We got to know Max Thinius at the EIP-workshop in the beginning of August 2020. Is one of the leading futurologists and future shapers of Europe. A characteristic thing he wears for his performances is a round hat, where he conjures out new ideas and different views on things. EQAsce had the chance to ask some questions and got great answers. Get ready for surprises…
EQAsce: You have stated that farmers should not only sell their foods as a material product. Instead they should sell it including a set of data as a part of the product. This way, production can be made transparent with all its components. Which role do personal data – like qualifications and competences – have of persons who are involved in the production of fruit, vegetables, meat, milk, and eggs?
Max Thinius: Imagine, each product has an own algorithm and can be identified by the type of seed, the way it grew and was taken care of, how much water, sun, which and how much fertilizer it got, pesticides and so on. That is not a must-have but there will be target groups that call for it. Right now, sporting goods manufacturers work on such products because we know a lot about the ingredients of freshly harvested products: For example, the degree of carotene in a carrot, the percentage of sugar, etc. This way, new business models arise for farmers, that allow them to not only sell the products but also the data belonging to it. Especially if consumers know more about their needs through sensors of their environment, toothbrush, bed, face recognition when unlocking the phone, movements, etc. Then, there could be Adidas as producer of vegetables.
“New business models arise for farmers, that allow them to not only sell the products but also the data belonging to it”
But you have asked explicitly about personal data. For that, we need to change the current data situation. This will take longer than the process with vegetables that I have described above – the vegetable thing is approaching. To use personal data, each person needs to own his or her own algorithm. So, starting from your birth you need a “bot” monitor your life. Such a bot will help people making decisions – from purchasing to choosing the right pension plan. Just including the fact that our “own algorithm” makes proposals based upon our needs that we can accept or deny. Or we tell our algorithms to give advice in a certain direction (e.g. a healthier life in a way that is compatible for us).
Such algorithms allow to us to decide upon access and if we want to share them with other people. This can be personalized or anonymous. This way, we would have sovereignty over our data and not just anyone. At the point where we reach this stage, it makes sense to use personal data as well. For example, to get in touch with other people who think like us and have similar ideas but without using todays platforms. And then it makes sense to trade products with people who think like us and who appreciate our work – anonymous at first and later you open up, get to know each other and share data.
“We would have sovereignty over our data and not just anyone”
This needs rethinking and restructuring and finding new rules and laws. This will start 2025 and will take about 2-5 years until this is introduced in a reasonable way. Until then we will already use digital product data in our everyday lives.
Side-note: Don’t panic – we do use algorithms for a long time already. We create them by making decisions. But it is analog. In the digital world, this happens faster with a bigger amount of data. That is why it is particularly important to have the sovereignty of data with the individual, that produces them instead of multinational enterprises.
Futurologist Max Thinius in a radio-interview on SWR1 (German)
EQAsce: „Digitalization is the opposite of industrialization” – that is one of your statements, because it leads to more transparency within organizational structures. Is there a chance to increase fairness through transparency, for example for the pricing? (Example: Customers can see that the money they spent goes into animal welfare investments) Or is there a fear of observation by market partners that limits the exchange of data and decreases transparency?
Max Thinius: Seeing the current situation of data law it is difficult to answer. Of course, it is possible to create absolute transparency through data for pricing. We can even put the amount of environmental pollution into the pricing (see >>Penny). Overall, the data situation becomes more precise.
There are two reasons why there will not be any obstacles to data exchange in the future: First, there is a lot of data for comparison available and platforms that show and compare the real costs. Second, we will develop a feeling for these matters. And there will be new rules and law that enable more transparency in certain areas.
The more exciting part is with the customers: They will not only benefit from price transparency but also from apps that tell the customers, if their behavior is positive or negative for the world – saying: If by his/her consuming, acting, etc. he/she is in a green or red sector. And this has nothing to do with observation, it is more about sensitization. Because today we often do not know that we harm the planet. In the future, we can check this on our watch, or we get it as pop-up in our glasses. At first stage, these will be rough data, but they will become more precise exponentially. And they might become necessary to reach a long-term improvement on the development of our environment.
„This has nothing to do with observation, it is more about sensitization”
Putting both data pools together – the one from production and the one of the behaviors of the consumers – new chances arise. Today, we already deal with transparency and chances of pricing and it will become more (see Penny). The other aspect is, that we get aware of our ecological footprint and this will reach the market within the next two years and will be brought to perfection until the end of this decade.
