Friday, January 04, 2019

Business as usual will no longer suffice…

A version of this post has been published on LinkedIn.

While carolers recently proclaimed “tis the season to be jolly,” twas also the time of year to be easily reminded of the excesses of capitalism, from Black Friday to its expansion in many cases to Black Friday Week (and longer) motivating purchase of things not needed, to the distaste for and dehumanization of the poor exhibited by A Christmas Carol’s Ebenezer Scrooge and It’s a Wonderful Life’s Mr. Potter (both with their many modern day counterparts).

But the holidays are not needed for such reminders, particularly these days, with reports of the unethical behavior of major tech companies continually in the news along with reports of the damage their products continue to inflict. And denials of climate change in the face of irrefutable evidence and predictions of likely doom; as Marc Benioff (CEO of Salesforce) tweeted in August:

Benioff’s highly visible support of a tax on large San Francisco companies to help the city address its major problem with homelessness was a recent bright spot in the world of tech and capitalism and apparently key to the proposition’s passage.

However, this is all about corporations giving money to others to help others address societal problems. Corporations also do this via various philanthropic programs, but as Marc Wexler (Co-Founder of Not for Sale) argues, the model of corporations doing whatever they need to to make money and then giving money to others to address societal (or environmental) problems is broken. Indeed, corporate behavior often perpetuates the problems corporate taxes and philanthropic contributions go towards fixing. Wexler calls this “soul crushing.”

Some have argued for the need for a different approach to capitalism. For example, Michael Porter and Mark Kramer have stated:

“Capitalism is an unparalleled vehicle for meeting human needs, improving efficiency, creating jobs, and building wealth. But a narrow conception of capitalism has prevented business from harnessing its full potential to meet society’s broader challenges. The opportunities have been there all along but have been overlooked. Businesses acting as businesses, not as charitable donors, are the most powerful force for addressing the pressing issues we face. The moment for a new conception of capitalism is now; society’s needs are large and growing, while customers, employees, and a new generation of young people are asking business to step up.”

The concept of “conscious capitalism” has received considerable attention. From the Conscious Capitalist Credo:

“Conscious Capitalism is a way of thinking about capitalism and business that better reflects where we are in the human journey, the state of our world today, and the innate potential of business to make a positive impact on the world. Conscious businesses are galvanized by higher purposes that serve, align, and integrate the interests of all their major stakeholders. Their higher state of consciousness makes visible to them the interdependencies that exist across all stakeholders, allowing them to discover and harvest synergies from situations that otherwise seem replete with tradeoffs. They have conscious leaders who are driven by service to the company’s purpose, all the people the business touches, and the planet we all share together.”

Sebastian Buck (Co-Founder of Enso) argues for a need to move from “extractive capitalism” to “generative capitalism.”

“Generative capitalism contributes new value to the world; extractive capitalism reallocates existing value.”

To date, Porter’s and Kramer’s concept of “shared value” — “creating economic value in a way that also creates value for society by addressing its needs and challenges” — has probably received the most attention, perhaps in part because it involves, as stated earlier, “businesses acting as businesses.” Unlike corporate social responsibility or philanthropy, “it is not on the margin of what companies do but at the center.”

And, as Porter and Kramer stated, “customers, employees, and a new generation of young people are asking business to step up.” One sees evidence of that in, for example, Amazon employees using their shareholder power to demand corporate action on climate change and in employees elsewhere spearheading diversity initiatives.

Some businesses have responded, including Walmart (whose Chief Sustainability Officer proclaimed in 2017 that “business exists to serve society,” and the company has increasingly acted in accordance with that view) and other companies identified by Forbes as “using the profit motive to help the planet and tackle social problems.” 

The profit motive” appears to be key, so when environmental or social problems can be talked about in terms of money….

Or to put it more simply:

Businesses acting as businesses…”

Yet, businesses have not responded as much as some predicted. SO much more can and needs to be done.

As I’ve stated elsewhere, part of the problem is the difficulty corporations have understanding social and environmental issues adequately and working effectively with others already working on such issues. As I’ve also stated, designers schooled in effectively designing for social or environmental impact have skills that can help corporations address this difficulty. I’ve identified some of those skills; Mike Youngblood elaborates on how anthropological thinking — an essential component of good design — “can help make business greener; and Jared Spool highlights another of the essential skills below:

But as I’ve argued in multiple talks (e.g., at the Interaction Design Education Summit in Lyon France last February) and as Marc Rettig argues in my conversation with him about what it takes for companies to move toward social and environmental responsibility, designers need to elevate their game. At the same time, companies have to elevate their understanding of design and of the role designers can play in business.

However, Calvin’s Hobbes so sadly concludes:

But we are at a point of crisis. Business as usual will no longer suffice…

Perhaps the final Calvin and Hobbes strip ever published offers a ray of hope:

Here’s to a happy new year!