Can the World be Wrong?

Chapter Fourteen: Ideas for the 21st Century

 

“Be the change you wish to see in the world” 

- Mahatma Ghandi

 

“It's not enough that we do our best; sometimes we have to do what's required.”

- Winston Churchill

 


SUMMARY

This final chapter goes well beyond public opinion findings to suggest some ideas that I believe are as likely as any others to come to reality over the course of the next 80 years of the 21st Century.  You could call these ideas the musing of a global pollster who believes we’re heading into a period of step-change rather than simply more incremental change. Here they are:

  • Social Capitalism. The ever-increasing pressure on business to better act in society’s interest will eventually lead, I believe, to a structural fix – such as a legal requirement for incorporated companies to act in the interest of the broader society, in return for being granted their limited financial and legal liability. Social capitalism is about putting societal purpose at the core of the business enterprise, then applying business discipline and capital to execute on this purpose. Leading companies are already voluntarily pursuing this, but it will increasingly be required through legislation or other means.
  • Collaborative Democracy. The huge democratic deficit that exists in many countries will lead to the re-invention of democracy for the digital age to truly enshrine principles of equality, transparency, open deliberation, and participatory democracy back into our system of governance. It starts with a fundamental shift in paradigm. Rather than the current political culture of polarized viewpoints warring with each other, collaborative democracy is focused on what pollsters call the average or median point of view. It is about applying proven “social technologies” to involve all parties in developing policies that can be supported by the middle two-thirds of citizens. It will put citizens collectively back in charge of the future.
  • From duality to diversity. In an increasingly collaborative world, the Cold War artifact of Us and Them – this arbitrary and limited way of thinking – will naturally give way to more inclusive ways of framing conversations and exploring possibilities. Moving from a focus on two points of view to at least three will help turn adversity into diversity, and log-jam into collaborative progress.
  • Off-worlding risk. There will be ever-more-public debate on the ecosystem risks associated with certain kinds of scientific research and technological development. This will lead to increasingly persuasive calls for companies and governments to move higher risk activities outside the biosphere. Such a policy will have the side benefit of getting humanity to the stars faster, while protecting our home world.

 

What makes the 21st Century so exciting is that we humans now believe that collectively we can do anything we set out to do. Everything’s possible.

This final chapter goes well beyond public opinion findings to suggest some ideas that I believe are as likely as any others to come to reality over the course of the next 80 years of the 21st Century. 

You could call these ideas the musing of a global pollster who believes we’re heading into a period of step-change rather than more of the incremental change that most people are focused on and used to. With so many elements of the status quo being unsustainable, business-as-usual is simply not going to work for us much longer. Hence, not only will change be the only constant, it will be accelerated change constantly challenging us humans and our institutions to change quickly enough. 

Here are some ideas to unlock our collective thinking. I wish us all well.

 

Social Capitalism

At the November 2014 Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) conference in New York, Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo, said, "We need to write the next chapter of capitalism together." What will this chapter look like?

The ever-increasing pressure on business to better act in society’s interest will eventually lead, I believe, to a structural fix – such as a legal requirement for incorporated companies to act in the interest of the broader society, in return for being granted their limited financial and legal liability. In the meantime, there will be a progression of business concepts and leaders who will continue to advance the cutting edge of change. 

One such concept is social enterprise or more broadly social capitalism, which we see as a next big thing –bigger than Corporate Social Responsibility was over the last few decades. Social capitalism is about putting societal purpose at the core of the business enterprise, then applying business discipline and capital to execute on this purpose. 

One of the business leaders currently leading this charge is Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, the third-largest global consumer goods company. In an April 2012 interview with The Guardian, he put this new view of capitalism this way: 

"I don't think our fiduciary duty is to put shareholders first. I say the opposite. What we firmly believe is that if we focus our company on improving the lives of the world's citizens and come up with genuine sustainable solutions, we are more in synch with consumers and society and ultimately this will result in good shareholder returns.

"Why would you invest in a company which is out of synch with the needs of society, that does not take its social compliance in its supply chain seriously, that does not think about the costs of externalities, or of its negative impacts on society?"

In a way, this kind of thinking is the inevitable result of business’ evolution amidst mounting public pressure over the last 30 years, which I detailed in Chapter 7: The Evolution of Business. 

My friend John Elkington16 has been prescient about the importance and promise of social enterprise, and he has been helping major corporations learn from this phenomenon (and vice versa) ever since. While social enterprise has been around as a concept since the 1980s, over the last decade it has become significantly more established and recognized, not least by social entrepreneur Muhammad Yunus being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for his pioneering microcredit work with Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. It is certainly capturing the imaginations of a growing number of young entrepreneurs with a social conscience. 

