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Brace yourself for a collaborative world, courtesy of the Internet

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Over the next few weeks, I will post a series of articles around the theme of the power of collaboration. I hope to provoke discussion on rabble.ca.

The rapidly evolving social media has become integral to collaboration. For example, two years ago, many questioned just how important social media could be in helping activists achieve social change. Writer Malcolm Gladwell wrote a thoughtful essay in The New Yorker entitled “Small Change: Why the Revolution Won’t be Tweeted.” He argued that social networks only create weak ties between people, but that it’s strong ties and close relationships that bring about real social change.

It was a good debate and then reality stepped in -- Tunisia. It turns out that the revolution was tweeted. The Tunisian revolution wasn’t caused by social media; it was caused by injustice. It wasn’t created by social media; it was created by a new generation of young people who didn’t want to be treated as subjects anymore. But the media dropped the costs of transactions and collaboration and it empowered change.

The movement for change has spread like a prairie fire across the Arab world and has now extended around the world from the demonstrations of millions in Spain against unemployment, to Wall Street to the global #Occupy movement. Leonard Cohen was looking prophetic when he wrote “First we’ll take Manhattan and then we’ll take Berlin.”

Evidence is mounting that the current global slump is not just cyclical, but rather symptomatic of a deeper secular change. There is growing evidence that we need to rethink and rebuild many of the organizations and institutions that have served us well for decades, but now have come to the end of their life cycle. The global economic crisis should be a wakeup call to the world. We are at a turning point in history.

Let’s face it. The world is broken and the industrial economy and many of its industries and organizations have finally run out of gas, from newspapers and old models of financial services to our energy grid, transportation systems and institutions for global cooperation and problem solving.

At the same time the contours of a new kind of civilization are becoming clear as millions of connected citizens begin to forge alternative institutions using the Web as a platform for innovation and value creation. Social media is enabling social business. From education and science and to new approaches to citizen engagement and democracy, powerful new initiatives are underway, embracing a new set of principles for the 21st century -- collaboration, openness, sharing, interdependence and integrity. Indeed, with the proliferation of social media and social networks, society has at its disposal the most powerful platform ever for bringing together the people, skills and knowledge we need to ensure growth, prosperity, social development and a just and sustainable world.

But don’t count on governments or most of our current business and institutional leaders to be the architects of change. Leaders of old paradigms have the greatest difficulty embracing the new. And vested interests will fight against change. It’s up to us.

The stakes are very high. As Anthony D. Williams and I describe in Macrowikinomics, people everywhere have nothing less than an historic choice: empower ourselves to achieve change and collaborate to find new solutions for our connected planet; or risk economic and social paralysis or even collapse. It’s a question of stagnation versus renewal. Atrophy versus renaissance. Peril versus promise.

Fortunately, for the first time in history, people everywhere can participate fully in creating a sustainable future. We are now building the collective intelligence to rethink many industries and sectors of society around the principles of collaboration.

Don Tapscott is the author of 14 books, including (with Anthony D. Williams) Macrowikinomics: Rebooting Business and the World. He is an Adjunct Professor at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto. Twitter: @dtapscott.

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