In our digital economy, we’ve become increasingly captivated by data. The new meme that many in the tech world hear is that “data is the new oil.” I cringe every time I hear that, because it uses a metaphor that significantly under-estimates the value of data on so many dimensions. I prefer to say that “data is the new solar” – let me explain.
I completely understand why many are using the phrase that “data is the new oil” – it’s been used for over a decade and has captured the imagination of many people. The intentions of those using this phrase are good. They want to communicate the growing role of data as a source of energy as we move from an industrial economy to a digital economy. We needed energy sources like oil to power our factories and all the logistics required to move physical products to where they will ultimately be consumed. But our digital economy is fueled by data
So, what’s wrong with this metaphor? Why do I prefer the metaphor of “data is the new solar”? Where do I begin?
Scarcity versus renewable
Let’s start at the source. Oil is a natural resource that is inherently limited in supply and can be rapidly depleted. Once extracted from the ground, the remaining supply shrinks (of course, new oil can form, but that takes thousands of years).
Solar energy has limits, of course – there’s only one sun and it’s only capable of producing so much energy. But we are so far from encountering those limits that we might as well view it as an unlimited energy source. More importantly, solar energy is constantly renewing, the sun is at work every minute of the day, generating more energy.
So, if we look at data as an energy source, is it more like oil or solar? Data is constantly renewing and has the potential for infinite expansion – the supply of data is unlimited. We significantly under-estimate the power of data if we view it as a depleting energy source.
But, there’s more. Because it is a scarce and depleting resource, the production cost of each barrel of oil that we pull out of the ground tends to go up – we have to drill deeper and go to more remote areas to keep our global economy going. In sharp contrast, the production cost of each unit of electricity produced from solar energy is declining (at an accelerating pace, as my friend Ramez Naam continually reminds us). When we look at the production cost of data, guess what? It’s declining at an accelerating pace, driven by the exponential price/performance improvement of digital technology.
Why does this matter? The metaphors we use play a big role in shaping our actions regarding the objects being described. If we view a source of value as a depleting resource with increasing costs of production, we’ll work hard to capture it and hold it for ourselves, but there are limits to the effort we’ll put into it because it’s a limited resource, after all. We tend to adopt a scarcity mindset.
If we view a source of value as essentially without limits and with rapidly diminishing costs of production, we’re much more likely to be energized to invest a lot more effort in harnessing that source of value. With an abundance mindset, we see that the rewards are unlimited and that’s very exciting.
From abundance to expanding abundance
So, if it comes to a choice between oil and solar as a metaphor to describe the role of data in the digital economy, I definitely favor viewing data as the new solar.
But even that metaphor can be limiting. Data has so much more potential than solar. Used in the right way, data has the potential to fuel ever-expanding value creation. The key is to shift our mindset from data as the fuel for existing activities and impact to data as a catalyst for learning to help us find ways to generate more and more impact with less and less effort.
Yes, that requires a profound shift in how we approach data. As I’ve written elsewhere, we’re on the cusp of a big shift in institutional models from scalable efficiency to scalable learning. In the scalable efficiency model, the role of data is to help us do what we’ve always done faster and cheaper. The focus is on efficiency.
In the scalable learning model, the focus shifts to harnessing the potential to create more and more value for stakeholders, starting with customers, and accelerating our ability to expand the value that we provide. I hasten to add here that, when I’m talking about value, I’m not narrowly talking about economic value. I’m talking about a much broader form of value in terms of addressing the needs and aspirations of the people we’re addressing – starting with customers, but also including employees, business partners, community members and, yes, shareholders as well. I remain convinced that those who adopt this broader view of value will be the ones to create rapidly expanding economic value.
Data is a key fuel for learning and therefore for expanding value creation. That’s something that not even solar can do.
Implications of expanding abundance
Here’s the thing. To unleash this expanding abundance, we’ll need to find more effective ways to come together to share the data we have. If we adopt the scarcity mindset, we’ll hoard the data we have and prevent anyone else from gaining access to it. But that limits our ability to learn from the data.
We’ll learn a lot faster if we invite a more diverse group of participants to come together to generate new insights and ideas from the data. So, the ability to generate expanding value from data hinges on our willingness and ability to come together, driven by a desire to learn how to create more value. That requires an abundance mindset.
An abundance mindset helps to build trust. If I believe that we have more than enough resources to create value for everyone, I’m much more likely to trust others. If I believe that we have scarce resources, my trust rapidly erodes – you may seem like a nice person but, at the end of the day, I want to be sure that I’m the one who can get those resources.
As I’ve written elsewhere, trust is a prerequisite for learning, especially learning in the form of creating new knowledge which requires taking risk and working with others. The more willing we are to trust each other, the faster we’re going to learn. And, if we come together in expanding learning networks (something I call creation spaces), we have the potential to unleash an exponential growth in learning by harnessing network effects.
But, is data all there is?
In focusing on data, we need to be careful about not limiting our vision. Sure, data is valuable, but it’s just the beginning. It provides us with a window to better understand the context that we all live in. But let’s not stop there.
We need go beyond the data and the context to understand the emotions and the motivations that drive us. That’s where the value ultimately lies. If we don’t understand the emotional and spiritual needs and aspirations of those we are trying to serve, we’re never going to provide the most meaningful value. As I’ve written elsewhere, we need to focus on heartset and spiritset, not just mindset.
The challenges ahead
If we’re going to unleash the full potential of data as a fuel, we need to recognize there are significant challenges ahead. Our institutions will need to be fundamentally re-designed to shift them from scalable efficiency models to scalable learning models. That will require very different approaches to leadership.
It will also require us to go to the most basic question of all: what is the value that matters? We will need to broaden our horizons from short-term shareholder returns to longer-term stakeholder value that in turn will generate unprecedented longer-term economic value. There will be a lot of resistance to this change on multiple levels, but those who address and overcome these roadblocks will find that data is a more powerful fuel than anything we have ever seen before.
So, data is an extraordinarily powerful fuel, far more powerful than oil and even more powerful than solar. Used in the right way, it can help unleash exponentially expanding value creation. What’s the right metaphor to capture the unprecedented potential of data as a fuel for our economy and society? For the moment, let’s at least view data as the new solar.