Let’s talk about digital identity with Dr Mark van Rijmenam, Founder and Future Tech Strategist at The Digital Futures Institute.

Dr Mark van Rijmenam joins Oscar to discuss the importance of Self-Sovereign Identity in the Open Metaverse – including his definition of metaverse, derived from his interviews with entrepreneurs for his latest book, the motivations for entrepreneurs to be building assets in the metaverse, the role of identity and its importance in the open metaverse.

[Transcript below]

“I think it’s crucial that we own and control our own data, that we control our own digital assets, and that we control our own identity and reputation.”

Dr Mark van RijmenamDr Mark van Rijmenam is The Digital Speaker. He is a leading strategic futurist who thinks about how emerging technologies change organizations, society and the metaverse. He is the founder of the Digital Futures Institute, with a mission to ensure a thriving digital future for business and society. Van Rijmenam is an international keynote speaker, and 5x author. His latest book is Future Visions, which was written in five days in collaboration with AI.

Find his articles and books at The Digital Speaker.

Connect with Mark on LinkedIn or Twitter.

We’ll be continuing this conversation on Twitter using #LTADI – join us @ubisecure!

Go to our YouTube to watch the video transcript for this episode.


Let's Talk About Digital Identity
Let's Talk About Digital Identity

The podcast connecting identity and business. Each episode features an in-depth conversation with an identity management leader, focusing on industry hot topics and stories. Join Oscar Santolalla and his special guests as they discuss what’s current and what’s next for digital identity. Produced by Ubisecure.

Podcast transcript

Let’s Talk About Digital Identity, the podcast connecting identity and business. I am your host, Oscar Santolalla.

Come and meet the Ubisecure team at the Gartner Identity and Access Management Summit, in London, on the 6th and 7th of March. To find out more, take a look at the Ubisecure events page, www.ubisecure.com/events/.

Oscar Santolalla: Hello and thank you for joining us to this first episode of Let’s Talk About Digital Identity in this New Year, 2023. And we want to start hearing very futuristic things about a future, very futuristic. We have a really amazing guest to start this year. Let me introduce you, Dr Mark van Rijmenam. He is the digital speaker, he is a leading strategic futurist who thinks about how emerging technologies change organisations, society and the metaverse.

He is the founder of the Digital Futures Institute with a mission to ensure a thriving digital future for businesses and society. Van Rijmenam is an international keynote speaker. He is five times author, and his latest book is Future Visions, which was written in five days in collaboration with artificial intelligence. I definitely want to hear more about that. Hey, Mark, welcome.

Dr Mark van Rijmenam: Thank you very much Oscar for having me on the show. It’s great to be here.

Oscar: Yes, definitely our pleasure. Well, happy New Year.

Mark: Happy New Year to you, too.

Oscar: Yes, we are still in the beginning of 2023.

Please tell us about yourself and how – what was your journey to this world of identity, metaverse and everything that you are doing today.

Mark: I’m sure it sounds good. Well, obviously you already gave a very nice introduction, but I’ll add some things to it. So, I’ve been a keynote speaker for over a decade. I am a strategic futurist, so it means I really think about emerging technologies, and I try to understand what these technologies, these emerging cutting-edge technologies mean for you and me, for organisations, for society, and how we can benefit from them.

Because these technologies are constantly evolving. So, I’ve been doing this for over a decade. I’ve been speaking all around the world about that. I’ve been, as you said, five books. And I really try to always practise what I preach. And so that means that I – when the pandemic hit, I created myself an avatar, created myself as a hologram to deliver keynotes as such.

I’m currently working on building a digital twin of myself to understand – what are the consequences of creating a digital twin of yourself? A synthetic human, so to say. And how does it influence whatever we do? And I am very much involved in, you know, big data blockchain, artificial intelligence and the convergence of these technologies, which we are all coming together in the metaverse of, which was my fourth book, Step into the Metaverse, where a big part of that is also focused on identity. Because I believe that the metaverse will unleash a sort of a Cambrian explosion of identity, and it’s very important how to deal with that.

I’ve also been involved in a start-up, which unfortunately failed, but that’s the start-up life. Focused on identity, focused on fighting misinformation with reputation-based system. It’s very challenging to do anything in this space because we are very much used to a certain identity system that we have in our society. And shifting that is quite challenging, but I’m sure we’ll get to that during this episode.

