Jeremy Heimans: "The impact of new power in politics is just beginning."

Story highlights

An emerging form of "new power" is mobilizing millions and upending venerable institutions

Aided by technology, "new power" is open, participatory and more transparent

Activist: "Old power downloads and commands; new power uploads and shares"

CNN  — 

For centuries, economic and political power in the world has been concentrated around a few gatekeepers such as politicians, publishers and CEOs.

Once gained, this kind of influence is jealously guarded, as those who wield it have little incentive to invite others into their exclusive club. Such power is leader-driven and inaccessible to the average person. Think, say, the U.S. Congress.

But a form of “new power” is rapidly emerging, one with the potential to mobilize millions and upend venerable institutions. Aided by the Internet and mobile technology, new power is open, participatory and more transparent. Think Kickstarter, Uber or even the recent #BlackLivesMatter protest movement.

As online activist Jeremy Heimans explains it, “Old power downloads and commands; new power uploads and shares.”

The term entered the lexicon in 2014 after being coined by Heimans, co-founder of Purpose, a social business that creates crowd-based social and economic models; and Henry Timms, executive director of the 92nd Street Y, a cultural and community center in New York.

“New power is certainly enabled by technology, but what’s really driving things is a changing sense of human agency. People’s appetite – and capacity – to participate is growing so fast,” Heimans wrote in an email.

“People increasingly expect to shape and craft many aspects of their lives,” added Heimans, who gave an influential TED talk on the topic in June. “Young people today are protagonists in ways they weren’t even 15 or 20 years ago – they are content creators, crowdfunders, transnational political activists and even makers of their own goods and services.”

How will this affect the 2016 presidential election? Heimans and Timms believe that like Barack Obama in 2008, the candidate who prevails will need to channel emerging new power forces and unleash the self-organizing potential of his or her supporters. This time, however, they’ll need to go much farther than posting videos to YouTube or doing a Twitter town hall.

“The impact of new power in politics is just beginning,” Heimans said, although he noted that new power has proved more effective at driving the outcome of campaigns than influencing the business of government.

“We should be cautious with the idea the rise of new power will necessarily lead to instant democracy. New power dramatically lowers the barriers to participation – but it doesn’t guarantee more inclusiveness or more representation,” Heimans said. “In this sense, new power is more flash mob than General Assembly.”

Still, no less a figure than British tycoon Sir Richard Branson is intrigued with new power’s potential.

“Let’s face it, many of our systems need a real shake up,” he wrote in a LinkedIn post. “Why wouldn’t you upload the power and talent of billions to do it? It’s an exciting prospect. Together we can make the products, services, businesses, ideas, and politics for a better future. In this ‘new power’ world, we are all makers. Let’s get making.”