The Emerging Empowerment Economy

All the building we have to do…

For many years, the engineers of the United States have warned that infrastructure urgently needs trillions of dollars in routine maintenance, and trillions more in updates and upgrades. Infrastructure is the shared framework on which we build a thriving economy. Businesses of all sizes are able to compete for market value, in part because the quality of transport, electrification, and communications infrastructure is of world-leading quality.

Falling behind in maintenance and upgrades means innovators are not as well positioned to compete against less agile incumbents. The result is we see a slow-down in value added to consumers and to enterprise from improvements in the operations of those incumbents. That holds everyone back. As we near the end of 2016—after an election where everyday access to value was, arguably, the issue that generated the most passion on all sides—this dynamic now threatens to slow down the US economy’s ability to include all talents, harness all capabilities, and to decisively drive the building of the 21st century economy across the world.

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Demagoguery and division cannot be justified by day to day difficulties faced by people who are underserved by the powers that be, but momentum flowing into populist tendencies can be explained by those difficulties. It is difficult to find, at this moment, any large coalition that feels confident about what the next year’s policy environment will be able to do to correct these subversive economic trend-lines. But it is clear, at this moment, that we have a lot of building to do—building of awareness between and among all levels of authority and public life, building of financial and technical capability at the local level, and building of bridges between disparate political factions. Not least of all, we have to build a new, better designed, more outcome-oriented infrastructure that can serve as the foundation of a sustainable adaptable 21st-century economy that reliably adds new value for everyone, regardless of access to the halls of power or inherited affluence.

We are evolving toward an empowerment economy, in which major forces gain influence by decentralizing technical capability and enterprise opportunity. This evolution is a result of the individual and collective liberation resulting from democratization and technical innovation. The empowerment economy—driven by innovation, quality of service standards, enhanced transparency, and decentralization of influence and capacity—is the natural outgrowth of two centuries of American democratization and industrial advancement.

We now face, as a civilization and as a species, an integrated, multi-faceted crisis in pervasive unsustainability, and so we are faced with the challenge of reimagining our role in the stewardship of natural systems. We are moving into a design revolution that will adapt our infrastructure to the need for full-spectrum sustainability.

To achieve an operational upgrade of our economy, we will have to engage in a far more participatory process of policy design and long-term planning than we are used to. The inclusion of new and disruptive voices is critical to understanding how and where new models can be both sharply focused in the moment and adaptable over time, to ensure routine value enhancement for everyone. We are living with a policy, technical, and business-model infrastructure that not only demands routine third-party absorption of externalized costs, but also widens the gap between richest and poorest.

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Income inequality is a nonlinear macroeconomic risk multiplier that threatens to undermine the sustainability of whole markets, industries, and nation states. To reduce this threat, we need policies that steadily add real disposable personal income across national economies and increase constructive collaboration between nations. Building a resilient adaptive empowerment economy requires not only investment in hard infrastructure, but also direct support for generative reinforcements of human-scale capacity-building, so the innovation leverage we need can be operationalized at all levels, open to anyone who would lead.

[ The Note for November 2016 ]

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