came to mind... check out the work MobileActive is doing, using mobile technology for social impact – http://mobileactive.org/

      i'd also suggest taking a look at the work of Ushahidi for crisis mapping & data visualization – http://www.ushahidi.com/

      – v

      April 30, 2011 at 1:48 pm | Reply
  4. JCMSladeMF_PiL

    Where is the "Freedom" in all this? It is nothing other than Big Brother writ large. We are being seduced make no mistake about it. Your every whim anticipated, pre-packaged, delivered w/out, perhaps, your even having to request it whether you like it or not. I didn't have to read much further than: "The big picture is that the more information we’re able see, the more effective we can be at making intelligent decisions that have positive effects on our lives and our environment." Just ask yourself one question: who or what is "we"? I don't think this is the "we" as in you and me but the "we" as in some faceless bureaucrat/technocrat "suggesting" what we do, be, act, purchase, think etc... No thanks, I want to make my own decision and mistakes and I don't want or need any guidance or quantification for validation. I am not here to share with anyone, save anyone, pay for anyone, love anyone, etc except by my own free will and volition...I will not be coerced or made to feel like a Fascist or worse for not agree with the official dogma and government agitprop.

    Tyler Durden: We're consumers. We are by-products of a lifestyle obsession. Murder, crime, poverty, these things don't concern me. What concerns me are celebrity magazines, television with 500 channels, some guy's name on my underwear. Rogaine, Viagra, Olestra.

    April 29, 2011 at 10:29 pm | Reply
    • Venessa Miemis

      hey JCM –

      thanks for commenting on my piece. great thoughts, and i completely agree it could go in this direction. i actually just put together a post yesterday on my blog about this exact issue..... information transparency is great – when it's under our control and benefits us and we set the permissions. –

      http://emergentbydesign.com/2011/04/28/why-the-online-identity-data-ownership-debate-matters/

      i'm flying out to california on monday to attend the Internet Identity Workshop, and then returning again several weeks later for the Privacy Identity Innovation conference. these are definitely issues on my radar. all this information sharing IS extremely valuable already... but 3rd parties and commercial entities currently own it. if enough awareness is raised about this that the average person DEMANDS data ownership, we may be able to secure some policies that guarantee our freedoms and rights.

      the way it's going right now, it may not turn out in our interest, which would be a huge detriment to democracy and global society.

      – venessa

      April 29, 2011 at 10:48 pm | Reply
  5. JCMSladeMF_PiL

    Yeah, if anyone cares, do a little research on the CFR, AKA The Council of Foreign Relations, and that creepy guy Fareed Zakaria who thinks he is better and smarter than everyone else because he is an "American" by choice and not birth. That is him just taking the moral high ground from US born citizens, the subtext being if you were born here your ipso facto and idiot and that you should sit down, shut-up and just do as your told. He is one of the IMF's stormtroopers in the psyops war that the UN/CFR/IMF have unleashed on the sovereignty of the United States. The central bank (the private banking corporation in the US known as the Federal Reserve) is currently in the process of destroying our currency (it's been going on for decades!) by transferring the wealth of savers and Americans as a whole to the too- big- to- fail- banks and leaving us holding the bag. Wake-up, people guys like Fareed Zakaria are our worst enemy he is the proverbial wolf in sheep's clothing. If you want to win your freedom back we better all start learning to think outside the box, good luck!

    April 29, 2011 at 10:46 pm | Reply
    • Venessa Miemis

      hey again, JCM!

      not sure what all that is about that you just mentioned, but i do agree that we have an incredibly fragile currency system and economic structure right now. luckily, there are actually A LOT of intelligent people working on solutions to reinvigorate local economies, and in some cases completely disintermediate the current infrastructure.

      i personally see a huge opportunity in more peer to peer sharing and resource allocation. i won't put too much in the comments here, but you're welcome to check out my blog where i try to highlight all the initiatives i'm tracking around the world. there are some really interesting alternative structures emerging for wealth creation and how money works... if you're interested, just check out the blogroll on the right hand column on emergentbydesign.com under "Future of Money"

      cheers,

      venessa

      April 29, 2011 at 10:54 pm | Reply
  6. Molly56

    All your article is A-OK with me (I'm a currency reformist, and favor BitCoin at the moment) except this little line:

    <<>>

    Sorry, but this makes those of us who think the whole global warming/climate change thing is a scam, recoil, to say the least. Maybe climate is changing, but let's not make that an excuse for Big Brother to watch over and judge our consumption, please. There is even a plan out there that sounds like it wants to value our e-currency based on what we buy, after determining if our purchases have a low "carbon footprint". That makes my stomach turn.

