The emergence of global solutions networks offers hope for a better way to address global problems. But we need to understand how they work and protect them from nationstates that sometimes try to suppress them.

Technology has brought us to the cusp of new hope for solving global problems. Until now, we’ve relied on a model based on nation-states and global institutions controlled by states. Throughout the 20th century, national governments cooperated to build global institutions in order to facilitate joint action and address global problems. Most of these organizations were part of the post-Second-World-War global architecture: the Bretton Woods system for managing commercial and financial relationships among the 44 founding states, followed by international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the G7 (later the G8 and now, following Russia’s takeover of Crimea, probably back to the G7 again) and the World Trade Organization.

But in recent years, these large international institutions have fallen short of expectations. While we have seen progress on issues such as poverty, half of the world’s children remain destitute and malnourished. Some countries’ priorities remain egregiously misplaced: 1 percent of the global military budget could fund public education for every child on the planet. Progress on issues like trade liberalization and dealing with climate change has been slow or nonexistent, leading to despair in some quarters that the world lacks effective tools to deal with issues and crises of global dimensions.

Fortunately, a new paradigm for solving global problems is emerging. The Internet’s connectedness, transcending national borders, has given rise to rich networks of problem solvers, decision-makers and activists. New nonstate networks of civil society, private sector, government and individual stakeholders are achieving new forms of cooperation. They address every conceivable issue facing humanity, from poverty, human rights, health and the environment to economic policy and even the governance of the Internet itself.

This is a new development on the world stage that holds the promise of helping us make better decisions in solving global problems. Enabled by the digital revolution, these networks are proliferating across the planet and increasingly have a major role to play in enabling global cooperation and governance. We call them global solutions networks.

But the rise of these networks also brings new questions: Do these networks lack legitimacy because they were not democratically elected? In whose interests do they act? To whom are they accountable?

And just as they show signs of becoming an effective mechanism to address global problems, the old nation-state is fighting back to reassert control over what it perceives as a threat to its power. The technology that enabled activists to organize and challenge governments in countries such as Egypt has been appropriated by authoritarian rulers to help reassert control in Syria, for example. Edward Snowden’s leaks of extensive National Security Agency (NAS) surveillance and access to data have prompted a backlash in many countries, with some governments — opportunistically or otherwise — seeking to establish national control over their digital pipes and data.

This has brought these young global solutions networks to an inflection point. A battle is shaping up between the old and new paradigms. And if we are to seize upon the opportunities offered by these new networks, it is essential to understand them better, so we know what we are nurturing.

Until now, there has been no systematic study of global solutions networks or an attempt to understand their potential to improve the state of the world. Little has been done to evaluate what makes these networks tick, how they succeed or fail and what impact they have on solving problems. Nor do we have a handle on how they address the tough issues of legitimacy, accountability, representation and transparency.

That’s why the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto, in partnership with 15 corporations, foundations and governments that include those of the United States, Mexico and Ontario, has launched a multimillion-dollar global investigation of the new networks in order to understand how they can be more effective and fulfill their enormous potential.

These multistakeholder networks have four characteristics. First, they are coalitions, attracting participants from at least two of the four pillars of society: government or international institutions; corporations and business interests; civil society; and individual citizens. Second, the networks are global or at least multinational. Third, they harness some form of digital communications tools and platforms to achieve their goals. Fourth, they are not controlled by a state. They can be created by the nation-state but must have been released from its control.

Our research has identified 10 types of networks.

There are policy networks, such as the International Competition Network, that create policies for companies and governments. Watchdog networks like Human Rights Watch are funded by corporations and philanthropists and scrutinize the behaviour of governments everywhere. Knowledge networks like TED create global knowledge on a scale never seen before.

Operational and delivery networks actually deliver the change they seek, supplementing or even bypassing the efforts of traditional institutions. Diasporas are global communities formed by people who are dispersed from their ancestral lands but share a common culture and strong identity with their homeland.

Some networks act as platforms for those who seek change. A great example is Ushahidi – the website that was initially established to map reports of violence in Kenya in the post-election fallout of 2008 and evolved into a global network to enable people to share information and organize for change.

Standards networks, driven largely by corporations, now determine global standards in most areas of human activity. More elaborate networked institutions, such as the World Economic Forum or the Clinton Global Network, are addressing a wide variety of issues but, unlike formal state-based institutions, are self-organizing rather than being controlled by governments.

