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Why the Future will Require Mesh Governance

We are entering a completely new world for the structures of society, and we will need new forms of governance. Their shape is just starting to become clear. (Image: metamorworks/iStock/Getty Images)

Note: This essay was written to contribute to the 2018 Hub Culture Innovation Campus, running June 10-30 across Paris, Cannes and Monaco. Stan Stalnaker is the Chief Strategy Officer of Hub Culture.

Networks are evolving quickly, especially at the edges. The rapid rate of change can be unnerving, because it challenges what we have learned about security, opening what feels like a primal risk underneath us. What was safe and secure yesterday is today gone. What was dangerous yesterday seems imperative to act on today.

This rapid change is driven by a common factor, connectivity. As connectivity increases in a network, nodes in the network can increasingly transmit energy in all forms, act resolutely, evolve separately, and move in new ways. This change marginalizes old power centers, which are used to seeing distribution occur through them from the center instead of towards them from the edge. At the same time, in any given network these new direct communication routes are empowering nontraditional actors away from the center which discover a competitive advantage. Eventually we can imagine these networks to start looking like donuts, with a multidimensional web of connections that routinely bypass what used to be the center.

In some cases, the extreme edges of a network are gaining new power because the ability to connect with disparate other networks can be strongest there. Convergence between networks and scaling them for cooperation is thus one of today’s greatest opportunities.

The explosion of social content and platforms around the world is accelerating the world’s move toward network economies. Companies and governments in legacy formats rely on traditional hierarchies to control and distribute power. But after initial resistance, we are now seeing both companies and governments migrate towards network architectures and decentralization.

From all this one can see the dawning emergence of “mesh governance,” a type of non-hierarchical system designed for the “networld” now emerging. In mesh governance systems some forms of competition become counterproductive, while coexistence becomes a system imperative. Power nodes are no longer controlled at or from the center, but at chokepoints in the network where some kind of disturbance provides an opportunity for growth.  One example is bitcoin. Concentration may be very pronounced among the “miners” who produce the actual currency with their computer calculations, but overall, much of the important work in the system is done cooperatively. Overall, bitcoin thrives on decentralization.

As companies and government functions are transformed by network architectures, the need for individuals and companies to operate across multiple networks has never been stronger. This goes beyond interoperability—what is needed is “inter-cooperability” — the ability for a network to retain its own properties while cooperating with other networks. Typically, this results in a competition for resources (usually financial) which sets networks up for conflict as each attempts to control the resources necessary for it to operate effectively.

For successful mesh governance, we will have to induce networks to cooperate by demonstrating their own self-interest in the success of the overall mesh. Ultimately this implies an emphatic individualism so that all nodes can succeed. This might include giving voice to nodes through some kind of voting system. It will probably also require, as the bitcoin architecture does, the creation of incentives that reward participation.

Over time, this has massive implications for the overall economy. It points toward the replacement of traditional jobs and work in favor of node-by-node contributions for whatever the mesh thinks it needs. This will also require a rethink of participation. Legal and governmental jurisdictions will sometimes need to exponentially scale; “personas,” or multiple representations of people and groups will need a defined set of rights; access to infrastructure will need to be guaranteed for digital-only participants; and we will need to develop an understanding of the nature of pervasive holonics — entities that exist both independently and as part of a larger whole.

Here is what that would mean in more detail:

Exponentially Scaling Jurisdictions

The fabric of the mesh needs to develop out of existing and emerging platforms for governance — such as governments and industry and institutional protocols. A new class of citizens will be able to opt in to governance from diverse locations in the mesh for particular reasons or as part of diverse scenarios. To enable this, governments will have to be capable of working together to rapidly develop and grow technical protocols, especially artificially intelligent ones.

We are already beginning to see something like this in the world of cryptographically secured and enabled smart contracts, in which many types of formal actions can be validated without any help from the traditional system’s institutions, or center. Smaller governments in particular have a role to play here, as they compete to scale interoperable rules that aim to attract wider and wider audiences. Keep your eyes on Estonia, for example, which already enables a digital e-residency, and Bermuda, which has announced a move toward interoperable governance systems. As these locations generate rules for various purposes, they will be joined by all-virtual communities that maintain their own rules. At some point the connection between these protocols, states, and communities will require mesh governance.

Infrastructure for Digital Citizens, or Digizens

The demand for jurisdiction convergence will also come from individuals, who will need a reliable “digizen” infrastructure. Digizens will have different needs than citizens in a nation state. Some needs met by nation-states cannot yet be met in the digital realm, but others already have been. As the mesh between virtual and physical becomes stronger, we can expect to see increasing crossover between the two. Digizen infrastructure is being built most quickly with blockchain and AI.  Any number of companies are seeking to digitize and revitalize the roles of the state — from new forms of tokenized economics to the provision of core state services by the crowd itself. Some of the functions of the state that are beginning to be replicated in some way by the digital world include vault storage, identity, rights management, and the guarantee of legal ownership.

Pervasive Holonics

So everything becomes a network; and the network needs rules that can scale up and down across the system. There can be power nodes that gain and wield influence or value from their perspective or location in the network. Such a system might be compared to traffic systems — no one street intersection rules the traffic of a city, but some intersections (nodes) are crucial for the network’s governance and smooth operation. Systems like this are pervasive and holonic, with nesting rules that work in a small location or a big one equally well, and with common principles that can be applied anywhere in the system. This implies the need for high tolerance of diversity.

Persona Rights

The development of mesh networks will require “proportionizing” — actively manipulating the shape and structure of participants in the system according to the needs of the participant nodes. A node may have several dimensions, like the facet of a diamond. Different types of connections will be made available depending on the particular persona involved. Or it may be necessary to combine facets for some purposes.  These characteristics will be crucial for a governance system that can scale beyond companies and individual humans. That way, groups or hubs of activity can obtain and employ rights in the mesh. The ability to manage multiple personas across facets is crucial not just for network management but for wealth creation in the network mesh. In such a way, we may imagine many types of value creation across the system. They will not just emerge because of traditional financial or other forms of incentive, but from recombinations resulting from new forms of cooperation, new types of nodes in the system, and reinforced diversity within the network.

Imagine all these factors laying the groundwork for benevolent governance systems that embrace principles humans almost always say they want, like fairness and equality for instance. No single person, country, company, network or participant in the system owns the system — not unlike the world today. The key difference is that in such a mesh, we are better able to align activity in ways that benefit the common good, without the tyranny of the many or the few. The entire system is designed to prevent its takeover by self-interested actors, large or small.

As AI moves to the forefront of society’s technical arsenal, mesh governance could become a helpful architecture to insure the system’s benevolence. As AIs then converge into the mesh, we may need such an insurance policy against a future of machines that take control.

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