Exponential equity in an age of abundance: a modest proposal

Nine years ago, renowned futurist and Google Chief Engineer, Ray Kurzweil, and X-Prize Foundation Chair, Peter Diamandis, founded Singularity University in order to explore and explain the potential of exponential technologies to address our great global challenges. Last week I had the privilege to attend their Executive Programme.

During our week long bootcamp, we were exposed to future technological trends in robotics, artificial intelligence, neuroscience, digital manufacturing, digital medicine and space exploration, to name but a few. Underpinning spectacular advances across all of these areas is the explosion of computational power, as predicted by Moore’s Law.

For example, genomes that initially cost $3bn to sequence now cost $1,000 and are on their way to cost $0.01. Meanwhile, artificial intelligence, bored with chess and Jeopardy, has moved on to master Go and Texas Holdem Poker.

Autonomous cars are here and will become a familiar sight on our roads before my kids get their drivers’ licences

Blockchain technologies are creating new distributed ledger mechanisms for exchanging value. And projects like Google’s Loon are working to bring internet access to the world’s population.

We also talked about disruption, how Eastman Kodak disappeared almost overnight (having themselves invented the digital camera), and how the pace of disruption across organisations and entire industries was only likely to increase.

This gave rise to several conversations about the economic impact of accelerating disruption. Amin Touffani spoke about the rise of exonomics; a new distribution of economic outcomes, whereby extreme events - both positive and negative - are more likely to occur and whereby increasing technological advances are likely to result in increasing returns to capital, not least as more economic activity is capable of being automated.

We are seeing an exponential growth in unicorns - start-ups that reach a $1bn valuation (source: CB Insights).

This led us to conversations about the future of work, and the inadequacies of the current social security architecture to handle the increased disruption.

Frictional unemployment will rise when large proportions of the population wake up one morning to find their industry ‘vaporised’ and they need to retool for the next wave of jobs.

The current vogue for basic income trials was mentioned, with the conclusion that while the jury is still out, greater experimentation is probably no bad thing - something I’ve previously advocated in Nesta’s 2016 prediction series.

Paul Saffo pointed out that our economies are merely the collective moral choice that we, as a society, make: what we value and how we compensate for people’s contributions

At the end of the week, we were encouraged to reflect on what we had had heard and seen, and to think about how we could apply exponential thinking to our global challenges.

So here is my modest proposal.

What if we could tap into the exponential wealth being created by exponential technologies to capitalise the global population… individually… and directly?

We already have the Giving Pledge; for people to give away their wealth once they’ve made it. We also have the Founders Pledge; for entrepreneurs who pledge to give away some of their wealth before they’ve made it. So, how about a Citizens Equity Pledge?

Silicon Valley investors and accelerators, such as Y Combinator, are already investing in basic income trials. What if Y Combinator (and their peers) made it a condition of entry to their accelerators that any start-up that subsequently reaches unicorn status automatically divests a fixed percentage of its equity into a Citizens Equity Trust?

The sole purpose of the trust would be to distribute dividends to the world’s population, through individualised accounts probably utilising blockchain technology and mobile platforms.

Capital growth in the trust is likely to be small at first, as this is likely to be adopted by a small number of investors and accelerators, and the growth of unicorns is still quite small. But this might be accelerated by leveraging existing movements, such as the Giving Pledge and Founders Pledge, or even baked into B-Corp certification.

If a critical mass of tech investment could be reached, over time the trust could blossom, possibly even exponentially

If there’s one thing I’ve taken away from this week, it’s that exponential growth looks disappointing in the short term against linear trends, until it breaks out.

While the exact figures are highly assumption dependent, it is plausible that such a Citizens Equity Trust could provide a modest per capita dividend - comparable to the levels of basic income currently being proposed - within 15 to 20 years.

All of this without requiring taxation or government action, just the voluntary adoption of a new moral code.

This is not to suggest that governments should abandon their experimentation with universal basic income; clearly these efforts should continue. This is not an either-or situation.

Just as Henry Ford created a market for his Model Ts by paying his factory-line workers a decent wage, perhaps the exponential disruptors of today and tomorrow might, through a Citizens Equity Trust, expand their global audience for their future technology.

Who knows, they might even provide the basic capital so that tomorrow’s entrepreneurs and innovators may come from anywhere in the world to join in the action.

If you have any comments, challenges or connections that might help improve or advance this concept, please email me at [email protected].

Photo Credit: barnimages.com Flickr and virtualwayfarer Flickr via Compfight cc


Brenton Caffin

Brenton Caffin

Brenton Caffin

Executive Director, Global Innovation Partnerships

Brenton was Nesta’s Executive Director, Global Innovation Partnerships, leading Nesta's work globally to help people and organisations get better at innovating for the common good.

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