California-based branding consultant Ron Vandenberg uses the term Social Capitalism to describe projecting the concept of social purpose from the enterprise level to a branding and economic systems level. (Although the term was used earlier by others, including Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2009).

We are seeing an increasing number of leadership organizations (like Unilever, IKEA, Natura and others) awakening to the power and promise of putting societal purpose at the centre of their organization. And this will only grow as business attempts to regain its social contract eroded through the Great Recession. 

International research shows almost one in four people around the world are ready to abandon the free enterprise system17. Yet a majority of people respect companies’ abilities to marshal human endeavour – seeing them as the modern-day equivalent of the Roman Legion in this respect. It is corporate motives people don’t trust, focused only on maximizing profit to a few. Tying corporate strengths to societal purpose gives the best of both worlds and takes us in a direction that people want and support.

Social capitalism, if fully developed and institutionalized, could create a fundamentally new legal entity combining the societal goals that we used to expect from governments or NGOs, with the discipline and leverage of the private sector. This may be essential both for retaining business’ social license to operate and grow, and for meeting humanity’s challenges in the timeframe required. 

 

Collaborative Democracy

Clearly, a democracy is made up of many elements, including free and fair elections, the enshrining of the rule of law, the existence of democratic institutions, how dissent is treated, etc. But most would agree that having citizens believing that their government is run by the will of the people should form part of an adequate definition.

Over the years, GlobeScan (including in partnership with Gallup International) has asked scientific samples of citizens in a total of 65 countries whether they agree that their country is governed by the will of the people, or not. We have only ever found six countries where a majority said yes – and none of these are the so-called established democracies. And as the following chart shows, over the first decade-and-a-half of the new Millennium, this picture has gotten even worse in some key democracies.



These low and declining levels of engagement in our democracies, as further evidenced by ever-lower levels of voter turnout in elections, are creating what an environmental scientist would call a “stressed ecosystem” in which instability and invasive species flourish; the political equivalent of which is extreme parties and policies, and increasing street protests and radical occupations. 

Unfortunately, in the face of this, too many governments are clamping down on the symptoms (dissent) rather than addressing the root causes of alienation; which of course only fuels the degrading political climate even more. Current levels of trust in democratic institutions and political engagement are so low that we don’t have very far to go before the wheels begin to fall off. So, the time for truly significant reform in our democracies is fast upon us. Fortunately, the Internet (including mass collaboration software and social networking) and new policy development processes (including deliberative polling and citizen cabinets) provide some useful starting points for renewing our democracies18.

One attempt to define Collaborative Democracy calls it a political system in which governmental stakeholders (politicians, parties, ministers, parliamentarians, public servants) and non-governmental stakeholders (NGOs, political lobbies, scientists, academics, local communities, individual citizens) collaborate on the development of public policy and laws. But this just begins to describe the breadth of the concept in my opinion.

For me it starts with a fundamental shift in paradigm. Rather than the current political culture of polarized viewpoints warring with each other, collaborative democracy is focused on what Buddhists and Muslims would call the “middle way” and what pollsters would call the average or median point of view. Most powerfully, it is about developing policies that can be supported by the middle two-thirds of citizens.

Collaborative Democracy is about re-inventing for a digital age and truly enshrining principles of equality, transparency, open deliberation, and participatory democracy back into our system of governance.

Transparency of information and processes, because these are essential to regaining citizen trust in our democracy. Equal and participatory, because it hasn’t been lately; it is widely perceived to have been captured by self-interest and monetary interests. Deliberative, because the complexity of the issues requires both extensive research and an iterative process of policy development to get it right for the most people. Collaborative, because no single government or organization or profession can solve our complex, inter-related and trans-boundary problems by themselves. 

Putting all of these elements together unlocks the whole-system views and outside-the-box creativity we need to truly solve our challenges rather than “kicking the can down the road” for someone else to clean up.

All of this is possible. It’s the realm of social scientists, and they have perfected a number of innovative tools and processes that can be tailored to local situations and can deliver all the elements of Collaborative Democracy. It’s also the realm of a new breed of politician, and a growing number of local jurisdictions are well along in putting different elements of Collaborative Democracy into place. 

The most ambitious current example of this new approach is a bipartisan organization launched by my colleague Steven Kull in the US, called Voice of the People (VOP)19. They are urging the US Congress to take these new methods to scale so that each Member of Congress has a large, scientifically-selected, representative sample of their constituents—called a Citizen Cabinet—to be consulted on current issues and providing a voice that accurately reflects the values and priorities of their district or state. VOP ultimately seeks to create a large standing national Citizen Cabinet of over 100,000 Americans, all connected by the Internet, with a representative sample in every state and district, that will be operated by a congressionally-chartered National Academy for Public Consultation. In the meantime, with funds from foundations and individual donors, VOP is establishing interim Citizen Cabinets in several states and districts.