So yes, that’s basically what I do. And yeah, indeed, my latest book, Future Visions, written, edited and designed by AI, I’m sure some of you have heard of ChatGPT, which is taking internet by storm. And the moment it arrived, I thought, I’m going to grasp this opportunity to write a book with it.

So, I literally wrote it in five days, and I didn’t change a word. I didn’t – I maybe like five or ten words that I changed myself, but the rest is exactly written by AI. And it was an experiment for me to understand what is possible with off the shelf technology, and it’s quite surprising how good it is, but also how not good it is. It’s not the Holy Grail. It’s fantastic technology, but there are definitely some caveats. And it was a fantastic experience to do.

Oscar: That, that sounds very interesting. So, you wrote a full book just using the ChatGPT that many people are talking about these days for the last, at least, last two months, I would say – quite a lot about that. And yes, super interesting journey you have had.

One of the last things you said is about the misinformation that – every time I hear that word like, we really have to do more about that – and it’s not easy, right? It’s definitely not easy.

That will come also on the metaverse, which is actually the main thing we’d like to discuss with you. So, it’s skimming through the pages of your last, second book, Step into the Metaverse, How the Immersive Internet Will Unlock a Trillion Dollar Social Economy. So, I read part of your book it is very interesting, so let’s go into that – to start with a common idea – please, could you give me your definition of metaverse?

Mark: Yes. That’s a very good point to start because the metaverse is a very, very abstract concept which many people have different perspective of what it actually is. And for the book I did about 100 in-depth interviews with the stakeholders who are building the metaverse. I did about 150 surveys, and interestingly enough, I got like almost 250 different definitions of what the metaverse is, which sort of shows you how difficult of a concept it is.

I sort of derive my own definition from this, and to me, the metaverse is the next iteration of the internet, it’s where the physical and the digital world are converging. And where the physical moving to the digital the digital moves into the physical. Now, that’s a lot of information there. And so, we can briefly unpack it a little bit.

So, if we start with the first one, you had a physical move into the digital. Basically, this conversation that we have, you could argue, is part of a very, very early phase of the metaverse because you are physically in Finland. I’m physically in Australia and we are digitally connected through our computers, and we have this conversation. It’s a 2D connection. So yes, our screens are 2D. These are not immersive.

But you could argue this is part of the metaverse. Other parts of the metaverse are, which I think are very, very important, is, for example, digital twins now. Where we create a digital replica of a physical asset that we can interact with in the digital world and we can just monitor it, or we can actually interact with it and then any changes that we make in the digital world, we will have an effect in the physical world. And that’s also part of the metaverse. And often people think that virtual reality is the most important part of the metaverse, but to me it’s only one channel to access the metaverse in an immersive way.

The other part, the other channel so to say, is augmented reality, where basically which means that we bring the digital into the physical world. I think that part is going to be much more important and much bigger because it allows us basically to create like infinite layers on top of reality. And this layer can be for entertainment, so you can have a flying purple dragon above the Opera House here in Australia, or you can use it to understand when you’re driving to have, augmented reality where there’s a parking space available or whatever you can come up with. And I think that’s also a very, very important part of the metaverse.

I think in the next decade or so we will see that computers will disappear, smartphones will disappear, tablets will disappear. They will all be replaced by headsets at first, augmented reality headsets I think, they will become a miniaturised, very sleek glasses that you can wear. And you don’t need a laptop anymore, you don’t need a smartphone anymore because you have it all in front of your eyes.

So, the metaverse is the immersive internet, and this internet will become as pervasive as the air we breathe. And it will mean it will move from making a conscious decision to go on the internet – so, if you want to go on the internet today, you have to grab your phone and start doing something. And it will switch to being “in” the internet. So being fully immersed and being part of the internet. By the internet being as pervasive to the air we breathe or energy that we use. This internet will be 3D, and that’s much more in line with what we humans are used to because we are 3D humans.

So, we thrive in a 3D environment much more so than a 2D environment. So that’s sort of what’s going to happen. There’s a lot of information, but in short, it’s where the physical and the digital world are converging, creating this immersive 3D internet that we can connect with and can be part of.

