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The world is stuck in a prolonged downturn--growing inequity and a spiral toward environmental meltdown--and we can't seem to find a way to turn the corner. Not surprisingly, there is much talk these days about job creators--in US politics as well as geopolitics.
Two camps seem to dominate this debate. The first camp advocates cutting taxes for the rich, under the assumption that their investment and spending will "trickle down" to everyone else. The second camp wants to focus attention on the little guy--the small and medium enterprise (SME) sector, under the assumption that assistance for "mom and pop" enterprises will enable them to grow and flourish from the "bottom up."
The reality, in my view, is that neither the "trickle down" nor the "bottom up" perspectives will get us out of the hole that we are in.
Some years ago (1978 to be exact) Filley and Aldag published a wonderful piece in the Academy of Management Journal entitled "Characteristics and measurement of an organizational typology." In this article they empirically classified organizations into one of three types: Administrative, Craft, and Promotional.
Administrative organizations are established enterprises that are run by professional managers using formal systems of reward and incentives. At best, they generate slow, linear growth since they typically compete in established industries where unsustainable practices and bureaucracy reign supreme among incumbents. And they produce few jobs, since their focus is on increasing labor productivity rather than employment. Indeed, the corporate sector (the largest of the administrative organizations) makes up fewer than one percent of the world's enterprises and has actually shed jobs over the past decade, at least in the developed world.
Craft organizations comprise the vast majority of the world's enterprises which are created by their owners for the purposes of convenience or survival. Most "mom and pops" fit into this category and their defining characteristics are informality and a desire for stability. It should come as little surprise that the small shops and microenterprises of the world produce little in the way of job or employment growth since they are seldom started or run by real entrepreneurs. Indeed, those at the low end of the income scale are typically entrepreneurs by necessity rather than choice: Given the option, most would prefer a good job for a decent wage. Expecting the world's craft enterprises to somehow rescue us from our current malaise is therefore a false hope a best and a shibboleth at worst.
That leaves us with Promotional organizations, which constitute only a small fraction of the world's SMEs. Promotional enterprises are started by entrepreneurs whose intention is to get big. They are driven by a passion for achievement and will stop at nothing to realize this dream. Most fail. But the few (less than 10%) that succeed are the real job creators and growth engines for the future.
The good news is that promotional enterprises can come from anywhere in the world and need not be focused exclusively on the development and commercialization of new technology. In fact, entrepreneurs focused on solving social and environmental problems through enterprise are some of the most passionate and driven people on the planet. Our challenge (and the leverage point for the future) is therefore to devise ways to multiply the number and success rate of this new breed of promotional enterprise.
As a co-founder of the new Indian Institute for Sustainable Enterprise, I aim to do just that--dramatically increase the number and success of entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs focused on socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable business development for the 21st century.
To realize this vision, IISE has assembled a complete innovation ecosystem to foster the creation of tomorrow's distributed and sustainable infrastructure, including an education platform, incubator, investment fund, technology bank, cluster (social) network, learning laboratory, and field support system.
The flagship offering is the Post-Graduate Certificate Program in Sustainable Enterprise which aims to create nothing less than a new model of business and entrepreneurial development appropriate to the challenges we face in the 21st century.
The real job creators will drive innovation from the base of the pyramid, creating the companies and industries of tomorrow and a more sustainable way of living for the world.
Twenty years ago, in 1992, the first Rio Earth Summit took place in Brazil. While it was convened amid great fanfare and high expectation, the only really lasting legacy was the creation of the World Business Council of Sustainable Development (WBCSD) and the christening of "eco-efficiency"--doing more with less--as a key private-sector based strategy for sustainable development. The governmental negotiations produced a massive volume--"Agenda 21" but little concrete action.
Next week, the Rio + 20 Summit will convene, again in Brazil. The past twenty years has produced some good news and some bad news. First the good news: Eco-efficiency has become standard practice in large corporations everywhere and is now spreading to the world's small and medium sized enterprises as well. This is a major accomplishment and has significantly reduced the impact per unit of output in economic activity.
Now for the bad news: we have not yet begun to actually slow or reverse the level of human impact on the planet. Indeed, over the past twenty years, we have tripled the size of the global economy, added nearly two billion people to the world's population, and further intensified our ecological footprint on the planet. Growth swamped eco-efficiency. Today, the science is clear: we have overshot the carrying capacity of the planet and serious repercussions are now inevitable.
In 1997, I wrote an article that appeared in the Harvard Business Review entitled Beyond Greening: Strategies for a Sustainable World. The piece won the McKinsey Award in 1997 as the best article in HBR. The article stressed that corporate eco-efficiency (greening) strategies aimed at incrementally reducing negative social and environmental impacts, while important, would not be nearly adequate to the challenge of global sustainability in the decades ahead. Even then, it was clear that "beyond greening" strategies--leapfrog clean technologies, and business models that included and lifted the four plus billion poor in the developing world--would be essential if we were to fundamentally change the course of the global economy, and set it on a course to sustainability.
