Written by Jeremy Sy, Director of Consulting, Kantar Futures, Singapore

Toxic haze in Singapore and Malaysia, floods in the Philippines, and an insensitive snapshot with a dead dolphin in China: Asia is buzzing with chatter about how we’re treating the natural world, and how it’s treating us back. Unfortunately the dominant sentiment is “here we go again,” with some head-shaking, some shoulder-shrugging, and a little bit of finger-wagging, especially in social media, at the inability of governments to prevent such events from recurring. But the solution may be at hand: our analysis of global trends around consumer activism and networked lives point to the increasing importance of networks in making the changes that governments, companies and individuals are unable to effect.

Over the summer, the in-thing for my friends in Singapore was to share pictures of the poor air quality in what’s normally one of the least polluted cities in the region. The air pollution was the worst it’d been in 16 years, with indexes in both Singapore and in Malaysia climbing into “unhealthy” territory. The cause of the haze was smoke from forest fires in Sumatra Island in neighbouring Indonesia—fires that most suspect were set by palm oil companies to clear land for plantations.

Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, torrential rains caused severe flooding in Manila for the third year in a row. Garbage-clogged drainage, waterways and canals led to flooding that brought traffic to a standstill and marooned commuters for hours, causing Filipinos to take to Facebook and Twitter to vent frustrations. News that individuals were deliberately clogging inlets to make money by ferrying stranded commuters spread quickly, with netizens noting the government’s inability to act.

Looking for blame

The feeling of “here we go again” also hangs around the photo which circulated of a group of tourists picking up and having their picture taken with a wounded dolphin, which  later died, in the Chinese province of Hainan. Chinese social media users have been decrying the men involved as “animals” and China in general as “lacking moral values.” As with the haze in Singapore and the flooding in Manila, the conversation stops short of proposing a solution, and focuses on looking for someone or something to blame.

How does Asia break out of this cycle of “here we go again?”  Fittingly, the medium of the outrage might be the solution.

Kantar Futures has been tracking a set of ten Global Energies over the past decade: broad themes of change in how people are behaving and consuming that result from changes in their political, social, economic and natural environment. Two of these Energies, Making a Difference and Networked Lives, have converged this year, as we see people depending on—and leveraging —their social networks to create positive change in areas that have traditionally been the province of business and government.

Making a difference

Our research shows that more than three out of five people in India, South Korea, Indonesia and Thailand feel angry over incompetence or corruption in government, while about half feel anger around how big business maximises profit at the expense of consumers and communities. At the same time, more than 60% of people surveyed in these countries—along with a little more than half of those surveyed in China—feel they can make a difference through the actions they take. This last number has been trending upward globally since 2011.

It’s not an accident that this increased feeling of empowerment has coincided with the rapid increase in use of social media. There have been several recent examples of people in different parts of Asia using Facebook and Twitter to resolve issues previously left to fester.

For example, animal rights activists in China won a small – but significant – victory by getting the government of Guangxi province to agree to monitor and police a festival dedicated to dog meat, to minimise animal cruelty. This is an important victory in a country where animal rights are typically trumped by tradition. The leader of the animal rights groups that led the campaign attributes this success to social media sites like Sina Weibo.

In other instances, social media has filled a void that government and business can’t or won’t fill. During the floods in Manila last year, Filipinos spontaneously used Facebook and Twitter to organise rescue efforts.

So how can Asia avoid the “here we go again” situations that have been plaguing it? Clearly, there are no easy solutions to problems such as illegal forest clearing, clogged waterways and misguided attitudes towards animals, but social media has a proven track record of turning small actions, like sharing or re-tweeting, into a large difference. We live in a time where individuals, and their networks, can create positive change faster and more effectively than governments and businesses. The next step for citizen-consumers is to learn how to do this consistently. For businesses and governments the next step is to learn how to engage with this new paradigm, before it passes them by.

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