Issue 5.9 | January 2018

In this Article: to transform whole social systems, we need not only passion and innovation, but human insight.

by Jonathan Wilson

“My biggest regret,” said the CEO, “was coming up with our mantra to double revenues by 2020. It doesn’t mean anything.” He emphasized anything as if it were a swear word.

After the financial crash of 2008, a large question mark loomed over the capitalist enterprise. For the first time since 1970, when Milton Friedman put to rest the notion that business has a purpose other than profit, circumstances suggested he was badly mistaken. Whatever public corporations may have believed about their role in shaping society, the fact was they had one, and it was too often destructive.

Since the crash, academic attempts to rethink the model of capitalism have stuttered along, but there has been another movement afoot within the business world.  This one is driven, not by economists or business school professors, but by practitioners, who are pursuing their gut instinct that business should do good.

The movement covers a wide spectrum of players, e.g. social entrepreneurs, “impact investors”, and private and publicly held corporations like Mars Inc. and Unilever. The CEO mentioned above is one of these individuals. His rapidly growing company, despite belonging to a relatively conservative industry, will certainly make billions before too long but, as he said, “So what if we double revenues? We want to change the way people live and work in Canada, for the better. How will revenues measure that?”  What he wants, and what many others want, is what I call Big Change.

Big Change refers to the long-term pursuit of shifting a system from one established set of behaviours to another, with the aim of increased human flourishing. The system in question could be an industry, a sector, a market or a society.

The vision and energy for Big Change is remarkable and exciting, covering a wide range of big ideas: healthier eating, smart buildings that enhance human experience, ending human trafficking, unclogging Emergency Rooms in hospitals, and non-exploitative insurance products.

It’s Not What You Can See, But What You Can’t 

However, the interest in Big Change is also marked by two prevalent assumptions that can, ironically, get directly in the way of positive, sustainable transformation.

The first is the assumption of the entrepreneurial individual or company as to what constitutes meaningful social progress. It is a fill-in-the-blank assumption — whatever the entrepreneurial leader or organization believes to be socially beneficial. Rarely is it grounded by such wise tutors as moral philosophy, history or the social sciences (neuroscience is increasingly in vogue, but it can’t tell us what is important for whole societies).

Innovators can’t see what they don’t have the vantage point to see. Facebook wanted to connect us to information and to one another: they delivered this, but they also helped deliver an epidemic of anxiety, polarization, and virtual mob lynchings. Apple (and Samsung, et al) wanted beauty, simplicity and utility applied to a variety of tasks in one device: along with these benefits, virtually every smartphone user also suffers addiction and cognitive fragmentation.

The second assumption is perhaps an extension of the first: it is the assumption about what will drive Big Change. Many social entrepreneurs today assume that technological innovation is the key that will unlock some form of social salvation: “technology has become strategy,” claims an IBM paper. History, on the other hand, tells us that Big Change is ultimately the result of a social movement, of which technological innovation is simply one amongst several critical success factors that achieve a systemic shift in behaviours.

Technology is an extension of the human condition — our need for increased or extended capacity to do what we value. When we focus on the technology itself, it easily becomes the gravitational centre of the social system, instead of its servant. When we grant technology divine status, it takes it.

Put another way, every technology has operational requirements, the result being that not only does technology support human behaviours, it steers them (as we saw with the innovations of social media and smartphones). Another example is on its way. The requirements of autonomous vehicles to perform optimally will constrain how we design urban and suburban spaces and the transportation networks within them — which in turn will shape social behaviours on multiple levels and in multiple settings (and then there is Uber, whose Big Change vision is not the Utopia of a shared economy. In the shared economy, ordinary Joe gets to drive ordinary Jane for an ordinary price benefitting both. In Uber’s desired future, their vehicle is essential and Joe is not).

As artificial intelligence (AI) emerges into its own, the same factors are present, and with perhaps greater implications for society than possessed by any technology before. Take, for example, an AI-driven system developed to support Human Resource management for companies across the globe. Within the “black box” brain of this neurally adaptive machine, in-built a priori assumptions about social norms, ethics and rights, which are invariably culturally bound, will colonize the diverse communities tied to that management system.

More Than a Big Idea

None of this is new. Ambitions for change have always been undermined by these kinds of assumptions. What’s new is the scale. To off-set our blind spots requires a multi-disciplinary approach to Big Change. If our ambition is to reinvent the city-scape, we can’t allow the novelty and power of AI or 3D Printing to govern our imaginations: the society of the future needs our imaginations today to be rounded out by the contributions of philosophy, anthropology, theology, sociology, the hard sciences, and history. That might seem daunting, but it really isn’t — if we have the patience to slow down in our deliberations. The price of impatience, of rushed due diligence, is vividly evident in the social ills we face today.

Equally, every intentional Big Change initiative has to account for the process of social change. It has to account for worldviews (the assumptions and motivations that drive behaviour in a given social system), social roles, social networks, social and economic obligations, and so on. It has to plan for the accumulation of impacts over time, and the time horizons associated with those impacts. Technology may be faster, but humans think and process and build relationships at the same speed they did a millennia ago.

Ultimately, the change we’re after is social. The business in pursuit of Big Change has to recognize that if the social system it wants to disrupt is market- or industry-sized, it will take between ten and thirty years to shift it to entirely new behaviours. Crucially, the business that wants to catalyze Big Change has to anticipate that three to five of those years will be taken up with its own, internal, Big Change.

Big ideas do not make a Big Change leader. Clever innovation needs to be matched by knowledge, wisdom and, as written elsewhere, a long obedience in the same direction.


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