In the 1990s, people spoke in terms of the need for fundamental change over the next decade or two. Indeed, the title of the WBCSD's inaugural book was "Changing Course." Unfortunately, all we got was continuous improvement through eco-efficiency.
As I prepare to leave for Rio next week, my hope is that this Summit can plant a new stake in the ground--the Beyond Greening Stake. I will do everything I can to drive this agenda.
We are running out of time.
- new urbanism
- mass transit
- sustainable agriculture
- distributed generation
- renewable energy
- bottom-up entrepreneurship
- IT-enabled development
- inclusive wealth creation
As we all know, the transformation to sustainability is the biggest business challenge--and opportunity--in the history of capitalism.
Few remember, however, that the so-called "Roaring 20's" were the time when the agricultural economy in the US actually began its steep descent. In fact, the period immediately following World War I, represented the first large-scale application of mechanized farming practices in the World. This was uncharted territory: Never before had farmers used tractors and fossil fuels to cultivate increasingly large tracts of land to grow commodity crops for a burgeoning urban population. Not surprisingly, there were unintended consequences. In the free-for-all that ensued, farmers plowed and over-cultivated their way to oblivion, causing widespread soil erosion, loss of fertility, and ultimately, the Dust Bowl.
Some would say that the collapse of the farm economy was what made the Great Depression the decade long debacle that it became. Only with the advent of the Soil Conservation Service and a whole set of other institutions aimed at regulating and improving industrial agricultural practice, did the situation turn around after the Second World War.
Fast forward to the 2000s. In 2008, the financial crisis, and the Great Recession struck. Most point to speculation, excessive debt, and an ensuing housing bubble as the "cause" of the recession. Few remember, however, that the 1990s were the time when academic finance and the financial services industry really took off. Driven by deregulation and the rapid develop of distributed computational power, exotic financial products such as CDOs and derivatives became possible for the first time.
Just like mechanized farming in the 1920s, these new tools got out of hand. In the free-for-all that ensued, financiers securitized and arbitraged their way to oblivion, causing widespread misery and wealth destruction.
The question is: where is the financial equivalent of the Soil Conservation Service?
When will we create the global institutions required to regulate and improve the functioning of this new force of nature? Until this happens, expect the New Dust Bowl to continue.
As we enter the second decade of the new century, however, the "dark satanic mills" of the Industrial Revolution are giving way to a new generation of technologies that promise to change dramatically the societal, economic, and environmental landscape. The information economy powered by the microchip has already begun to revolutionize society by democratizing access to information and empowering the repressed. Indeed, You-Tube, Twitter, and the rapid emergence of the "blogosphere" have spawned a bottom-up revolution in user-generated content.
Increasingly, the technologies of tomorrow will be decentralized, distributed in character and disruptive to incumbent firms and institutions. It is much cheaper and more energy efficient, for example, to treat drinking water at the point of use, rather than transporting massive quantities of clean water through pipes from treatment plants only to have much of it leak out or be re-contaminated before it reaches its final destination.
Indeed, we are witnessing a dramatic reversal of the logic of scale--the new diseconomies of scale.
Think about it: Over the past decade or so, we have witnessed the rise of: distributed generation of energy, point of use water treatment, community supported agriculture, microbreweries, point of care healthcare, microfinance, and sustainable construction, to name just a few. Indeed, the term "nano" has become de rigeur.
Because existing players in the utility, energy, transport, food, water, and material sectors have so much to lose, however, it is enormously difficult for the entrepreneurs developing such distributed solutions to gain traction in established markets. Yet given their small scale and distributed nature, such clean technologies hold the potential to creatively destroy existing hierarchies, bypass corrupt governments and regimes, and usher in an entirely new age of capitalism that brings widely distributed benefits to the entire human community.
And rather than depending on national governments or paternalistic social engineers to design the future for the aspiring masses, these disruptive new technologies may be best brought forward through the power of capitalism--not the capitalism of the Industrial Revolution, which enriched a few at the expense of many, but rather a new, more dynamic form of global capitalism that will uproot established elites and unseat incumbents by creating opportunity at the base of the economic pyramid on a previously unimagined scale.
This metric made sense in the 19th century, when coal (and other raw materials) were plentiful and people were relatively scarce. Now, however, exactly the reverse logic applies--fossil fuels and other raw materials are increasingly scarce and people are relatively plentiful. We now live with the paradox that increasing business productivity means fewer jobs (especially when economic growth slows), precisely at the time that we need productive employment the most.
Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, the corruption crisis in India, the rural revolt in China--all of these growing social protest movements originate from the same source--a growing "opportunity crisis" driven by unemployment, underemployment, alienation, and humiliation. The time has come, therefore, to overthrow the tyranny of labor productivity and graduate to a new definition for what it means to be "productive" in business.
In the emerging economies of the world, this revolution has already begun. ITC in India, for example, prides itself on creating livelihoods for the poor in the rural areas as part of its strategy for wasteland reforestation and agricultural productivity improvement. Indeed, as commodity costs rise, it may make sense to redefine productivity--from capital intensity and labor efficiency to labor intensity and capital efficiency. In the 21st century, "sustainable" enterprise must define success by the extent to which they create productive and fulfilling employment for the people of the world.
Is business up the challenge?
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In fact, a full decade after C.K. Prahalad and I first wrote the Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid (BoP), few large corporations have yet to realize the vast business potential of the world's four billion poor and underserved: Most have either sought simply to sell stripped-down versions of their current products to the emerging middle classes in the developing world, or have abandoned the profit motive entirely and moved their BoP initiatives to the corporate social responsibility department or corporate foundation.
Indeed, it is telling that, as we enter the second decade of the 21st century, the only real BoP business success stories come from the developing world itself--microfinance and mobile telephony for the poor. Billion dollar companies like Grameen Bank and Grameen Phone in Bangladesh, Compartamos in Mexico, and CelTel in Africa still stand out as the few iconic examples of business success cited by BoP analysts and advocates from around the world. In fact, no global conference on the topic is complete without significant reference to at least one of these "home run" examples.
This raises the question: Is there something about microfinance and mobile telephony that has enabled such stunning success? The answer is yes! When you examine each of these industries closely, it quickly becomes apparent that each is really a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. Indeed, microfinance and mobile telephony are not end products, but rather are enabling platforms that facilitate people to accomplish any number of tasks and deliver a wide range of functionalities. They are, in short, the equivalent of "unfinished symphonies."
Microfinanciers and rural wireless service providers enable poor slum dwellers and villagers to figure out for themselves how best to weave these new services into their lives. For these customers, this may mean mobile transfer of funds, communicating in code with a loved one, acquiring a third cow, accurate information on crop prices, or expanding a current micro-enterprise. My colleague Erik Simanis calls these types of products and services value open since they enable people to complete the value proposition for themselves.
Unfortunately, most multinational corporations have chosen BoP strategies that effectively deliver finished symphonies with defined value propositions in the mistaken (though well-intentioned) belief that they know better than the poor themselves what their real needs are. What works in the established markets at the top of the income pyramid, however, does not work so well in the emerging BoP space.
Time-tested marketing research methods (e.g. consumer surveys, focus groups, ethnographic studies) are excellent ways to uncover new opportunities in already established markets, where low cost or differentiation strategies rule and customers are already accustomed to paying money for service. However, when it comes to serving the BoP, the challenge is not one of uncovering latent demand, but rather one of creating entirely new markets and industries, where only informality, self-provisioning or barter previously ruled.
To effectively realize the vast business potential at the base of the pyramid, corporations must thus show a bit of humility. Companies must come to view the poor more as partners and colleagues rather than merely clients or consumers. Such an approach calls for deep dialogue (two-way communication) rather than just deep listening. To realize this mindset shift requires the development of a new "native capability" which focuses on co-creating business concepts and business models with the poor, rather than simply marketing inexpensive versions of top-of-the-pyramid products to low income consumers.
The logic of co-creation does not, however, mean simply entering underserved communities with a completely open mind and no sense of business purpose or direction. On the contrary, companies must clearly communicate what resources they bring to the table in the form of skills, capabilities, and technological potential; they must do so, however, without prematurely imposing a final product or technological solution. The aim then is to marry corporate global best practices and technologies from the company with the local knowledge, skills, and aspirations of the local community--to complete the "unfinished symphony" together.
Done well, such an approach to BoP business development holds the potential to create entirely new product and service categories that are embedded in the actual context (rather than simply cheaper versions of existing products from the top of the pyramid). Embedding also means creating "community pull" for BoP innovations, since they have been co-created with community members, rather than engaging in the expensive and time-consuming process of "social marketing" to educate and promote behavior change among the poor.
Over the past seven years, my colleagues and I have been focused on developing such an approach for companies to effectively co-create new markets in the BoP. The approach is called the BoP Protocol. We have now experimented with this approach in a half-dozen different business contexts in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and have learned a great deal about how to engage local partners and communities in the dance of co-creation.
