Not just everyone—everything needs to get involved in fixing the future

[8 minute read]

An engineering company wants to measure the health (‘fitness’) of a bridge, but so do other people: the region and the country want to know the health of all their bridges.  People want to know if it’s safe to travel over them in advance. In a hurricane, your GPS should know if it’s safe to cross. An aid agency might want to know if they can take a heavy truck over it, or understand weak infrastructure points prior to a hurricane’s landfall to pre-plan stocking aid should critical infrastructure fail.

People designing bridges would like access to all the data about every bridge in the world so they can design them to use less material, be stronger and last longer.  Insurers want access to this same information to create a model for insuring it. Public and private financiers will want to invest wisely and maximise the value of building them.  And that value case also link to other economic benefits that a bridge can bring: for example, a reduced transit route reduces pollution and therefore consumption of fossil fuels.



I’m Gavin, the instigator of Icebreaker One. I’ve been working with data, business, policy, licensing, science and the web for a long time. Along the way, this has involved me as co-chairing development of the Open Banking Standard, founding CEO of the Open Data Institute, founding venture-backed environmental data company AMEE, and founding CEO of digital supply-chain enabler CI.   This bridge story is one of many we are helping to surface.

Looking at the systemic economic, environmental and social challenges we all face, I believe there are a number of threads coming together that could enable us to collaborate at scale to tackle them. Perhaps, too, a ‘global coincidence of desires’ to affect change.

Icebreaker One is a global initiative to collaboratively create ways to publish public and private information online that will enable people to find it and use it for both public and private good.

Data is as important as our road, railway and energy networks and should be treated as such.  At the moment we either squirrel it away and worry about monetising it, or worry about privacy and security, or open it up for anyone to use.

Fundamentally our models for sharing information to help us solve problems, are still struggling with legacy thinking.  Our worries get in the way of sharing, when we could be making better decisions by providing access. Our concerns are also valid: if our global data infrastructure is as important as our physical infrastructure we must protect it, make sure it keeps working and enable access to those who need to use it.

We’ve made vast progress in creating an Open Web (which, broadly, ignored the © symbol to get going)—there are now a billion websites.  They’re all at least searchable. We’ve not yet managed this at scale with data—it’s not easy to even find if a particular bit of data exists, let alone use it. We have several billion web-enabled people: I wonder what we might all build?

We’ve also made huge progress on Open Data (data that is licensed for use by anyone for any purpose) on a global scale.  We’ve created groundbreaking changes in licensing to help people use content: Creative Commons demonstrates that there is a way to pre-authorise certain types of usage, at web-scale.  

What about all the other data?

Given the diversity and complexity of use-cases, this might seem an insurmountable challenge.  And, yes, if we were going to try and create a global licensing system for all the data that might exist (not that people haven’t tried), I’d recommend going for a quiet sit down somewhere.

What drives collective action? Common cause isn’t enough: humans need to have a visceral respones, driven by a powerful economic or social impulses.  This takes us to the great motivators of Risk and Fear

In banking, the UK has regulated the Open Banking Standard to mandate that banks open up information about their product (as Open Data) and, more significantly, regulated that banks open up access to private personal, customer account data.  By access we mean making things discoverable — for example Open Banking means services can access detailed product data to order to make it more findable.  It also means that, under certain government-enforced conditions, access can also extend into usage: regulated services can find and use confidential information that was previously not usable (for example, a service that is designed to find you the best mortgage across the whole market).

It is a seismic shift that a government mandated a specific sector must open up data access in a market.  At the same time, other regulation exists to protect rights (for example, GDPR, the General Data Protection Regulation).  We don’t (yet) have an equivalent of either Open Banking or GDPR for non-human data.

What are the drivers to collective action in the private and public sectors?

You can trace the origins of Open Banking back to the financial crisis — the need to ‘do something’ based on risk, fear, doubt and uncertainty.  

Today, people are exploring how the framework and principles of Open Banking might apply to other areas of the financial services sector, from insurance to pensions and beyond, into areas such as health & care.  

A central concept to take away from this is that banking products are digital products.

Another example to draw upon where digital products have had to go through this process, which may sound strange, to begin with, is the music industry.

Music has been a digital product for decades, pre-web.  The web brought a huge, systemic risk to the entire industry – their entire product base was being put online and made available for free.  The initial industry response was to panic: to ask to switch off the internet, to sue 18 year-olds for millions of dollars to try and scare people away, to add DRM (digital rights management) to attempt the control the use of assets.  

Fast forward and there is a thriving digital marketplace for music and a common standard for enabling the definition of digital licensing rules and standards to support an open digital supply chain (  What enabled this? A collective action group formed around the needs of the industry.  

What drivers might trigger the risk and fear that could help us provide compelling private and public sector incentives to share environmental data?

As above, if we were going to try and create a global licensing system for all the environmental data that might exist, I’d recommend going for another quiet sit down somewhere—it’s still in the ‘boiling the ocean’ category for me.

However, even just framing around ‘risk’ introduces some really interesting and relevant bounding conditions.  

Firstly, risk is something that we like to measure and, in many cases, price.  Once we have a price incentive we can start to ask how we might make the price more accurate.  But again, market reality brings us back to the idea of what is ‘good enough’. Many companies don’t ‘need’ more data: business as usual is ‘good enough’ and we have quarterly results to hit.  

However, this isn’t the case any more:  business as usual isn’t an option. At scale.  

We have 10 years to decarbonise our global economy.  We have increasing disaster-level events – the once in a century weather events are happening every few years.  Millions are being displaced. Our air quality in cities is killing millions. We have a plastics crisis. We have a biodiversity crisis. We have many crises, all interlinked.

We need to build things better in the first place.  It’s not an option to get the ‘next billion’ people into a ‘modern’ economy with the same cars, fridges, power, gadgets as exist today.  We are also instrumenting the world. Embedded sensors in infrastructure will enable, for example, a bridge to report its own health or the observation of air pollution from space.  

If we see a collective need, stimulated by risk, what needs to happen next? One option is to formally convene public and private sector actors around the value of collective action and to formalise the ability to share data under certain conditions with specific rules.  In open banking there is an independent Trust; in open data there is the ODI; in music there is DDEX.

We think there’s an opportunity to affect change, building on what we have learned and combining the collective intelligence of humans and machines.

We are testing market needs, our social needs and our environmental needs.

We are working on the ‘what next’ conversation — if you would like to help shape it, join us.