And yes: This will lead to a new form of agriculture and production of goods in general. Und yes, it will be a turning away from industrial production towards a transparent, data-supported production (where on the production-side benefits for environment-friendly modes can be included (like humus-based agriculture)). This way, a sensitization for environmentally friendly products emerges on the side of consumers as well as on the side of producers. By the way – this has nothing to do with eco-labels but with our original understanding of agriculture, just in a digital net.
EQAsce: Which digital infrastructure needs to be provided for farmers to have the sovereignty over their data? How can the prejudice be overcome, that only some major corporations collect data and use it in their own interest? Which chances to small and medium sized enterprises of the agri and food sector have, to follow digitalization and keep their sovereignty over their data?
Max Thinius: There is no need to „provide infrastructure” for anyone – that is something that is open to everyone and simple. There are a lot of low-price open source solutions. The first important thing is that the people in the agricultural sector decide to go take a different way, saying a digital one and not an industrial one anymore. As soon as he/she decides so, the data-sovereignty is with him/her and he/she voluntarily shares the data in their networks to optimize the harvesting. But there is another important thing to it: They need the knowledge and qualification for that. This is something I must admit. They must deal with the topics, change their sales channels, and even change their production. These are tasks that can hardly be done alone.
On the other hand, things become easier. Even today, different platforms offer products directly off the farm for a selling to bigger buyers such as restaurants, start-ups, and medium-sized processors as well as markets. Also, the section of direct selling to customers will grow, but it is more complex since it consists of smaller units. Have a look at >>www.pielers.de for a first impression how this could function in the future. Such platforms could replace intermediary trade, even for commercial buyers. The data would support the quality of platforms, products, and the transparency of prices. Huge corporations would be aside – but I must remind: The starting point is the decision to move the own world into this direction. It is possible but does not happen automatically.
„First, you need to dismiss current structures“
At this point, I see cooperatives and associations in a good starting position to help with the change. They also need to follow the slogan: First, you need to dismiss current structures. Trade itself realizes that there is more margin through this “new” products, which is an advantage to the development. At the same time, new sales channels emerge. The speed of chance is a personal decision at this point. Small and medium sized enterprises seem to have less problems with it that huge companies, because huge companies are more settled into the current structures.
In the end, the truth is that one cannot blame others but must take a decision for oneself – and then solutions will follow. Sticking to what we are doing right now will not change a thing. The digital technological tools for a change exist. They only function if we use them.
EQAsce: The funding mission of cooperatives plays a crucial role in the agri and food sector. Is there special potential in this kind of cooperation that need to be used mire in the future?
Max Thinius: Short answer: Yes!
Cooperative could collect all the necessary knowledge that is needed for a change from the industrial to the digital agriculture – and provide it to its members. They could establish new sales structures, make new methods of production known and accepted by the customers. But they can only do so if they get the order by the members. And even afterwards this change will not come immediately. Some enterprises change faster because they see more chance in the digital ways. Others follow a little bit later because they come along better with the current structures for the moment. Thus, there will not be an eruptive change in the market.
But let‘s not forget that there are power players in the game as well. Because with every chance, some participants lose power in the market. Of course, they do – others seek to have it and use the power for their own interests instead of depending on the others. Maybe today, some farmers depend on the current power structures and don’t want to. Or they just don’t know how to get out of it.
„Even in hard to develop regions, digital technologies enable an increase of the quality of the cops, a decrease of costs for fertilizers and pesticides…”
Like start-ups, cooperatives should put up funds for the change. There is only limited risk because they could create a good base through growing new markets. The changes will not be as expensive and complex as towards an ecological certified enterprise. At the same time, experiences can be implemented into the change be exchanged in worldwide networks that also work on changes. One could even learn from the WFP – the UN World Food Program – that builds up structures in cooperation with micro-farmers in India and Africa, to sell products to bulk buyers. They do this using an app and they get payed in crypto currencies because the farmers would not get a bank account and the regimes might have access to the money. Even in these hard to develop regions, digital technologies enable an increase of the quality of the cops, a decrease of costs for fertilizers and pesticides, a turning away from industrial structures and known bulk buyers towards a safe life through the network that also insures the single farmer in times of crop failures. To be honest – this should also be possible in our country!
Photo: Dierk Kruse