Seeing the future – how the pandemic may be ushering in Society 3.0

I remember vividly when I first grasped, more than a decade ago, how much the ‘sharing economy’ was going to change how society operated. I was in the Netherlands, visiting a business that was transforming itself via the same ideas that later made Airbnb and Uber so successful.

Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

Seats2Meet was a business that rented meeting rooms to businesses and provided services related to that work. But in thinking about the future, they had realized that their business model would have to change, and that a very large proportion of young Dutch people were working independently, outside of traditional business, often from their homes or from coffee shops.

So they offered those young innovators work space  in exchange for sharing their knowledge with others. While this made for greater use of their building, it also created a community of innovators whose use of digital media put the ‘sharing economy’ model into practice while effectively promoting Seats2meet.

Society 3.0, the underlying theory popularized by the Dutch thinker Ronald van den Hoff, suggested that business growth lay in offering ‘transformative’ experiences. Seats2meet became the lab for figuring out how to do this.

“Transformations are becoming the ultimate economic offering for any corporation, value network, or independent contractor,” he wrote in 2014. “By customizing an experience to create a learning experience, making it just right for an individual – providing exactly what he/she needs right now – you cannot help changing or transforming that individual…… In other words, the customer is the product, and hence, transformations are the last and final economic offering.”

Seat2meet’s co-work locations facilitated “unexpected, relevant, serendipitous, meetings” between stakeholders. Their Serendipity Machine linked physical locations with a virtual dashboard that lets you see who is at any particular location at any given time. This ‘Mesh’ grew peoples’ social network, developed their skills, and improved their products and services, and led to concrete business outcomes. 

Not only did this benefit the young people who chose to work at Seats2meet – it changed their own business model. Just like Airbnb and Uber, they had disrupted the once traditional meeting-rental business model, and the resulting growth has been fantastic.

I was thinking about this because it is increasingly clear that the pandemic has really shifted this model into hyper-drive, and the ramifications are slowly starting to become clear.

This is how van den Hoff described the Society 3.0 generation, more than a decade ago:

“They are the people we call global citizens: people of the new world. These Society 3.0 citizens cannot and will not deal with the thinking of the establishment anymore. They want to add value in their work and life in a significantly different way, namely by creating value instead of growth. We think these global citizens – who are increasing in number daily – are the pillars, which support Society 3.0. Hundreds of millions of people of the world move around without restraints, literally unbounded, across borders all over our world. Sometimes they do this physically, but more often they do so digitally through out the Internet: the World Wide Web. …… They reinvent society and create all kinds of new, fair and sustainable business models. We think it is both exciting and fun to be such a person, a Knowmad of the world of Society 3.0.”

Vox was ruminating about this recently, pointing out that new households moving to the suburbs grew 43 percent last year, compared to 2019, and that this trend seems to be continuing. This flight to the suburbs, along with the prevalence of online shopping, is changing both cities and suburbs, it noted.

This process reminds me of eastern Europe in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when many state-owned stores collapsed and began to fill up with small stalls where you could buy all kinds of things. In the US, there are stories about some big stores and malls becoming home to a diverse collection of smaller businesses, or reprofiled for other uses. (Think of the hotels being used to house the formerly homeless.)

In the suburbs, this helps create opportunities for small businesses and collective activities like farmer’s markets that weren’t there when so many people commuted to jobs in the cities every day. And it is changing the population of suburbs and small towns, bringing people with a wide range of skills honed in business in the cities.

One example of such impact shows up in a story I read in the Guardian the other day. It was a story about a UK community, Watchet, which had been hard hit by job losses and economic downturns since the 1990s, when its working harbour closed. A marina opened in 2001 to try to boost the economy, but the closure of the local paper mill in 2015 took a fifth of the town’s jobs with it, and now the area has the lowest social mobility in England, the Guardian reported.

But it also seems that many women who had successful careers in London had moved to the Somerset coastal town to raise families, and they saw opportunities where others saw problems. In particular, they saw an opportunity in the site once intended for a luxury seafront housing development that fell victim to the 2008 financial crisis.

“We wanted to change the sense that there are no opportunities here,” said Georgie Grant of the Onion Collective, the community interest company behind the £7m project. “Rather than see the usual kind of commercial development that has no community benefit, we wanted to empower people to shape the place themselves.”

Their Thursday evening pub nights turned into thinking about how the site could be used for something more useful. “We realised there were a lot of people like us in Watchet – overqualified and underemployed, who’d had successful careers in London and then moved to the coast to have kids. If we pooled our energies we could do something for the better of the town.” In 2012, they formed the Onion Collective – “so-named for the vegetable’s many layers, and its rural, earthy connotations.”

They organized town-wide consultations in 2013, and with support from the town council,  raised money for a feasibility study for an arts centre. They got a £5.3 million grant from the government’s Coastal Communities Fund, the largest one awarded.

The East Quay arts centre, which the Guardian describes as a “bizarre, piratical encampment featuring a candy-striped triangular roof and boxes on stilts,” is a complex of galleries and studios, with a restaurant, classroom, geology workshop, print studio and paper mill – and five Airbnb rentals that will subsidize the centre’s educational activities..

“You might think that managing a capital project like this over the last eight years, juggling budgets and builders in the middle of a pandemic, would put the Onions off ever doing something like it again,” says the Guardian.

But, between consulting work for other communities and councils, they are working on plans for an ‘imaginarium’. “Every town should have a temple of imagination,”  says Jess Prendergrast, “a place where you can go to imagine what you want the area to be like.” “We’re all stuck in who and what we think we are, but we should be able to imagine different possibilities.”

That is the spirit of Society 3.0.