Oscar: Yes, you said that for writing this book on the metaverse. You have interview at least 100 of entrepreneurs who are building some their metaverse versions or some product related to the metaverse. So, I like to know from those conversations that you have had – so what has been their main motivation, why they are spending their time building those and not something else. So, what are, let’s say, the main motivation did you find in common amongst these entrepreneurs?

Mark: Well, I think it’s a very good question. And I think what I noticed is that everyone that I spoke to, understands that the metaverse is the next iteration of the internet. It is the future. Whether we want it or not, whether we believe in it or not, it will define the next ten, 20, 30 years, if not more.

And so, any smart entrepreneur should dive headfirst into that because if you would have done that in the 1990’s, you would have been, you know, had a good chance to be the next Amazon. And that’s what I think is happening here because first we had one, then we had like sort of the mobile app with the launch of the iPhone. We had the social web, with the launch of all the social media platforms and now we move to the immersion web.

So, there’s a ton of work to be done. There’s a ton of money to be made because, you know, several banks and a major strategy consultants say that by 2030, the metaverse will drive between 5 and 13 trillion dollars for the global economy.

Personally, I think it’s going to be a lot more, simply by looking at the impact that the internet had already on our society. So, it makes just good business sense to dive into the metaverse to see what you can contribute to this next iteration of the internet.

Besides, firstly, I think that the metaverse is a fascinating environment to work in, because it’s all novel, it’s all magical, it’s all – all the things that can become true in the metaverse. There are no laws of physics in the metaverse, so you’re not – we don’t have any restrictions on what we can build in the metaverse. And I think we can create this magical world, this magical virtual world, with these magical augmented digital experiences that are not possible in the physical world. And I personally find it fascinating.

So, I really enjoy being part of that. And I think over time when – the more we step into the metaverse, because mind you, the metaverse is still a few years out. The more a society steps into the metaverse, the more people will experience this magic as well.

Oscar: So different motivation. It sounds to me – it’s most like, I know there will be this new paradigm so that the technology is coming anyway. It sounds like that, and the entrepreneurs have to be there. Sounds like those are the main motivations.

Mark: Yeah, I want to add one to that because it’s – so my book has been, I’ve meant it as a blueprint for an open metaverse. And an open metaverse is really focused on – how can we create a metaverse that’s there for us, for you and me, consumers. And that’s owned and controlled by us and not necessarily controlled by big tech or very, very tiny elite who controls whatever we do online, which currently the current internet is like that.

We don’t control our own data; we don’t control our own digital identity. The internet is basically controlled by a handful of very, very powerful, very big technology companies. Now, with the metaverse, with the amount of data that you create in this immersive internet, which will be 100 times more than we do today, if not even more. I think it’s crucial that we own and control our own data, that we control our own digital assets, and that we control our own identity and reputation. Because we don’t want to live in a world where the Zuckerberg’s of this world can decide whether or not you have access to this immersive internet or not. And I think that’s something really, really important.

Of course, we have to build it in the correct way, because you know, with building something decentralised also come a lot of challenges. But that’s what I did for the book and most people that I spoke to, they tried to do that as well. So, for a lot of people that I spoke to, they’re driven by this quest of building an open metaverse that’s there for us. And to change the paradigm from a centralised internet to a decentralised.

Oscar: Yes, that’s something I read in your book, the concept of the Open Metaverse. So, it’s great that many of these entrepreneurs have that in mind. So, something else that you just mentioned is – it’s about, of course, identity. Again, thinking of the companies who are now building the metaverse. How in top of the mind is digital identity? So, it’s a component that they are thinking every day, like yes, this is part of metaverse or something that is neglected? So, what would you say?

Mark: Well, I think that the digital identity is a very, very important part of the metaverse. And it was also confirmed, to the very people that I talk to. Simply because, as I mentioned in the start in the metaverse, we can be whomever we want to be, whether that is, I don’t know, a flying dragon, whether that is a walking piano, whether that’s a talking mushroom, it really doesn’t matter.

You can literally be whoever you want to be. And identity in the metaverse is really, really important, much more important than we think today. And if we ask Generation Z, those born after 95 or Generation Alpha, those born after 2010 to them, and this has been done to them, their digital identity is as or even more important than their physical identity.

