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Reflecting on the showdown at the OK Coral that occurred in December of last year, there is much to learn about how we govern ourselves in a networked world.  You may remember that representatives of more than 190 governments held a profoundly important 12-day closed-door meeting in Dubai to hammer out the rules and regulation of how the Internet should be run and who should pay for its operation.  The meeting was sponsored by the International Telecommunication Union, a low-profile UN agency.

The ITU sets out the technical standards for the world’s communication technologies, and the last time the group met was in 1988, when the information superhighway was geek-talk and the World Wide Web had not been created. The Internet’s subsequent explosive growth occurred not so much because of the ITU, but in spite of it.

Private and state-owned telecommunications companies spent hundreds of billions of dollars in response to user demand, and most governments took a hands-off approach.  In less than two decades, two billion people were able to go online.

To let an obscure, one-vote-per-country technical agency of the UN decide who-does-what-next in the Internet’s development is the antithesis of what the Internet has achieved.

The Internet slashes the costs of people around the world communicating and collaborating. It is farcical that no effort was taken by the ITU to expand meaningfully the process and include the people who actually use and run the Internet in deciding how tomorrow’s Internet will function.

Of all organizations, the ITU should be able to see that the Internet has made the ITU obsolete.

But the ITU is not alone.  It is only one of many organizations the Internet is rapidly rendering anachronistic.

Throughout the twentieth century nation states cooperated to build global institutions to facilitate joint action and address global problems.  This led to the creation of the International Monetary Fund, The World Bank, and ultimately to the United Nations (1945), The G8 (1975), the World Trade Organization (1995) and scores of other organizations based on nation states.

But increasingly they fail to deliver.  They seem unable to help deal with climate change, fight poverty, resolve Palestinian statehood or govern the global financial system.

Often these failures are caused by national self-interests taking priority when the challenges demand solutions that transcend traditional nation-state boundaries. These groups obstinately make little room for the inclusion of authentic citizen voices despite the fact that self-organized civic networks are congealing around every major issue and challenge on the international agenda.

Digital citizens, awash in information and choices, are taking action on many fronts. The non-governmental organization sector is exploding in size and influence on the international scene. It increasingly sets the agenda in areas such as human rights and the environment.

The global NGO sector is a $1.3 trillion industry (equal to the world’s seventh largest economy), which employs over 40 million people and serves billions more in mature and emerging markets.

Virtual communities linking cultural and ethnic diasporas around the globe are breaking down the boundaries of geography and creating bridges based on values. These worldwide virtual communities not only provide a sense of belonging, they can become a conduit for problem solving by bringing together people sharing a heritage or a worldview, but not a physical location.

All of this raises the most fundamental question: Is a relentless logic at work that projects a completely different form of governance to succeed the nation-state, just as the nation-state itself was built on the foundations of early forms of government?

It is increasingly clear that as we go forward, governance will be co-owned by a variety of stakeholders, including non-governmental organizations, trans-national corporations and emerging countries. Even individual citizens have an unprecedented ability to participate and engage in global activities. As former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan once put it, “We [now] live in a world where human problems do not come permanently attached to national passports.” Global governance is not owned by any one governing body. It is, and should be, a challenge owned by all of us.

Advocacy networks such as the Alliance for Climate Change are working to to educate, mobilize and change the policy of governments and global institutions. These networks act as platforms for those who seek change.  A great example is Ushahidi—the web site that was initially established to map reports of violence in Kenya after the post-election fallout of 2008, and evolved into a global network to enable people to share information and organize for change.

More elaborate multi-issue networks such as the World Economic Forum or the Clinton Global Network are addressing  a wide variety of issues but which, unlike formal state-based institutions, are self-organizing and act as meta-networks attempting to help other networks succeed.

The World Economic Forum is a good example of a meta-network. It used to be a three-day meeting in a Swiss ski village where business, political and academic luminaries got to rub elbows. But increasingly it is holding events around the world and has shifted many discussions online. It wants to be a 365-days-a-year meeting of minds to set a global agenda and take action to “improve the state of the world.”

We are in the early days of understanding these relatively new phenomena. How are these networks initiated? What problems are they addressing? Why do they fill a vacuum in the global governance scene? What impact are they having? What is the technology platform they use? How are they governed? How do they address the tough issues of legitimacy, representation and accountability? What can be done to make them more effective?

Don Tapscott, Executive Director
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