We had the privilege of speaking with MIT economist Navroop Sahdev at the WEF. Her new initiative, The Digital Economist, has a bold vision of a human-centered technological convergence.
Navroop Sahdev and Blocks99 Editor in Chief Mike Durrie in Davos
As an MIT economist, Navroop has been deeply involved in the blockchain space for years. She co-authored the influential book, “Blockchain Economics: Implications of Distributed Ledgers: Markets, Communications Networks, and Algorithmic Reality,” contributing to the chapter on value creation with tokenized assets. The chapter offers rare insights into how value is assigned to assets and how contextually variable that value can be. It concludes that economists create markets that don’t exist, define rules and continuously tweak them with economic policy. Navroop was ranked among the top blockchain influencers in 2018. She co-authored the Hyperledger Blockchain for Business online course, which is on the EdX platform, a joint venture of Harvard and MIT. It has reached over 160,000 entrepreneurs so far globally, making it the biggest blockchain course anywhere.
Early interest in sustainability
Navroop started her career at the UN Environment Programme in Geneva, working on sustainable trade. At Harvard, she worked on externalities, economics and complexity science. After finishing her thesis, she worked for an asset management company in Boston. I wanted to know what initially attracted her to blockchain.
“This is when I began looking at the way our public markets are broken, reading about high-frequency trading. That was 2016, four years ago, and the timing was about right. That was the first year blockchain saw a surge of interest. There were conferences around basic blockchain and investing in cryptocurrencies. And at that time, there were only either computer scientists or consultants in the in the room, and really a lack of economics talent in the space. So I saw a gap. I started thinking about the economic implications for different underlying technology infrastructures, something not merely extracting value, but co-creating and sharing value. Now we co-create value, if you look at platform economics where every person plugged into the network is adding value to it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re also getting a share of the value they are adding.”
She points out that the word “economy” comes from the Greek word “oikonomia,” which means household management. “So, you know, economics is about managing your household. And you can see that “household” as the global economy given the deep interdependencies. After working in this space for around four years, it’s clear that it’s not just about one technology, but the convergence of technologies. And that’s also the inspiration for The Digital Economist, which is why we’re here.”
From MIT economist to The Digital Economist
The Digital Economist is, of course, what brings MIT economist Navroop and her colleagues to the World Economic Forum’s 50th annual meeting Davos, Switzerland. In a nutshell, the organization aims to achieve moonshot goals for the planet by strategically aligning the global innovation community.
We spoke the morning after the official inaugural event that convened over 200 C-level decision-makers, entrepreneurs, academics, investors and non-profit leaders. Sixteen partners of the initiative – full disclosure: including Blocks99 – networked and celebrated the launch, many presenting their initiatives, including the keynote by MIT’s Alex Pentland. I asked Navroop how the concept took shape. “It’s been years in the making,” she says. “I’ve been training, studying, learning, researching and teaching economics for 14 years now. Working in the blockchain space, it became more clear that it’s the convergence of tech that can make a difference. I talk about three types of convergence: a) convergence of emerging tech like between AI, blockchain, big data, and predictive analytics; b) convergence of emerging tech and existing tech stacks, like the Internet infrastructure; c) but also the convergence of tech and humans.”
Navroop, who is CEO of The Digital Economist, is adamant about bringing together doers, nor just thinkers and planners. The Digital Economist is clearly aligned with UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Of course, different organizations often set their own sustainability goals, so I was interested in hearing why she had chosen the UN agenda. “I don’t see a better purpose than achieving these Sustainable Development Goals. They’re exactly what we all need to align with as the minimum common denominators. The SDGs define what the baseline looks like. And we are way beyond a point where we just need to sustain – we need to actively regenerate the global system.” She continues to point out that, while there has been progress, inequality has, in fact, increased and the gender gap has remained relatively unchanged, globally. Heidi Cuppari, VP of The Digital Economist, adds, “Technological convergence, combined with radical collaboration and youth innovation, are the keys to turning the tide for humanity and the planet. Generation Z are the first digital natives, have incredible imaginations and this is their future, so we need to give them a seat at the table to help create it. Then, we must connect them with global networks of support such as The Digital Economist.” Heidi is Founder and Executive Director of Dream Tank, the co-producing strategic partner for The Digital Economist.
Digital Economist Vice President Heidi Cuppari speaking in Davos
A collective value proposition
The Digital Economist represents a special collective value proposition to the world, made up of the initiatives all partners bring and also gain by being part of the platform. One of the main goals is to bring voices of people who are doing important work in communities on the local level to global stages like Davos. “It shouldn’t be just the élite in the world talking among themselves and, you know, acquiring more and more wealth,” says MIT economist Navroop. “It’s about taking a huge leadership role in driving that convergence between communities, about how we bring the right combination of people in and actually put money behind the initiatives, projects and organizations that are doing impactful work.”
But perhaps what sets The Digital Economist – TDE – apart from so many other sustainability-related initiatives is the third letter in the acronym. The project aims to tackle UN SDGs economically, for example, by getting profit-oriented enterprises and financial services firms on board. At the same time, the approach is very personal. “What we want to achieve is currently hard to measure,” Navroop says. “At the heart of this is what we call individual transformation – you know, our own hero’s journey. Ultimately, we are in the business of converting souls. Usually you would ask a business about its goals, quarterly targets or this or that, but, ultimately, if you’re going to damage our collective resources as human beings – as a planet – I don’t see the point of doing that. We ask different questions.”
Another issue Navroop addresses is how to determine adherence to sustainability guidelines in the first place. She stresses that the view has been too narrow in the past, and new metrics are needed. We are in a massive energy-transition phase, she says. Up to now, the focus has been on fossil fuels. “If you look at it from a physics perspective, what does that energy transition look like?” she asks.
The economics of gender equality
Returning to the launch of The Digital Economist, I wanted to understand part of the registration process for the inaugural event. On the official Website, registrants were asked about attitudes toward the UN Sustainable Development Goals – which of the SDGs are most important to you? So I posed the same question to MIT economist Navroop. Her answer came in a split second: “Gender equality – not just because I’m a woman, but because, from a socialization point of view, women are more collaborative. They take care of others and the larger whole. Before organized religion, before humans started to build hierarchical structures, there were smaller tribes of around 120 people. Females always had a very important role. And such female-led radical collaboration is what our societies need a lot more.
“The MIT Jameel Poverty Action Lab did these massive randomized control trials, which won the Nobel this year in economics. They discovered that if you put money in the hands of men in a certain village – they did this for hundreds of thousands of people in tens of thousands of villages – very often, they end up spending it on themselves or wasteful consumption like smoking or alcohol. But if you give it to the women, they spend it on kids and the household.”
MIT has, in fact, done considerable research on group innovation, given most of the innovation in current times comes from groups of individuals. Findings suggest that group intelligence is made up of different variables from those in individual intelligence. Of course, it demands more empathy, social intelligence and collaboration. “The notion of the mad scientist discovering something in the basement is false,” Navroop says. “The findings show that the easiest way to achieve the greatest group intelligence to have at least 50% women as group members.”
This is a compelling message. I ask MIT economist Navroop what she considers the best path toward fixing gender equality issues. “The Digital Economist,” she says without hesitation. “It’s a female-led and highly decentralized organization. It embodies the call for radical collaboration through its highly curated group of 35 Council Members. Tackling global challenges necessitates breaking free from the very silos that created them at the first place and strategically pooling our efforts to make the most effective and efficient interventions. Which, in our case, is by driving technological convergence for a human-centered digital economy.”
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