Let that sink in a bit because that’s the paradigm shift. Your digital identity being more important than your physical identity, completely shift of mind and mindset. And therefore, we see that in the metaverse, digital fashion is really important because just like in a physical world, you want to dress a certain way to showcase who you are, to display your identity. You also want to do that in the metaverse. So digital fashion is a multibillion industry of for people to do that.

Now, what research also has shown is that the moment people can be whoever they want to be in the metaverse, they start experimenting with their identity. And there’s research that people switch gender just to understand what that means. There’s also research which showed that if you are an introvert person in the physical world and you use an extrovert character in the metaverse or in virtual reality, and you play with that character for a couple of hours. Then you will continue to display those extrovert characteristics in the physical world afterwards. Fascinating I think, how that works the digital, our digital identity can affect our physical identity.

So now, of course I think when we talk about identity in the metaverse, we also have to think about the challenges that come with it. Because if you can be walking a piano for that matter, how do I know that that walking piano is Oscar, you know, how do I know that? How can I be certain that I’m not dealing with this with someone else who has stolen your identity?

So digital identity or in this case I would argue Self-Sovereign Identity is very, very crucial for a metaverse, especially in open metaverse. Less so a closed metaverse, which is controlled by companies because they can do your identity check and they can verify that you are a real person. Your identity can still be hacked and be stolen, but that it’s more easy to control it.

That’s also has problems to it. In an open metaverse self-sovereign identity is really, really important because it allows us to control who has access to our data, for how long, to which data, and have full control over assets and our identity. So, I think if we think that identity is important on the current web, we have to think twice because it will be a lot more important in the metaverse. And for many millions of kids and teenagers that digital identity is already more important than the physical identity.

Oscar: Yes, that thing that you just said for a second time. It’s very, very important to think about because we need to protect those identities. Because the big bunch of the people who are going to be in when metaverse is more ubiquitous, as we call it, in the next 10/ 20 years. Will be using heavily, and we have to protect those, those identities.

Another thing you mentioned is if you have some of these, what example? Like a flying dragon, for instance, Oscar is a Flying Dragon in some metaverse. Right? So, people who are inside a metaverse will see the Flying Dragon, my name, maybe. But how do I enter to this metaverse? So that’s a point that many people don’t think right? I should have been, call it, logged in or authenticated properly in order to enter to that that metaverse.

Mark: Well, that’s a major technical and cultural challenge that you just mentioned, because what we don’t want is that if I go to Fortnite and into Roblox, into Decentraland and into the sandbox and to whatever other virtual world. That I every time I have to recreate my flying dragon, every time I have to create a new account, just like we do in the real world, actually.

So that’s not what we want to happen. Now in order to achieve that, we need interoperability. So, you need to be able to have an identity that you can take to a place just like you take your identity to a pub or a restaurant or club or whatever, in the physical world. So, we need to have that same approach.

But there are some companies are working on this. Ready Player Me is a company that’s building an avatar tool so that you can create your avatar ones and then you can use that avatar in over a few thousand platforms already. So that’s a start. It’s a centralised company’s nothing self-sovereign identity with it, is nothing blockchain, nothing decentralised. So, you actually don’t control your identity, but at least it’s the first step that you create one account to do this.

But we already have that in the 2D world, which is called a Facebook login in or a Google login, you know. Login with Google account, login with your Facebook account, which by the way, I would recommend not to do. Because yes, it is easy, but it also means that your data goes to Facebook, goes to Google, and they have even more access into what you are doing. So please don’t do that. I know it’s easy, but just don’t do it.

And so from that perspective, your identity is really important and we need to be able to build this interoperability so that you can take your avatar, your identity, that you create – yours, your flying purple dragon that you’ve created to all these different platforms and all these different platforms have different graphical requirements, different computational requirements, which makes it really, really challenging to do that.

You know, if you go to platform A, it might be hyper realistic and your dragon looks really, really hyper realistic, but then you go to a platform like Minecraft or Roblox is very, very blocky, and how do you adapt that? How do you have that one identity work in both worlds? That’s a massive technical challenge, that’s definitely not solved yet and that does require probably quite a bit of work to achieve that. But yes, what we need to have is interoperability, that you can take your avatar, you can take your flying dragon, and you can fly from one world to the other.

