Realpolitik for our digital age

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Recently, I had the honor to speak to the European Parliament in a conference titled “Politicians in a Communications Storm.” The question the parliamentarians were grappling with was how complex humanistic ideas such as the European project can be secured and developed in a world of #brexit, #therealdonaldtrump and the #ColombianPeaceProcess.

There are no simple answers and no mono-causal explanations of how we got to where we are and what needs to be done. But it became clear that the situation is serious, necessitates continuous soul-searching and coordinated action. Here’s a write-up of the argument I made:


The change we are experiencing in how political consensus is constructed in society today is similar to what we experienced 500 years ago in Europe with the Reformation. After Martin Luther’s “blog entry” was published on the church door in Wittenberg in 1517, it took more than 130 years until political consensus-making was again stabilized, with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.

The combination of a new technology (be it the printing press or the Internet) with new modes of thinking greatly changes how humanity organizes.

Three technological drivers are changing our res publica in a way that requires us to seriously search our souls on what we value and how to politic for it:

#CloudandSocialMedia: The first is a shift in the base metaphor of organization. Until very recently, territorial sovereignty or boundary-drawing as originally derived from Roman private law defined how we organized humans into non-natural entities, such as corporations, civil society groups, or states. Today the network defined through our active communication channels has overtaken sovereignty as a defining principle. The network as a base metaphor is more malleable and allows new modes of governance and politics. Social media politics has new upsides, such as the possibility of including the formerly marginalized, and new downsides, such as echo chambers, fake news and the rule of algorithms. Fact-based, human-centric reasoning has not yet fully developed its stride in this world.

#AIandData: The second is a shift in reasoning. During the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment, humanity embarked on a journey where the human was central to all our inquiries, and the mode of reasoning was defined as deductive. This mode of reasoning theoretically freed humanity from the shackles of self-imposed immaturity by “daring to know” (sapere aude).

By contrast, the algorithmic mining of unstructured data allows us (or machines) to make decisions, not on a deductive understanding of cause-and-effect relationships, but by trusting the power of inductively produced patterns. Artificial intelligence will expand this even further. We need to develop ethical frameworks for non-human entities that reason and re-position humanity in our metaphysical universe.

#BlockchainandIoT: The third shift is a shift in value creation. With the idea of “software eating the world,” most value that is created in innovation, organization, production, marketing and distribution has been digitized. With the Internet of Things, every atom in the universe can be addressed and manipulated digitally. With blockchain technologies, values, both digital and analog, can be organized without centralized intermediaries. This forces any entity that has built its business on a Hobbesian Leviathan model — be it a bank, energy company or government — to reevaluate its role.


The closest historical analogy to the questions we confront today is the political battle surrounding the Roman Republic in the times of Cicero. With all his oratory acumen, Cicero tried to defend the complex ideas of reason, freedom and political self-determination in an age defined by corruption, wars, the expansion of the empire, populism and strong men.

“For there is but one essential justice which cements society, and one law which establishes this justice. This law is right reason, which is the true rule of all commandments and prohibitions. Whoever neglects this law, whether written or unwritten, is necessarily unjust and wicked,” Cicero said.

Ultimately, he failed to win them over. However, in his writing he left us with a realpolitik mode of reasoning that can be used to translate the societal values that are dear to us today into a world circumscribed by #cloudandsocialmedia, #AIandData or #BlockchainandIoT.


In order to defend what we value, we need to develop a clear operational strategy. The question of how complex humanistic ideas, such as the European project, can be secured and developed must be addressed on three different levels: the tactical, the political-strategic and the meta-physical.

#Tactics: As politics is decided on and between different social media platforms, we need to quickly scale up our social media teams in size and capacity. The tactical knowledge of how to engage authentically on Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, etc. needs to be continuously developed and updated. The arms race is on.

#Politics: Unfortunately, many social media teams today serve as a support function. This is a big mistake. Politicians and other strategists need to fully understand the power of network society and make their social media and cloud advisors their No. 1 sparring partners. Only when the network is in the DNA of a strategy will they succeed in our digitally networked world.

#Metaphysics: By delving into our digitally networked universe and asking tough ontological questions on the role of humanity, we can start translating what is dear to our hearts into our social space. Beliefs in the rule of law, redistribution, social security, equality of opportunities, the sanctioning power of statehood and human rights need to be closely inspected, clarified, translated, politicized, defended and further developed.

We are a privileged generation living on the cusp of one of the biggest transformations of humanity. The translation of the principles that make humans human into the digital network society is a job that requires collaboration from multiple disciplines on tactical, political and metaphysical dimensions.

It is not a specific fight against #brexit, #Trump or for #peaceincolombia, but a general revolution of what it means to be human in this digital network society. It’s a daunting task that needs to be addressed step by step, or in the words of Beppo Roadsweeper in Michael Ende’s Momo:

“You see, Momo,” he told her one day, “it’s like this. Sometimes, when you’ve a very long street ahead of you, you think how terribly long it is and feel sure you’ll never get it swept.”

He gazed silently into space before continuing. “And then you start to hurry,” he went on. “You work faster and faster, and every time you look up there seems to be just as much left to sweep as before, and you try even harder, and you panic, and in the end you’re out of breath and have to stop — and still the street stretches away in front of you. That’s not the way to do it.”

He pondered a while. Then he said, “You must never think of the whole street at once, understand? You must only concentrate on the next step, the next breath, the next stroke of the broom, and the next, and the next. Nothing else.”

Again he paused for thought before adding, “That way you enjoy your work, which is important, because then you make a good job of it. And that’s how it ought to be.”

There was another long silence. At last he went on, “And all at once, before you know it, you find you’ve swept the whole street clean, bit by bit. What’s more, you aren’t out of breath.”‘ He nodded to himself. “That’s important, too,” he concluded.

Let’s start sweeping the street!

At CSC, we help clients on their digital transformation voyage and believe in the ability of technology to integrate information, empower citizens, improve quality of life and educate future generations. In this blog space, we will be bringing some of those ideas to life and introducing you to thought leaders in the area of Smart Cities. We encourage you to provide feedback in the comments section or interact with us on social media. We’d love to hear your thoughts about the Smart City of today – and your vision for tomorrow – and how we can be part of making that a reality.

DrPhilippMuellerDr. Philipp S. Mueller is the general manager for the public sector in Central and Eastern Europe at CSC and teaches strategy and leadership at top universities worldwide. He is a renowned public speaker, the author of three books and many articles focusing on the interplay of technology, strategy and organization. He has a PhD from Ludwig-Maximilians-University, was a research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and is a member of the MOC Affiliate Network at Harvard Business School. Connect with him on Twitter.


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  1. The influence of social media is overstated and hardly understood. May be is even overrated. Who knows how long Twitter will survive? What about all those bots? Lot’s of people are turning their backs on Facebook. TV, radio and newspapers still play an important role in influencing daily agenda / political perception and that won’t go away.


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