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The solutions to our big problems are in the network

"Sustainable Network" author Sarah Sorensen on global connectivity and positive change.

Massive issues around the environment, social change, and worldwide economies feel intractable. Where do we even begin?

Sustainable Network” author Sarah Sorensen sees things differently. She believes solutions to our biggest problems can be found in something many of use every day: the global communications network. In the following interview, Sorensen explains how the network shapes connections and opportunities far beyond technology.

What is a sustainable network?

Sarah SorensenSarah Sorensen: Every network can be a sustainable network because it has the ability to be a sustainable platform for change. Unlike any technology that has come before it, the network is able to permeate all parts of the globe and establish new links and relationships between people, governments and economies.

Every network is also self-sustaining. In the book I call this the “The Sustainable Network Law,” which states that: the more broadband that is made available, the faster network innovation occurs, the greater the opportunity is for creating change, and the greater the need is for even more bandwidth.

Is “network” synonymous with “Internet,” or are you talking about something larger?

Sarah Sorensen: When I say the “network,” I’m talking about the world’s global communications infrastructure, which supports connections from all types of computing devices. It:

  • Establishes relationships between people, things, governments and economies.
  • Provides a capacity to build and develop relationships, which perpetuates its growth. The more we use it, the more uses we find for it.
  • Represents the best platform we have for sustainable progress and action.

In a broader context, the network is a part of the information and communications technology (ICT) industry, which is the full range of devices and applications that play a role in digital communication. This goes from monitors and cell phones to PCs, storage devices, and all the different applications and hardware that enable the sharing or use of information. It stretches from the smallest home office to the largest global network.

Can you point to examples of the network creating positive change?

Sarah Sorensen: The network can create a lot of connections that create positive change. Kiva.org, which connects micro-lenders with entrepreneurs, is a great example of the network providing resources that can improve the opportunities of an individual, business or community.

Also, look at the role the network plays when disaster and tragedy hit. In Haiti, after the earthquake, within minutes we saw photos and news of the devastation and calls for aid from philanthropic organizations. The network served as the main source of information, providing critical links to family and friends around the world. Of course, this is nothing new. Relief and aid organizations have been using online sites to link people to humanitarian needs for years, but the use of social media to mobilize groups is becoming more sophisticated and effective.

This is the promise and hope of the network. If it can help people band together and get involved, even in small ways, there’s the opportunity to ultimately make a big difference or solve big problems.

What should be done to protect and grow the network?

Sarah Sorensen: We need to roll out broadband to as many people as possible. This not only takes real investment in the infrastructure, but also a political environment that recognizes the link between broadband and economic prosperity. Restrictive regulation could hinder the roll out, which is one reason why there is concern about the FCC’s potential proposal to reclassify broadband as a Title II service.

How does the network affect individuals?

Sarah Sorensen: The potential is limitless, which is critical since we are facing some of the toughest challenges yet. Collectively, we need to make changes to our consumptive habits, adjust our resource dependencies, and create more sustainable social, economic and political models. On an individual level, we can use the network to be more efficient, reduce waste and get involved.

It will take everyone, so we all must understand it. This is where the book comes in — it strives to help people recognize the network’s role in the world around them, replacing vague notions of 3G, 4G, broadband and malware with a concrete understanding of how the network is relevant to their personal, business and civic lives.

Just look at recent headlines: U.S. lags in high-speed broadband access; Google pulls out of China; Court ruling on the FCC’s ability to regulate net neutrality. These highlight the broadband investments, cybersecurity risks, privacy issues, and political and ideology battles taking place right now that will affect the ability of the network to improve our lives in the future.

We need everyone to understand what’s at stake and participate in the dialogue to shape the changes we want to see. We are just at the beginning — we can’t even imagine the innovations to come — and it necessitates a base understanding of the network by all to ensure no one is left behind.

This interview was condensed and edited.

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