Oscar: Yes, exactly. Now mentioned flying from one world to the other. How open these companies, like Fortnight, say Disney or whichever is the other, Minecraft, no? Are they open to that interoperability? What do you feel that they’re open, to have that? Would they prefer to have it closed?

Mark: Well, most likely they will prefer to have it closed, which I think is a very short-sighted approach. Yes, having a closed network offers you a lot of value. We can only have to look at a mobile, a mobile messaging. WhatsApp was sold for $19 billion in 2014 for a reason because it’s a closed network and you can’t send a WhatsApp message to your signal or to your telegram.

In Europe, that’s going to change with the new laws. Investor rule probably not. So, we are very much used to not having this interoperability because for such large companies it offers a lot of value. If we do have that interoperability for society, it brings a lot of value.

We only have to look at email, we are able to send an email from a Gmail account to a Hotmail account. Imagine that would not be possible or imagine that we, we don’t have interoperability for websites that you can only build a website for, I don’t know, Chrome and then you have to build a completely new website for Internet Explorer, and you can’t just switch between. Imagine what that would mean for the world, it would just ruin the internet.

And email is so successful because I can use Gmail, you can use Hotmail and we can communicate. So, I think it’s very short-sighted for these companies – I understand why they think like that, but I think it’s very short sighted and very selfish almost, to work on value extraction instead of value creation for society.

So, interoperability will add a lot more value to all these platforms. If you really make it easy and make it nice and easy for people to come and also leave, you will see that if you offer the best product, the best service then people will still come, and you will still make money. It’s a different approach, it’s approach from a short-term share approach to a long-term societal stakeholder approach.

And I think as a society, we need to make that shift from a short term to long term. And I argue and I call every organisation to, to make that shift. However, I’m also a realist and I know that that’s not very likely and that most likely regulation will have to step in to force these people because they probably will not do it by themselves.

Oscar: Yes. I couldn’t agree more with this point about that, and I hope they are listening to. They are listening to Mark and everyone else who is.

Mark: I hope so too.

Oscar: You already mentioned self-sovereign identity. Would you say that this is going to be the dominant paradigm in the metaverse?

Mark: Well, I hope so and I think it should be, because it’s a way that we control who has access to our data. And the best example here is, of course, if I go to pub and I need to show that I’m over 18 currently in the world, I have to show my driver’s licence. On my driver’s licence there’s a ton of information that’s not relevant for the question. Are you over 18, yes, or no? Which is a, just a very simple question and a self-sovereign identity allows, would allow us to answer that question, that we can trust, without providing all that information. And I think as a society, I think we should want it.

We should be able to live in a world where we are not controlled by a centralised entity because generally centralised entities, they corrupt or they get if they become too powerful – in terms of countries, democracies change to non-democracies. So, I don’t think that’s the right direction. So, for me, for a humanity perspective, I think a self-sovereign identity is the best approach.

Now obviously there’s also a lot of challenges to it because if you own and control your own digital identity and it works with the private key and public key, and your private key is 128 bits, whatever, or even ideally more whatever. And you’re going to lose this long string of numbers because people lose passports and smartphones all the time. How are we going to deal with that?

That question hasn’t been answered yet and people will lose their private key. And if your self-sovereign identity is everything that you do and you lose it, then you are in really, really deep trouble. So, we need to solve that.

It hasn’t been solved and we need to – because it’s almost an oxymoron. You know, I am I going to store my private key with a centralised entity. So, then your private key is, you know, your self-sovereign identity is no longer self-sovereign.

And we saw that with that with the collapse of the various crypto exchanges, if you don’t own your private keys, the money is not really yours. Because it can just disappear. And so, this is self-sovereign identity, very, very important. It hasn’t been cracked yet and there’s still quite some technical challenges that we need to resolve here.

Oscar: Yeah, I believe so. It’s super important to solve that problem. Absolutely. We’ve been talking about – you illustrate very nicely all these scenarios mostly for individuals, I would say. But if we now focus our attention a bit more into businesses, even government, for instance, organisations just in general. So, what are the opportunities or some scenario you can see the metaverse for, yes, for organisations and businesses?

