Beyond a scarcity mindset: A letter from my future self

The resources of 2065—data and networks among them—could grow instead of deplete from use, writes Aaron Maniam.

Level 77 The Interface Raffles City-in-a-Garden 10 August 2065 Dear Aaron-in-2017, I was incredibly excited when humanity finally cracked the time travel conundrum and I could send this letter. To think it was all done with technology developed by one of the seventh university’s own research centres, the Inter-temporal Transportation Institute for Molecular Efficiency (i-TIME)! i-TIME has taken a leaf out of Star Trek’s “Temporal Prime Directive” and is starting to draw up a Code of Chronocentric Conduct (C3), which tells me I cannot reveal too much about the future to you, as it might affect the space-time continuum. But I thought I’d take the chance, before the regulations are fully fleshed out, to encourage you to persist in some of the work you’re doing in 2016—because there is potential for so much more value to emerge from it than we’re currently seeing in 2065. Do you remember that idea you/I/we had in 2014/2015, about how the emergence of Big Data, networks and the sharing economy might herald a new type of “resource”? You told anyone who was half-willing to listen that traditional economics textbooks weren’t fully right to have first chapters with titles like “Scarcity: The Central Problem of Economics”. I still remember the excitement of pondering a world where data, connections and relationships were resources that might actually grow rather than deplete from being used, particularly given the network links forged by the Internet. New resources for a new world! Of course, not all such data and network sharing is equal, and much depends on what resource is being shared, but the overall gains seemed clear. This seemed like such an exciting departure from the exhaustible resources that prompted Garrett Hardin’s famous phrase “the tragedy of the commons” in 1968, based of course on the “enclosure” of common land carried out by the English King Henry VIII. (In case you’re wondering, the phrase is still famous in 2065!). I can tell you that some scarcities haven’t disappeared, even now. There is still inequity, and more wants than can be met with the productive capacity enabled by raw materials like oil and minerals. C3 regulations mean that time is scarce too—for now, at least! But how right you were that the next big thing, for both Singapore and the world, was the movement away from a pure scarcity mindset. I would not overstate the case and say that we now live in an age of abundance—but it’s safe to say that resources like data, networks and relationships, are “generative” rather than scarce. The more they are used, the more of each resource we have; the better it becomes. [blockquote]“We now live in an age of abundance—but it’s safe to say that resources like data, networks and relationships, are “generative” rather than scarce.”[/blockquote] Data begets more data, knowledge catalyses new knowledge, and the strong social capital underpinning relationships benefits from being carefully tended, much like gardens generate new life from periodic pruning. I would venture that such generative resources have five core characteristics. I know you’re starting to ponder these in 2016, but thought I’d help to distill the ideas. 1. Generative resources exhibit “input-output porosity” It’s difficult to tell whether things like data, network connections, and social capital constitute input into, or output from, productive processes. I suspect that the input-output dichotomy, while useful for a world where goods and services were produced in linear, discreet processes, is much less relevant when resources and raw “materials” are less tangible. There are inevitable feedback loops between input and output, each feeding into and fed by the other. The lines we used to draw, between production and consumption, or producers and consumers, will grow less salient over time. We will all increasingly become “prosumers”, combining both categories. 2. Generative resources suffer, not from overuse (as in the case of Hardin’s tragedies), but underuse Neglected communities on the sidelines of cities; websites bereft of energy and traffic; physical and online networks atrophying under the weight of sluggish usage; prediction algorithms with insufficient training data; personal recommendation or automation engines not used often enough—these are certainly tragic in terms of lost potential and capacity. But the tragedy lies in insufficient rather than over-exploitation—sometimes by choice, and sometimes because even in 2065 we still lack the computational power to analyse the new information. 3. Generative resources are not static but constantly evolving This might seem obvious, until we remember that for the better part of humanity’s economic history, our idea of resources focused on goods that stayed by and large the same during a productive process: things like oil and iron. Their physical states might have changed, but the core of the resource was relatively constant. Your resources in 2016 are already starting to show signs of being much more dynamic and iterative: data feeds on itself, networks give rise to cycles that can be virtuous or vicious, and social capital can undergo massive non-linear transformations. So much more happens between then and 2065, but I won’t spoil too many surprises for you! 4. I’ve been increasingly intrigued by the related idea that generative resources don’t have clear boundaries, but fuzzy edges This is important because we usually rely on well-defined boundaries when we govern (or decide who should govern) a resource. But where do things like data, networks and relationships start or end? I don’t have a full answer to this, even in 2065, but the question has helped me to experiment with new ways of managing and governing such resources, focused more on the norms underpinning their use, rather than mere physical concepts like their quantity. 5. Put together, the intangible and evolving nature of such resources mean that there are few clear “equilibrium” points in their usage or governance There’s another concept that economists used to love—and I have to admit, equilibria do help to simplify analysis. But the real world doesn’t usually exhibit stable or immutable equilibria; it has a much more emergent quality, characterised by constant shifts and evolution. Life in 2065 is much messier than in 2016, in ways that your quantum scientists are only just starting to appreciate... it’s also a lot more interesting as a result! I’ve been thinking a lot about what all this means for Singapore—both yours in 2016 and mine in 2065. That’s why I wanted to write: because I hope you keep thinking about generative resources, and how we can move beyond the traditional scarcity mindset of economics. Starting from 2016, we need a change not just in our policies and business approaches to resources; we need a fundamentally new language for, and way of thinking about, resources themselves. This means adopting a much more systems-oriented approach, to harness the generativity of networks, and more collaboration to tap into generative relationships. It means more public participation in public policy—more deliberation by citizens on the decisions that affect their lives—more policy that is truly “of, by and for” the people—because such broad engagement is itself a generative process, characterised by immense potential and vitality. It means reviewing our intellectual property and tax regimes, because what constitutes “value” in a world of generative resources will be more complex and variegated than our institutions are used to. I wish you could see just how generative resources have become. But I need to be careful, even if the C3 regulations aren’t fully articulated. What I can say is that 2065 is exciting, full of possibilities, and will be worth the wait. I’ll write again as soon as I can. Aaron-in-2065 P.S. You probably guessed—some C3 standards that have been codified clearly state that I can’t tell you what stocks to long in the next 50 years. Not that I would have. I also can’t divulge what job you/I/we will do in 2065, but I can say this: it will be fun! Aaron Maniam is the Director of the Industry Division at the Ministry of Trade and Industry (Singapore). He is a curious generalist-civil servant by profession; poet by calling; volunteer educator and diversity facilitator by choice; all of them by passion. As the first Head of the government’s Centre for Strategic Futures (2010 – 2011), he crafted many letters, scenarios and other artefacts from the future. He believes deeply in the value of such “anticipatory muscle”, and sees inculcating long-term thinking in younger Singaporeans as the most important thing he can do in and outside work. This article was previously published in THink: The HEAD Foundation Digest and reproduced with permission. The HEAD Foundation is a Singapore-based think tank that is focused on the research, policy influence, and effective implementation of education for development in Asia. An earlier edition of this piece was first published in The Birthday Book 2016, an annual collection of essays discussing macro issues concerning Singapore. The theme for 2016 was "What is Singapore's Next Big Thing?"