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The Netpreneur: Innovator of the Digital Age
Preliminary Draft

© 1996, Morino Institute. All rights reserved.

The winners, finalists and applicants for this year’s NII Awards are symbols of three powerful forces that, increasingly, are coming to touch us all. The first is a growing dissatisfaction with our institutions, the second is a renewed spirit of entrepreneurism, and the third is a revolution in communications that is transforming the way we connect, communicate, and collaborate.

A growing dissatisfaction with institutions — from corporations to governments to schools — is inspiring a desire for change that is being felt across all socioeconomic levels, ideological beliefs and diverse backgrounds.

The explosive growth in entrepreneurial activity is being triggered as more individuals confront the financial upheavals and uncertainty caused by consolidations, mergers, and downsizing. It is a movement that is sweeping our country.

The communications revolution is changing how people interact with one another, how organizations engage their constituencies, how we access information. It is also making possible a kind of "collective IQ" where thousands of people can be connected to focus on an issue. The revolution is founded on a new many-to-many, participatory communications medium that offers:

  • a capacity for rapid assembly and advocacy

  • an ensnaring capability for information collection

  • the power of individual publishing and personal expression and

  • a remarkably effective distribution model

As the three movements converge, they fuel each other and present us with enormous economic, educational and social opportunity that can form the basis for a societal transformation.

Who Will Lead This Transformation?

Fundamental transformations are not led by institutions. Institutions, for the most part, have a focus which prohibits their ability to recognize and understand the sea change around them. Their organizational structures impede their ability to adapt and respond, and they often sub- optimize their activity in new venues to protect legacy interests, products or markets.

Consider this recent quote from the article "Making Money on the Net" in the September 23, 1996 issue of Business Week:

While corporate giants have been thrashing around noisily in cyberspace, showing how not to make money on the Net, scores of entrepreneurs have been quietly tinkering — creating new business models for retailing, marketing, publishing and advertising that work for them and could perhaps point the way to an Internet payoff.

Action and knowledge is with people on the cutting edge in this digital age. Peter Drucker once defined the entrepreneur "as someone who does something new and gets it done." We suggest that there is a new breed of entrepreneur — netpreneur — who is getting new things done with the digital medium.

Agents of Change

Netpreneurs are the people creating models, ventures and opportunities centered around digital networks. They are united by their reliance on the network bridge and the critical mass of the Internet. They are students of all ages developing new ideas in their basements and employees who become overnight millionaires at companies like America Online, Yahoo, Netscape, and scores more. They are intrapreneurs spinning out of older, established organizations, collaborating in new ways to understand and capitalize on the landscape of opportunity. And they are not just building businesses. Netpreneurs are bringing innovation and the entrepreneurial spirit to healthcare, education, government and community service.

It is essential that we cultivate these netpreneurs and help convert this movement into a force for positive change. I would like to share with you some work we are doing in the Greater Washington, DC area with the Potomac KnowledgeWay Project, a collaborative effort to establish the region as a hub of innovation in the digital economy and a global center for the knowledge industries of the 21st century. The effort, which has been underway for more than a year, is based on three strategies, with the key being a program to cultivate the region’s netpreneur community. The Potomac KnowledgeWay Netpreneur Program is creating a place — virtually and physically — where netpreneurs can come together and exchange knowledge as they thresh out the new rules of this embryonic world. It is creating a support network to meet the unique needs of netpreneurs and matching them with other netpreneurs, funders, advisors, the press and potential partners. Our mission is to connect, inform and promote and we would welcome the opportunity to work with you in this effort.

Tracking The Revolution

What are the sectors, companies and people we need to watch to appreciate the communications revolution and netpreneur movement? The giant companies will, of course have their effect — Microsoft, Oracle, Sun and others — but I would suggest three courses to you in order to stay prepared.

  1. Avoid the trap that treats the Internet as a homogeneous universe. It is not. There are many diverse sectors. Track the particular trends and innovations in areas such as biomatics, middleware development and wireless and satellite communications, as well as new phenomenon like reverse publishing through online communities of interest.

  2. Watch events that are off your normal "radar screen" to permit and encourage serendipitous convergence.

  3. Track new models and enabling actions. For example, the National Institute of Health’s decision to place the DNA coding data base on the Internet will spur netpreneurs to create new opportunities, services and products from this foundation.

With all this in mind, 1997 will produce astonishing gains. Some clear ones: electronic commerce will make its breakthrough; new web-browsing devices, like WebTV, will be a consumer hit and help fuel Internet growth; Web sites will become much more interactive; and we will begin to see shake-outs in various sectors such as search engines, news delivery, Internet service providers and the like. The not-so-obvious: more people and investors will come to recognize the importance of community building and communities of interest. And, frankly, the safest prediction of all: there will be at least, one unexpected introduction that will entirely reshape the terrain as has happened in each of the last several years. Personally, I hope that 1997 will be the year of the netpreneur, when awareness, opportunity and inspiration are seized by the broad population!

It is important to remember that we are only in the initial wave of the communications revolution, filled as much with questions as opportunities. And the most important questions involve people.