Mark: Well as I mentioned earlier, you know, the metaverse will contribute trillions and trillions of dollars to the global economy. So, there are enormous amount of possibilities.

There are possibilities for consumer B2C, digital fashion, multibillion dollar industry, entertainment, immersive sports, watching sports or using augmented reality to bring a TV show into your living room. Well, Disney recently released a sample of that, which looks amazing. Education, you know, if you can learn something, immersive world, if you can walk around Rome for your history classes and pause whatever is happening to have a discussion with your teacher, that, of course, is a lot more powerful, but also from an enterprise perspective, you know, if I am able to collaborate in a virtual world, in a world that works, in a 3D world that’s a lot more intuitive and much, much more logical for us humans to operate in.

And that will have a big, big impact. Early last year in 2022, I was part of a training done by almost a dozen police forces around the world. And they were doing an exercise in the metaverse, in virtual reality and working with, you know, physical evidence and digital evidence. Everyone was in their own location in Singapore, in UAE, Bahrain, Senegal, France and several other countries.

And they were able to, to solve this scenario, which was a terrorist attack in a hypothetical country. And they all said afterwards that being able to collaborate in a virtual world is really nice and it’s really easy to get along with and also because there was no hierarchy, because all the avatars look the same that help the police forces are very hierarchical that, of course, and that really helped as well.

So, there are a lot of benefits to this. You also see it, for example, in design companies, car companies Volvo is doing a lot by using virtual reality or even mixed reality to design cars with remote teams. So, sort of building a claim model in a physical location, you build a digital model with your design team just living or working anywhere in the world.

It doesn’t matter where they are. All these things will have a big impact. And that will also have a big impact on society because, you know, if we think that the pandemic changed working from home, the metaverse will enable working from anywhere and where you can be literally anywhere you want in the world and eventually in early next decade, I have the feeling as if you are physically present in the office by but you are on a tropical paradise in the Pacific.

And that that’s something where we are going to still far, far away.

Oscar: Yes, from sounds nice. Final question, Mark, for all business leaders that are listening to us now, what is the one actionable idea that they should write on their agendas today?

Mark: Educate yourself and because the world is changing so fast at the moment, if you blink your eyes, you’ve missed a train. And we could have seen that. We did that with the AI, all the generative AI stuff that is happening at the moment, even for me. And it’s my job to be in to know what’s going on.

Even for me, it’s sometimes difficult to understand and to follow and to be up to date of what’s going on because the developments are going so fast. Now, if this is not your core job which for 99.99% of people, it isn’t. And it often ends up on a very long to do list at the bottom.

But you need to understand what’s happening and you need to understand ideally as an organisation, I would also start experimenting with this stuff, small experiments, just to understand what’s happening. And then you can, you can take it from there.

Oscar: Yes. Excellent. And as you say, your, um, you do what you preach. So, like your last book, just in doing your due diligence, doing this kind of stuff. Yeah, I think I have to do some experiments like that myself.

Mark: Well 100%, and for me doing these experiments, they help me to understand, to better understand these technologies. And so, if you want to understand what technology, X, Y, Z means for your business, start experimenting with it.

Oscar: Excellent. Well, thanks a lot Mark. What’s been really fascinating conversation, going for moments very deep into the digital identity, which is something that we are very passionate about, that. And you gave us really good ideas and updates what’s going on. But let us know if someone would like to follow the conversation with you or get more about what you’re doing. What are the best ways?

Mark: So, I’m pretty visible online, so the easiest ways to go to find me on my website, which is thedigitalspeaker.com, you’ll find my books there, my academic papers, my videos, my articles. I have almost a thousand articles about these topics all available to consume, feel free to email me, connect with me on LinkedIn, on Twitter. I’m happy to connect with anyone.

Oscar: Fantastic and again, it was a pleasure talking with you, Mark, and all the best.

Mark: Thank you very much for having me, Oscar. It’s been a great conversation.

Thanks for listening to this episode of Let’s Talk About Digital Identity produced by Ubisecure. Stay up to date with episode at ubisecure.com/podcast or join us on Twitter @ubisecure and use the #LTADI. Until next time.