In my previous two blogs postings, we looked at two of the reasons why so many energy companies have been getting into trouble and finding the implementation of infrastructure projects to be so hard in many developed countries:
- The end of the Age of Enlightenment has produced societies less persuaded by facts and more swayed by emotion.
- The arrival of the Postmodern Age, in which there is a widespread acceptance of the notion that there is no such things as absolute truth and that “what is true for you need not be true for me”.
The challenging environment has been further complicated by the rise of the Internet, which has profound implications for many companies, not least those in the energy industry.
Every significant development in communications technology has had societal implications well beyond what the technical innovators could have imagined:
- The fact that the printing press was introduced in Europe at the time of the Reformation was not a coincidence. This revolutionary technology turbocharged the spread of new ideas.
- More recently, it was the fax machine which effectively brought down the Iron Curtain at the end of the Cold War. This (very) slow-motion Twitter enabled like-minded individuals to network and the Communist authorities lost their monopoly control of the mass-dissemination of information.
If knowledge is power (and it always has been), then, in our own era, the Internet is moving power from institutions to networks. The Internet enables individuals who share a common interest to identify each other and then coordinate and organise at close to zero marginal cost. This is bringing tremendous benefits in areas such as medical research and less desirable outcomes for those engaged in anti-social or criminal activities.
Many companies in the energy industry have yet to think through the implications of this shift in power. In their project management, for example, they still think in terms of linear, predictable regulatory approval processes, while the unfolding reality is something much more akin to political theatre as a number of hitherto extraneous actors make uninvited but impactful appearances on a stage which the companies thought they controlled.
Many of these NGOs are small, but they are savvy in their use of the new technology and, like the mass of tiny Lilliputians, can tie a giant Gulliver down to the ground with their thousands of individually tiny strands.
The creation of networks is of course, a game that two can play, but energy companies will need to completely re-think their approach to what now needs to effectively be a political campaign strategy in the light of this new reality.
The Internet is also, counterintuitively, contributing to a feeling that, while many of us are more connected than ever before, we also feel more alone. This observable increase in alienation is one of the reasons why we’re seeing a marked decline in trust in many types of institution: a subject we’ll get to in the next blog posting.