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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

There are fewer wars when you take power away from men in big castles

The best ideas now spread sideways. We need to build solutions together – it turns out our survival depends on it

Russian President Vladimir Putin is one of the foremost practitioners of old power, while other nations are handing more power to the people. Itar Tass / Reuters
Russian President Vladimir Putin is one of the foremost practitioners of old power, while other nations are handing more power to the people. Itar Tass / Reuters

Those who have power want to be told they have it and how to keep it. Those that don't have power want someone to envy. As a result, the audience for books on power is seemingly endless.

So I was initially cautious about another one released this week – but New Power by Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms turns out to be a nifty guide to the 21st century that is genuinely new. Instead of one more catchy way of describing how the world works, they have written a manifesto for organising that world with more humanity and purpose.

Ultimately you'll either hate it or wish you had written it, depending on whether you believe in old or new power.

But what does that actually mean? For Heimans and Timms, old power is closed, inaccessible, top down and spent carefully. Think of a traditional currency. Old power values are more formal and managerial. Old power thrives on competition, confidentiality and exclusivity. You can picture the colleague. Donald Trump's "I alone can fix this" is the motto of this power model. It has dominated history.

New power, on the other hand, is a current – open, participatory, driven by individuals. People place a higher value on the experiences they can shape. New power tends to be more informal. It relies more on networks rather than hierarchies and organograms. It works best in conditions of openness and transparency. Think of Airbnb or the ice bucket challenge. New power increases when you give it away. Women are much better at it and make better coalition builders – less macho and more Merkel. Barack Obama's more inclusive and empowering "yes, we can" would be the motto of the new power movement.

But therein lies the challenge. Having campaigned in the poetry of new power, Mr Obama governed in the prose of old power. And while Mr Trump talks the language of old power, his campaign was a great example of new power in action. His core supporters feel they are genuinely part of the effort to "make America great again" by taking power back from the wealthy elites who (they believe) have ripped them off. For a billionaire, that’s quite a political rip-off itself.

And we are clearly not yet in a new power world. Vladimir Putin is still riding bare chested on horseback, poisoning enemies, "weaponising" the internet and encircling the free world with a firing squad. Mr Trump and Kim Jong-un are competing over nuclear button sizes. Bashar Al Assad is still bombing civilians with impunity. None of them have spent much time thinking about transparency or giving power away.

More widely, the heroes and villains of the new power landscape are also not so obvious. For the authors of New Power, Facebook and Uber are old power. They were built to huge scale by extraordinary networks of connected individuals. But they tend to default to old power values when they come under pressure, as both have over the past year. Meanwhile, the National Rifle Association has managed to harness new power to preserve its corrosive grip on America’s politics and playgrounds.

Time will tell. But I'd bet on the world being a bit more Obama/Trudeau and a bit less Trump/Putin once the next billion people come online. And in the meantime, there is a huge amount we can take from these models as we build the societies, governments, movements and businesses of the future. For modern governments the key will be to see individual citizens as a vital part of creating a happier and better community, not just as beneficiaries or outsiders. We should trust more in the wisdom of crowds. This means a messier world perhaps – the mob is of course not always right and there will be a forceful reaction from the reactionaries. But after every stage of greater transparency and devolution of power, we eventually became more peaceful. You get fewer wars when you take power away from men in big castles and give more of it to individuals.

And citizens need to recognise and use this power wisely. Digital technology has placed a smartphone superpower in our hands. But like any superpower, it must be accompanied by a sense of purpose. Apathy and distraction are as great a threat to our shared human project as terrorism or climate change; we will need to spend less time looking at cute cats. Leaps forward in human ingenuity depend on collaboration between groups of innovators as much as individual genius. Rather than moaning about the activism of millennials, we need to understand the desire of young people to participate more freely and flexibly.

I grew up playing Tetris. It was neat, top-down, with clear rules. My children are playing Minecraft. The best ideas now spread sideways. We need to build solutions together. It turns out that our survival depends on it.

Reading how French President Emmanuel Macron, Podemos in Spain and Mr Trump have ridden waves of new power made me wonder what could be achieved by a progressive, global movement that was focused on putting more power in the hands of the citizen, underpinned by curiosity, fairness and reason.

In a driver-less world, that would surely be worth a try. Whatever we called it.

Tom Fletcher is a former UK ambassador and adviser to three prime ministers. He is an adviser at the Emirates Diplomatic Academy, visiting professor at New York University Abu Dhabi and the author of The Naked Diplomat: Power and Politics in the Digital Age