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Words from Charlie

The digital age has fundamentally changed the way people conceptualize, create and capture value—moving away from traditional tangible assets like land to intangible digital assets or bits of information such as reputation scores, geo-location or medical status. As more of our lives happen online, data are accumulating at exponentially increasing rates. There are more than 100 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute and more than 400 million tweets generated on Twitter every day. Organizations, individuals and governments that effectively utilize and protect their digital assets—network, platform, brand, product designs and user data, for starters—will have distinct advantages over those who do not.

Adding to the growth of intangible digital assets is the proliferation of peer-to-peer platforms that empower consumers. This had led to the monetization of trust and interconnection among players in the market—a driver and a passenger or a homeowner and a guest—allowing users to bypass the central incumbent (a taxi service or hotel) and go through a new service provider (Airbnb or Lyft). These alternatives to traditional asset utilization offer businesses and consumers opportunities for extending their organizational and individual capital.

At the same time the implications of these trends and developments hold many perils for businesses, consumers and governments. Data both create and limit opportunities. With so much information tracked and stored online, the implications of data breaches are severe. What negative data is being collected about an individual and used? What happens when sensitive information gets leaked in a data breach? How do organizations quantify the value of harm when so much of their value is based on intangibles? Furthermore, the extended liabilities of mismanaging data assets remain unknown. What is the most effective way to use data assets to engender new insights, digital products and services?

These and other policy questions were addressed by the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program during a three-day dialogue in Aspen, Colorado in July of 2014. A knowledgeable group of leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs assembled for the 23rd annual Aspen Institute Roundtable on Information Technology. Their task was to develop a more sophisticated, timely understanding of digital assets and liabilities, as well as their economic effects.

Rapporteur David Bollier details the results of that wide-ranging dialogue in the following report. In describing the growing universe of digital assets and liabilities, Bollier explores new trends in a data driven economy. He offers an overview of organizational assets, as described by Thomas Malone of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and how they have changed from one economic era to another—from the labor economy to the information economy—where customer data is paramount. Bollier describes the data trails individuals create and their capacity to assert control over their own data. As individuals move about the digital world, the person can become the platform.

Bollier then examines the sharing economy’s interdependence between individuals and platforms, as described by Robin Chase, Founder of Zipcar, Buzzcar and Veniam Works. Platforms such as Facebook or YouTube can provide access by aggregating lots of data in one place (e.g., unused open beds on Airbnb), “slicing up” assets to fully capture value in a more effective way (e.g., Uber) and opening up a resource to be used in new ways (e.g., YouTube music stars). These platforms unbundle existing assets and enable new value exchange out of those assets.

While digital assets offer many benefits, there are also serious risks associated, presenting on the liabilities side of the ledger. Myriad security breaches and unauthorized disclosures of personal information have shaken consumer confidence, calling attention to the need for more responsible stewardship of data.

Bollier concludes the report by investigating the proper role for government in the regulation of intangible digital assets. Government often struggles to keep up with technological innovation. The new and exciting realities of intangible digital assets are no exception. New public policies are needed to address concerns surrounding authentication, privacy, consumer protection and trust, without smothering important innovations.


I would like to thank our senior sponsor McKinsey & Company for its leadership in developing this Roundtable, as well as our other attending sponsors of the 2014 Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program for making this and our other conferences possible: The Markle Foundation, Deloitte Center for the Edge, The Walt Disney Company, Cisco Systems, PCIA, and John Kunzweiler.

I also want to acknowledge and thank David Bollier, our talented rapporteur, for his excellent synthesis of the discussions and debates that transpired during the Roundtable as well as our participants, listed in the Appendix, for their contributions to these important issues. Finally, I want to thank Rachel Pohl, Project Manager, and Liyuan Zhang, Program Associate, for their help in producing the Conference and this report, along with the Communications and Society Program’s Assistant Director Patricia Kelly, who oversaw its editing and publication.

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