TEN TRENDS & ORGANIZING PRINCIPLES
Open source access to information: With a global economy, information is a doppelganger for wealth, and if not shared widely, magnifies already near-fatal disparities. For all the commodification and commercialization of the internet, the world wide web, cell phones and Wikipedia offer the greatest democratization of knowledge and opinion since travelling minstrels, the printing press and public libraries. While entertainment, sports, pornography and heavily partisan opinion captivate millions of viewers, the total impact for other millions is the breaking down of stereotypes, opening a window to a much larger world. Whatever the content of information, the form and flow are value-laden. Transparency and accountability are increasingly recognized as positive values. Corporations and politicians who routinely hid their affairs and denied their footprint no longer have that luxury. Reporting is expected and makes them accountable to shareholders, stakeholders and the curious. The truth may not set us free, but it is a start, and thanks to massive flow of information, substantially available.
Sharing Economy: A sharing economy minimizes consumption and encourages the face-to-face interactions that add up to community. AirBnB and Couch Surfing, Zip cars, public bike exchanges are just the newest iteration of a theme that has been a neglected part of human history since neighbors shared the hunt and midwives delivered babies. It takes advantage of the wealth of tangible assets existing in this nation, and questions the inevitability and definition of ownership. The most consistent and comprehensive approach to a sharing economy has been the century and a half development of cooperatives, both consumer and producer, which rewrite ownership to rest on “one member, one vote.” Co-ops range in scale from small craft collectives to mighty and complex organizations with millions of members and operating budgets in the billions. Cooperatives are self-aware as an organism that connects both thematically and geographically through associations and shared practice.
Locality: For all the connection to global, national and regional systems, the delivery of services and most lives are lived local. There are a host of traditional community and neighborhood social institutions, including churches and the United Way, that support community. Farmers markets and community gardens join public parks and dozens of other more established amenities to make urban life civilized. Producing for local markets makes sense when transportation is time-consuming and wasteful of energy. Urban planning is back in style after decades of suburban sprawl. Strengthening connections and slanting coordination towards green is the future. In the wake of social networking, there is a growing sense that we need physical presence.
Interdependence with the environment: It’s a long way from the early struggles to establish recycling. Even deniers are ducking and covering with the prevalence of catastrophic weather events. As the lessons of global warming are taught more dramatically each season, so we adapt to energy efficiency and conservation of resources, as well as strengthening the infrastructure to prevent catastrophes. Rethinking how we manage food and water will call on the best efforts of communities and individuals, leveraged by technologies that accept long-term responsibility.
Best Practices: The growth of “best practices” shared within disciplines has been more true of the non-profit world, and most notably in healthcare, where organizations like the Institute of Medicine and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation have been leaders in identifying critical improvements, and urging their dissemination and adoption. Although competition has been enshrined as the motivator of productivity and commerce, there is considerable evidence that innovation flourishes when there is an environment where entrepreneurs build on each other’s designs. “Silicon Valley Redux” could be another name for the collaborative workplaces that dot urban environments; places like the HUBs where entrepreneurs bring their ideas and jam with peers.
Distributive Systems and Appropriate Scale: Centralized production, distribution and finance have been the bedrock of the industrial age, and bigger is better as the way to build empires. Yet there are associated costs which we are only beginning to factor. Agglomerations of small businesses, family farms, neighborhood shops may produce a more productive and interesting social and economic mix than monolithic, vertically and horizontally integrated corporations. Even the energy required to drive a sophisticated economy may be better delivered in smaller increments. In “The Third Industrial Revolution,” Jeremy Rifkin prepares us for a sea change to a distributive economy. The implications of localized production of energy, food and goods linked to supranational systems renegotiates the meaning of a global economy. Co-generation of energy via renewable sources is already challenging the centralization of coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear plants supplying a national grid. Local manufacture of goods via 3D transmission may be less than a decade away.
Consensus, collaboration and networks are alternatives to more bureaucratic structures. In the complex world we live in, centralized organization and hierarchal decision-making has a limited capacity for all critical players to buy in. Avoiding turf battles and the battle of egos isn’t ever going to be 100% where real interests collide, but mutually respectful environments and accountability are useful principles to invoke. The growing role of women in decision-making is provocative as the sheer volume of women assuming power has increased. The outlines of a feminist basis of decision-making which leads to a more collaborative style of leadership, is more than political cant and wishful thinking, influencing the style of progressive companies. One salutary side bar is a gradual cultural shift towards racial integration, at least on the media. When Sidney Poitier came to dinner, there was consternation. Change the channel to Denzel Washington and there would likely be smiles all around. We may be a long way from a color-blended world, but it’s coming. Class will take longer.
Redefining Productivity: As a new wave of ventures includes a social and environmental consciousness, the line between for-profit and non-profit blurs. A cohort of inventors and investors, both young and old, are questioning the definition of success by backing non-profit projects and business start-ups that have redeeming social value, and have begun philanthropic initiatives. There is a whole class of “impact investment” funds where short-term profit is only part of the measure. The connections released by new technologies based on chip development and manipulating DNA are already yielding wonderful opportunities. Entrepreneurs, many with strong social values, are cranking out applications and innovations. Dispersing wealth and power more democratically is a potential outcome, yet there are no guarantees of their benign use. A century ago, an explosion of technology based on the building blocks of organic chemistry, electricity and physics inspired, among other things, the devastation of two world wars. In a modern world challenged by climate risk and vast disparities, GNP, GDP and the progression from millionaires to billionairhood are flawed measures of accomplishment. Productivity linked with creativity, and guided by sustainable criteria related to community is the trifecta for a viable, 21st century economy.
Contradictions between open and closed societies: De facto, there is a growing wall between the welcoming of change and holding to traditional limits; between tolerance and prejudice. In a world of vast disparities in culture and economic status, accepting those divisions may not be ideal, but necessary. As the USA has found out in the Middle East, there are versions of community so narrow as to be mutually and terminally incompatible. A more modest set of contradictions is taking place in the lands of entitlement, where a libertarian devolvement struggles with the need to regulate. Shifts that return the domain of “conservative” to protecting the environment are a distant promise, while “openness” can be an invitation to new exploitation. The likelihood is a revised set of compacts between the individual and the state, paralleling that between open societies and closed. For every change, there is resistance from those with a vested interest in past systems. Alleviating trends which are desperately unfair and lead to massive failure depends on some combination of technological discovery, a new productivity that doesn’t require the diminishing of natural resources, a flowering of education at all levels, and sadly enough, catastrophic threats which cannot otherwise be finessed.
A cultural shift towards imagining the future: Three decades ago, Paul Hawken and colleagues wrote “Seven Tomorrows,” which extrapolated a matrix of possible futures from the sublime to the paranoid. More recently, it seems every other movie has a Sci-Fi premise. The weight of the future bears heavy, as the dues for past extravagances predict cascading tragedies more terrifying than the return of Godzilla. The net effect is to question straight-line projections that the present system, lacking significant modifications, is viable.