Many others have also embarked on similar learning journeys to unravel the keys to successfully creating the inclusive businesses of tomorrow that embrace all of humanity and end the scourge of poverty. My colleague Ted London and I have gathered some of the most important emerging contributions in this regard in a new book, Next Generation Business Strategies for the Base of the Pyramid.
Our conclusion: There is no "fortune at the bottom of the pyramid" waiting to be discovered. Instead, the challenge for companies is to learn how to create a fortune with the base of the pyramid. Franz Schubert's Unfinished Symphony in the 19th century may thus hold the key to a more inclusive form of capitalism for the 21st century.
While the current economic crisis has been devastating to many in the US and beyond, it could actually turn out to be a blessing in disguise. In a very real sense, the world--and global capitalism-- now stand at a crossroads. New York Times columnist Tom Friedman recently observed that we had perhaps reached the global "inflection point"-- that the growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and 2008 is when it finally imploded.
Australian sustainability commentator Paul Gilding even had a name for this: "The Great Disruption"--when both Mother Nature and Father Greed hit the wall at the same time. I believe that the significance of the transformation we are experiencing cannot be overstated; companies and other institutions ill-prepared for this new world will simply not survive. The time has come for innovation on a scale that we have never seen before.
It's the natural instinct of governments to pump resources into the economy during such times, but the bailouts and the stimulus packages are in some ways futile efforts to try to restore the world to the way it was. The truth is, we can't. We're witnessing the death of the "Chimerica" consumerist model, where Americans borrow money so they can buy more goods so the Chinese can build more coal-fired plants to make more goods. That model imploded, and I don't think it can come back.
What we're now experiencing is a transformation to a more sustainable form of capitalism--and ultimately, a more sustainable world. This transformation began in the 1990's with the "eco-efficiency" revolution when, for the first time, it became clear that reducing waste, emissions, and pollution can actually save money and lower risk.
In the past decade, two exciting new commercial developments have burst onto the global scene. One revolves around the commercialization of new green technology; the other around better serving and including the poor at the base of the income pyramid. Both are exciting, but the problem is that they have evolved as separate communities. The green techies say, "Just give us the venture capital, and we'll invent the clean tech of tomorrow," as if it will then spring magically into reality.
Proponents of the base of the pyramid approach seek to address poverty and inequity in developing countries through a new form of enterprise. They say, "How do we innovate business models, extend distribution, and become embedded in the community to build viable businesses from the ground up?" But such "pro-poor" business advocates often lose sight of the environment, as if all this new economic activity will automatically create a sustainable form of development at the base of the pyramid. Tragically, that way of thinking could take us all over the cliff, if we end up with 6.7 billion people consuming like Americans.
The challenge of our time, therefore, is to figure out how to bring these two worlds together to enable a global "Green Leap." Indeed, emerging clean technologies, including distributed generation of renewable energy, biofuels, point-of-use water purification, biomaterials, wireless information technology, and sustainable agriculture hold the keys to solving many of the world's global environmental and social challenges.
Because these small-scale green technologies are often "disruptive" in character, the base of the pyramid is an ideal place to focus initial commercialization attention. China's towns and small cities, Brazil's favelas, and India's rural villages present such opportunities. Once established, such technologies can then "trickle up" to the established markets at the top of the pyramid--but not until they have become proven, reliable, affordable, and competitive against the incumbent infrastructure.
In my view, the Green Leap is a key point of leverage in transforming the global economy toward sustainability. If I am right, this holds important implications for policy-making. Rather than circling the wagons and seeking to build a Green Fortress America (or Europe, or Japan), the best thing we could do is get our most promising technologists and entrepreneurs out of the US (and the rest of the developed world markets) and into the rural villages, urban slums, and shantytowns of the world where 4 billion plus people currently reside. It is here that the Green Leap will take place. And, it is here that the corporations of the 21st century will be born.
I’m Stuart L. Hart, a leading authority on the implications of environment and poverty for business strategy. This blog will be a place for me to update you on some of my newest insights - based on the work I’m doing to help businesses take the Green Leap.
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Capitalism at the Crossroads, published in 2005, was selected by Cambridge University as one of the 50 top books on sustainability of all-time; the third edition of the book was published in 2010. I present new strategies for identifying sustainable products, technologies, and business models that will drive urgently needed growth and help solve social and environmental problems at the same time. I also argue that corporations are the only entities in the world today with the technology, resources, capacity, and global reach required.
Beyond Greening: Strategies for a Sustainable World won the 1997 McKinsey Award for Best Article in Harvard Business Review and helped launch the movement for corporate sustainability.
With C.K. Prahalad, I wrote the path-breaking article: The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid which provided the first articulation of how business could profitably serve the needs of the four billion poor in the developing world.
Learn more about my work at stuartlhart.com >>