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Those five billion connections

By 2020, five billion people will be connected with each other through their hand held devices.

By Lynda Gratton 24 October 2010

Last year one of the most interesting ideas that came out of the Future of Work Consortium was that by 2020, five billion people will be connected with each other through their hand held devices.


Linked to the Crowd, individuals will have access to most of the digitised knowledge of the world; and using low-energy batteries, even those in the poorest places will be able to join the crowd.

What will these Five Billion Connections actually do? That’s the question I have been asking everyone whom I have come across over the last couple of months. The truth is this is an ‘emergent phenomena’, so frankly know-one really knows. But here are my top five guesses about the content of these connections.

1. They use their Cognitive Surplus

This is the argument of New York academic Clay Shirky – you can catch his argument on his recent TED talk. Right now the average person watches 28 hours of TV a week – that’s time taken in passive viewing with no connectivity to other. Imagine if instead each person devoted, lets say 5 hours to interacting with others in a more creative way. That’s 5 hours per person per week X 52 weeks in a year X a community of 5 Billion people…now and that’s a lot of cognitive surplus to be potentially focused on big issues.

2. They become more Empathic towards each other

So believes US policy maker Jeremy Rifkin – you can catch his ideas on his recent talk at the Royal Society of Arts. His argument is that when people connect they learn more about each other – and in doing so they become more understanding and empathic of each other. The impact is that a more empathic global community becomes more tolerant of each other, more able to communicate with ease, and ultimately more likely to cooperate on important issues.

3. They engage in Crowd-Innovation

Already sites like InnoCentive are enabling hundreds of thousands of people around the world to connect to each other to solve the problems they really care about. Imagine if these connected millions of people together to create ‘swarms’ of people with passion and commitment?

4. They make change happen – one person at a time

One of the interesting aspects of the Shell 2050 Scenario’s – called ‘Blueprint’ and ‘Scramble’ is the idea that in the end it will not be governments or multi-nationals that will take the lead on climate change and low carbon living – in part because these are tough decisions that institutions find hard to sell. Instead, they believe that it will be individuals that make decisions about how they are going to live on a day-by-day basis. Five billion connections enable communities of people to emerge from any location in the world to share their ideas, tips, insights, and commitments. It could be that these global communities emerge as forces that are as strong as any individual region.

5. They bring misery to the world

When I asked people about the five billion connections – there is also an alternative view. It’s the view that within these connections will be people who use this hyper-connectivity to build terrorist cells, or to organise crime in a more global and efficient manner – and by doing so bring ever more misery to the world. Its also possible that these security fears will encourage governments to control the extent to which the Cloud covers their territory, or indeed the access their citizens have to digital information. As much of the world moves into recession, this closing down and erecting of walls becomes an ever-greater threat.

It seems to me that the rapid emergence of this hyper-connectivity will be one of the most interesting phenomena to watch over the coming years. What impact do you think this will have on the way people live and work?

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