    Luckily, I don't think any of these 1984 style plans to punish us or reward us for being "carbon neutral" will fly.

    But please, please, keep phrases like that out of your writing, or some of us will discount you as a stealth NWO minion.

    April 30, 2011 at 5:00 pm | Reply
    • Venessa Miemis

      hi molly,

      interesting that just hearing the term "carbon footprint" would be such a turn off.

      the supply chain sentence was about Sourcemap, which i found a few weeks ago, who describe themselves as follows:

      "Sourcemap is a place to create open supply chains for products, food, and travel using a shared carbon catalog and life cycle assessment (LCA) tools."

      perhaps if it had just called itself a tool for life cycle analysis or cradle-to-grave analysis, it would feel less offensive?

      if you look at their website and some of the sourcemaps, they have stuff like where the components of an IKEA bed were assembled, or where the ingredients of a certain brand of deodorant came from. even if you ignore the little 'carbon footprint' numbers they attach to it, it's interesting to be able to see what's involved in assembling items, and then just asking, is there a more efficient, sustainable way? forget the global warming part – just generally thinking, are there ways more local items could be used when assembling products? and i don't just mean local to the United States, but any location we may be talking about. how could their local resilience be improved by harnessing local/regional resources?

      the second part, about value of e-currency based on what you buy, is already happening in a sense. if you're familiar with Facebook Credits, the internal virtual currency of Facebook – there are now programs being rolled out by brands where you can earn Credits for engaging in various interactions with that brand (taking a poll, playing a social game, etc). you can then turn around and use those Credits within the Facebook system. so it doesn't take a huge stretch to imagine Credits being bait to get consumers to... well, consume.

      as far as the Earth Dashboard project, it's described as "an interactive multimedia installation and website with live data and video feeds." it's going to be on display at the United Nations HQ Visitor Lobby in NYC, displaying statistics that already exist and already being generated about global indicators, and taking them from being raw boring data sets and transforming them into visualizations. so it would provide a real-time snapshot of numbers that are already being recorded, just never having been assembled in one place. so stuff like weather patterns, outbreak of disease, stock market fluctuations and currency markets, crop damage, energy expenditure, etc.

      so for that example too, i see it as a tool to raise awareness about the general condition of various systems around us.

      but thanks for the tip about using the phrase carbon footprint. i'll be more careful about using loaded phrases and try to keep it more straightforward and neutral.

      – v

      May 1, 2011 at 6:21 am | Reply
  7. Molly56

    Hmmm, wouldn't let me copy/paste. Here is the offending line (to me)

    Supply chains can be mapped help us assess the carbon footprint of the products we purchase. There’s even an initiative to map the real-time statistics of the entire planet, dubbed the Earth Dashboard

    April 30, 2011 at 5:02 pm | Reply
  8. Name required

    LP to 8 track to cassette to CD to MP3 and not any happier

    April 30, 2011 at 6:20 pm | Reply
    • Twiggy

      Exactly. Of course, we've managed to make great strides in preventing small artists from making a decent living, ;-) and even crushed quite a few attempts by big name artists to make real cash, even on their most tremendous hits.

      For every internet economy "success" there is a plethora of silent "failure" stories where someone's efforts, which should have produced a decent living, left them broke and in debt, moving back into Mom's spare room.

      May 2, 2011 at 12:32 am | Reply
  9. Historian

    Humans, being over-managed and over-monitored transforms them into robot-like entities.

