Marina Gorbis: building the socialstructured future

Distributed communication is changing our society. It's up to us to engage with those changes, and make them work for us, says Marina Gorbis of the Institute for the Future in her NEXT Berlin keynote

Paul Baran came up with the ideas that drive distributed communications and packet switching in the 60s – worrying about how communication would survive in the event of nuclear war. Back then communication was based on central nodes – destroy them, and the communication goes down. And so they invented a highly distributed system – that became the internet.

“When we change the way we communicate, we change our society”

– Clay Shirky.

We’re in the early stages of this technology infrastructure reshaping our society into a more decentralised system.

At Institute for the Future they use a two curve framework to help think about the future – incumbent curve (institutional production – all the value created by large organisations) and the nascent curve (socialstructed creation – a more flexible and resilient way of creating things, by aggregating micro contributions from large networks. )

This new way of creating is very social – but in a very different way than we’re used to . We’re building on top of existing institutions to make the system more flexible and agile. She believes it’s permeating every aspect of our lives. What signals of this are we seeing?


We didn’t always work in large organisations. It’s only in the last 200 years that we’ve been doing that. It’s only in the last century that we’ve really perfected that. We did it to lower transaction costs – as Ronald Coase established in The Nature of The Firm in 1937. Organisations are essentially technologies for maximising profits by minimising costs. That’s what’s being disrupted.

oDesk is a platform where people can post different tasks. It posted more tasks than were advertised as jobs in any other medium last year. A different way of doing this are science hack days, which invite people to come together for 48 hours. They self-organise into teams and decide what they want to work on, and make product prototypes – sometimes for very serious things. These people are not paid, they are not told what to do, they slef-organise and produce remarkable things.

Biocurious – started with second hand lab equipment, it grew out of a garage into a community lab, funded by Kickstarter.

This is amplified individuals using technology and connections doing things that it took an organisation to do in the past.


Socially embedded information is what we remember best – not what we read in textbooks. Information is moving out of the classroom into the world around us. Mobile apps allow us to learn as we move around. Hypercities is a project from UCLA that allows you to see the city 100 years ago as you move around. Leafsnap will tell you all about a tree whose leaf you have snapped with your phone camera.

This is the move from institutional education to learning flows. The challenge is how you dip in and out of that river of information. It’s not an episodic experience, but a continuous one.


In many countries, we’ve outsourced citizenship to a group of people, and don’t really participate in it individually. If you compare our democracy with that of ancient Athens, you see the difference between a few voting and all adult, free males doing so on a hill. They all had a responsibility to serve in Government.

We are all becoming collectors of data. We carry sensors around with us, sometimes as separate devices, sometimes just as part of our phones. We can now become collectors of data that was once only available to organised government. We’re getting better modelling and decision support tools. Opinion Space helped collect what people thought was important for the Secretary of State to be focusing on. The Foresight Engine allows ways of engaging with citizens on issues.

We’re starting to provide micro services. One town created an app which allows people who know how to do CPR to be contacted when they’re needed.

This is not about destroying governance, but about us taking governance back. They’re having a conference about this  – ReConstitutional Convention – at the end of the week.

We can’t predict the future – anyone who tells you they can is wrong or lying. But we can help shape that nascent curve with the technologies we build – and we should choose to make them social.