People, Not Technologies, Solve Problems

With the promise and potential of the "information superhighways" we should all ask ourselves: Why, despite the communications innovations of the last 150 years, each of which was supposed to miraculously improve our society, do we approach the 21st century with so many vexing social problems unresolved, and, in some cases, made worse? Why, with all this progress, does Peter Drucker see our greatest challenge as one of "civilizing our cities?" Why does Russell Ackoff, one of the great systemic thinkers of our time, see our challenge as "reinventing our society?" And, why do so many people see our challenge as one of healing our communities?

The answers are not in technology, but in people. The hope and promise is that the uniquely empowering nature of the new communications medium may help people collaborate to find answers. The question is: How do we capitalize on the opportunity for sustained, constructive change for our families, communities, institutions and businesses?

Here are six thoughts for your consideration.

  1. Convey the Opportunity of the Communications Revolution
    We must increase general awareness of the implications of the communications revolution and the opportunities — and risks — it creates. Most importantly, we must provide context and meaning that make it relevant to individuals. While it may sound basic to you here today, the majority of people in the United States (and certainly the world) do not have an understanding of this phenomenon.

  2. Develop Informed and Relevant Public Policy
    We need more constructive, balanced discussions and a public policy framework to advance and capitalize on the communications revolution. This can only come about by a more involved and knowledgeable public, an informed political body and less ideological rhetoric from the "cyber- libertarians," "technogeeks" and "censor-kings." A history of democratic process based on deliberation, constructive debate and compromise has benefited us all. We need to recreate and embody these practices in this venue.

  3. Be Outcomes Driven
    Measure what you value. We must be less focused on technical, trophy accomplishments, like giving every child a laptop computer, and more focused on making a sustainable difference; that is, the real outcomes for people, businesses and communities. Is our challenge wiring our schools or giving kids the skills and opportunity to learn? I implore you to move away from infrastructure metrics, such as number of classrooms connected, and be more outcomes-based — for example, set your goal to raise the literacy rate of graduating students by 50%. Please don’t fall prey to the measurement mistakes the Information Technology world made in the last several decades. We placed infrastructure ahead of results. It took the IT industry over 30 years to understand that outcomes — not boxes and wires — were their real mission. Let’s be smarter in how we advance the digital communications medium.

  4. Ensure "Ubiquitous" Access
    We must be sure that in our drive for short-term market positions and profits we do not inadvertently gate netpreneurial potential. Dramatic growth and innovation demands very low- cost, ubiquitous access both to networks and to the information repositories of government, educational and nonprofit institutions.

  5. Advance Neighborhood Learning Centers
    We need to establish physical centers in neighborhoods that focus on mentoring and which provide a safe place for kids and their families to learn. While clearly the greatest need is in low- income neighborhoods, it exists across socioeconomic levels. We desperately need to move learning beyond the schools — augment and help schools, certainly — but, in some cases, also provide for alternative learning. The new medium holds a unique promise for these centers in its ability to break through walls of isolation, helping people — especially children — connect with each other and explore new horizons.

  6. Promote a 21st Century Literacy
    We must design and deliver programs which develop the new learning skills of the digital age. People, especially children, need them in schools at all levels, in neighborhood learning centers and in organizations across all sectors. We suggest programs in critical cognitive skills to help people learn how to reach, connect, interact and learn from the diverse networks of groups and individuals across the world. We need to help people better understand the skills of information discovery, editorial validation, assimilation, presentation and dissemination made essential by the Internet. We need to help people learn the social interaction skills inherent to the new medium, the practices of expression, the culture of community responsibility and participation, and the ethical use of information and services.

The Importance of Context And Meaning

Lewis Perelman, author of School’s Out, eloquently stated that the definition of have’s and have not’s is not about money, computers or access, but who will be able to learn in our new society. This will cut through all classes.

Most of all, we should remember that this is too new for anyone to have the answers about what this revolution will ultimately hold, least of all me. In 1993, after all, video-on-demand was for the future, Netscape was a glimmer in Jim Clark’s eye and America Online toiled alone. Way back then the major companies were building private networks and insisting that the Internet would not influence their plans, the National Information Infrastructure had just been announced and no informed source would have comprehended the passage of a computer decency act.

Everyone in the digital world should place two quotes on their bathroom mirrors and review them every day. The first is by Tom Peters: "Loving change, tumult, even chaos is a prerequisite for survival, let alone success." I would only add, especially when it applies to yourself. The second is from Andrew Grove who cautions "Only the paranoid survive."

Yes, we must embrace change, but we must also distinguish it from meaningful progress. Will we see beyond the wires, computers, and web sites to pioneer positive economic, educational and social effects? It is exhilarating to see the accomplishments of the NII Award winners, yet we cannot forget that our communities, schools, and businesses are facing formidable challenges. We need action and solutions to systemic problems. Luckily, we have a very real chance to be part of historical solutions that will shape our future. Judge innovation by these criteria: Will it really make a difference? Will it lead to positive systemic change? And, ultimately, why will anyone care?

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