    Give me back the baker with the horse and cart, climbing trees barefoot, and only knowing what is happening in my town. Sure, stores often ran out of goods because of miscalculations, but I was happy back then, before being drowned in world calamity, before having phones buzzing non-stop, and before being listed on hundreds if not thousands of databases and then being data-invaded.

    I will fight against being transformed into a human-bot (with emphasis on bot) right up to my very last breath. While all of this has saddened me over the past 15 years or so, my greatest sadness is knowing that my grandchildren will never know what it is like to be an ordinary and natural human.

    I have not forgotten that modern technology has brought about great advances in medicine and disease control, but let us not forget that, in the main, these advances are still only available to a very small proportion of humanity. So, most of us live and die without the so-called benefits of all this new technology, but many of us have to suffer the burdens it brings. Not least of which is cancer from nuclear fallout.

    May 1, 2011 at 6:28 am | Reply
  10. Alex

    I’m sorry that the word Social has been so wrongly abused, but if understood correctly your article is wrapped up elegantly. Your definition of wealth, ethics, and social in a kosmocentric context warrant all the humanness, freedom, privacy, security, safety nets, Christian compassion, and happiness that everybody here seems to be so worried about.

    May 1, 2011 at 11:46 am | Reply
  11. Twiggy

    Yes, the new economy is "superfluid." The fluid is your money, and it's draining away super fast.

    As for all this data that's being collected, has it helped people become more honest, kind, or respectful? Has mankind evolved at all since the introduction of the personal computer? If you as an average individual have a bunch of statistics, what makes you qualified to analyze it and make use of the information?

    May 1, 2011 at 8:43 pm | Reply
    • Alex

      I guess the beauty of this postmodern/ integral era is that those statistics are available to everybody, and reason (not dogma) qualifies you to use and question that information. Do you have a reason to disqualify her comments?

      May 1, 2011 at 8:59 pm | Reply
      • Twiggy

        I gather you're a believer in this superfluid economy.

        The point is that people can maybe, just maybe, understand what they're looking at, but most likely, the average person out there with the average IQ and maturity level is not really equipped to gather something illuminating all on their own... entertaining perhaps, as many misinterpretations of fact are, but not really a leap forward in understanding.

        There's data, there's information, there's knowledge, and then there's understanding. Most people need a bit of guidance, and sometimes some good old fashioned rules, to get from the first thing to the last, without making a lot of errors along the way.

        The average person thinks a lot of stuff that's magical, self-serving, flattering, and yet easily disproved, despite the opulent presence of statistics that show otherwise. I suppose the now widespread availability of facts and figures makes such common ignorance all the more stunning to witness.

        A lack of facts can be described as ignorance. Moving forward with personal conceits despite the facts is stupidity.

        There's wisdom in an individual (or at least a few of them), but there's no wisdom in crowds - despite all the popular books and bumper-sticker logic.

        If you want to see beauty in what you're calling post-modern (technically, that was a few years ago), you're welcome to do so.

        May 2, 2011 at 12:29 am |
  12. Gary Smart

    Re: the earlier post about 3-4 billion having no idea what we're talking about. One, money talks, and these 3-4 billion have little if any money, so they are economically insignficant (remember, this is an article about the superfluid economy). Two, the potential for self-expanding and peer-to-peer exchanges greatly increases the ability of anyone and everyone, regardless of location and station in life, to participate in rewarding economic transactions. The ability for co-ops to form and micro marketplaces to function will be greatly enhanced. Ultimately, this should help everyone, including the reference 3-4 billion.

    May 2, 2011 at 2:24 pm | Reply
  13. Lauren

    The bitcoin economy will only work if there are legal venues to spend bitcoin. The artist saddet is releasing his album "The Empire" for free at http://saddet.com with an option to donate using bitcoin – this is a good first step toward legitimizing the currency.

    May 21, 2011 at 12:10 pm | Reply
  14. Trinidad

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    January 9, 2014 at 7:23 am | Reply
  15. abnsapkota

    Humans are turning themselves into robots, I fear. New technology has turned us into blood pumping robots.

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    August 2, 2014 at 12:06 am | Reply

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