Some elements of Collaborative Democracy will no doubt be coming to a government near you (and me) in the not-so-distant future. 

 

From Duality to Diversity (From Two to Three)

The simplistic duality of most current debates is increasingly debilitating. The left and the right. The progressives and the status quo conservatives. Islam vs The West. Renewables vs nuclear. Us vs them. This is not how we’re going to get to a future we really want. Competition of ideas is healthy, but as in nature, we need more diversity of ideas in play than just two opposites.

In an increasingly collaborative world, this Cold War artifact of duality – this arbitrary and limited way of thinking – will naturally give way to more inclusive ways of framing conversations and exploring possibilities.

The truth is, we can no longer afford the luxury of lurching from one extreme to another, because in an ‘Us vs. Them’ policy world, both positions are forced into extreme corners that few actually want and that don’t actually work in practice.

While humanity isn’t nearly ready to embrace unity or oneness yet, and our governance and other systems can’t accommodate too many alternatives, I would argue for an increase in the use of three-way choices and indeed three-party systems that over time will improve decision making and societal outcomes.

This idea is particularly important when it comes to the essential requirements for human life: food, potable water, breathable air, and energy for temperature control. In all these essentials, we should have “back-up to our back-up” – three stand-alone systems capable of delivering these essential services. We do this on spacecraft carrying humans; we must with Spaceship Earth.

In this context, the argument for establishing a complete system of organic local food production and distribution, in parallel with the conventional or corporate food system, is logical. The only question is what is the third complete food system we should develop to ensure Humanity can produce the nutrients we need under any conceivable future scenarios?

Moving from two to three will help turn adversity into diversity, and log-jam into collaborative progress.

 

Off-Worlding Risk

A number of long-term trends are on a collision course when it comes to the risks we impose on future generations. The ever-deepening concern for the environment (most striking today amongst citizens of middle-income countries), and the growing demand for transparency and accountability in all things due to low trust levels, are colliding with rapid increases in what most lay people would consider high-risk experimentation and technology developments with potential planetary-scale impacts.

This is happening at a time when the current scientific governance system has been widely criticized as being inadequate due to revelations about flawed peer-review processes of scientific journals, the over-bearing nature of corporate funding for research, the lack of full disclosure, and too little government oversight.

This will lead to a much-more-public debate on the ecosystem risks associated with certain kinds of scientific research and technological development. The more transparency on this, the less average people will feel comfortable with the scale of risks being taken with scientific developments such as nanotechnology and artificial intelligence (let alone biological warfare). 

All of this will culminate in increasingly persuasive calls for companies and governments to move higher risk technology outside the biosphere. 

While projects like NASA’s Kepler Mission20 actively search for other habitable worlds, Earth is the only world Humanity knows of that can so wonderfully support our needs, the only one on which we can rely for the next few centuries at least, and will always be our only home planet. It is inevitable that we will take this reality much more seriously as it becomes clear (through challenges like the ozone hole and now climate change) that Humanity has become able to hugely impact the planetary systems on which life depends. 

The best way for this off-worlding of risk to happen of course would be pro-actively, by scientific institutions, scientists and technologists leading the way, bringing governments, business and others with them. The current privatization of space transport (Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, Scaled Composites, etc.) certainly opens the way for this to occur.

Requiring high-risk scientific experiments and potentially-hazardous technologies and manufacturing processes to be pursued in earth orbit or eventually in Moon or Mars colonies is the ultimate way of having them pay their full cost to Humanity, including all ‘externalities’. Well-balanced scientific panels under the auspices of the United Nations could be given the responsibility for assessing activities based on their planetary risk profile. 

And, of course, this policy will have the side benefit of getting humanity to the stars faster, while protecting the home world.

 


References:

16 Founder of UK consultancies SustainAbility and Volans and author of 19 books, including his 2008 exposition on the promise of social enterprises, called “The Power of Unreasonable People”.

17 A BBC World Service Poll, released in November 2009, found 23 percent of respondents across 27 countries said capitalism “is fatally flawed and a new system is needed” compared to only 11 percent who said capitalism “works well as it is.” Most (51%) took the middle position that capitalism “has problems that can be addressed with more regulation and reform.”

18 I want to acknowledge the pioneering thinking and work of my long-time colleague Steven Kull, director of the University of Maryland’s Program for Public Consultation, in helping shape my ideas on this.

19 www.vop.org 

20 In December 2011, NASA announced its first confirmed Earth-like planet orbiting in the habitable region of a Sun-like star. The only challenge for colonization: it is 600 light-years from Earth.