There are resources on the planet governed by multistakeholder networks rather than traditional government institutions. The Internet itself is managed by such a governance network, where states have little involvement, let alone control.

A new approach to meeting the challenges posed by climate change offers one example of global solutions networks in action. At this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, notwithstanding record revenues for some companies and all-time highs in some stock markets, much of the conversation centred on a deep concern that climate change is poised to wreak havoc on the world’s people and economy.

Yet it has been 16 years since the signing of the Kyoto Accord, and the volume of greenhouse gas emissions continues to climb. Clearly the old way of addressing this problem through international diplomatic negotiations leading to an enforceable treaty is failing. Our challenge, however, is that rescuing the fragile spaceship we call earth still requires coordinated global action. No one country or actor can solve this problem alone.

Thankfully there is a willingness to seek a new way forward. With states having made such little progress in addressing climate change, much of the action is now focused on business and multistakeholder networks to generate momentum toward action. Hundreds of advocacy networks such as the Alliance for Climate Change are working to educate, mobilize and change the policy of governments and global institutions.

The next global government gathering to discuss climate change will be in 2015, but in preparation, the United Nations will, for the first time, convene a climate summit involving a meeting of heads of state and government along with business, finance, civil society and local leaders. The meeting in September is not part of a formal negotiating process. But UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon wants the conference to catalyze decision-making among governments, business, finance, industry and civil society to drive a global shift toward a low-carbon economy. Nation-states, he believes, cannot get there alone.

The internet’s neutrality threatens those interests that don’t like the way it embraces the philosophy of openness.

To many, a global digital infrastructure that enables these networks offers not just promise but peril. Past media revolutions — the printing press, radio, television and then cable television, to name the most prominent — have arrived accompanied by grand claims that they were ushering in a new paradigm that would democratize information. Each time, governments and corporations, initially caught off guard, rallied to put fences around the latest medium, reasserting control for reasons of power and profit.

The Internet faces the same array of forces. Courtesy of Edward Snowden, we now have a sense of just how deeply organizations such as the NSA have inserted their tentacles into the digital infrastructure to monitor the activities of hundreds of millions of Americans and non-Americans. Many other countries have their own version of the NSA. To be sure, states have legitimate needs to ensure security and protect citizens from bad actors such as terrorists. However, around the world many states have crossed the line and are now using the Internet as a tool for spying, control and even repression.

The Internet has the potential for awesome neutrality. It is a platform that can serve the ”many to many,” and ultimately will be what we want it to be. It will do what we command it to.

If we want it to be a platform for mobilizing the world to combat carbon emissions, that’s what it will be. If we want it to be a tool for building a network to defund public education, as some Tea Party members have proposed, it will be that, too. The Web enables terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda to metastasize, and yet it enables us to deliver high-level educational curriculum beyond Ivy League classrooms.

That neutrality threatens those interests that don’t like the way the Internet embraces the philosophy of openness. The corporate opponents of openness want to construct toll booths that would charge different rates for different types of service. Others want to prevent access to some portions of the Internet completely. Many governments fear a world in which their citizens are able to access and share information, like Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who has tried to prevent his country’s citizens from seeing damaging material on his government by banning Facebook and YouTube. In a cat-and-mouse game, Net-savvy Turks are trying to find ways around his censorship, while he resorts to even more authoritarian means to suppress Internet freedom.

Erdogan is hardly alone. China aggressively restricts the type of information its citizens can share or that can be brought into the country via the Internet. Iran is trying to organize its own Iranian Internet that would be closed to the world and carry communications only with so-called Iranian values.

It’s clear that something big is happening. Civil society organizations, companies, academia, governments and individuals are working together in new ways on shared concerns, endeavours and challenges. People everywhere are collaborating like never before in networks, striving to reinvent our institutions and sustain our planet, our health and our existence. Just as behavioural scientists study the human decision-making process, we need to understand the digital DNA of these organizations in order to discover how they tick, and how they can be made more effective in the global policy-making process.

But to do so, we must protect them from attacks driven by the self-interested urges of an old system struggling to retain power and control. The fate of this struggle is not an academic matter. Its outcome will have much to say about whether this promising alternative to the old failed ways can survive and flourish.