Category Archives: Design & Innovation

COVID-19: another chance for a great reset?

Building on my previous post, it’s remarkable the number of column inches being devoted to the potential of the COVID-19 crisis to bring about long-term, transformational change. There’s a growing sense that, not only will we not be returning to normal anytime soon, but maybe we won’t return to the old normal ever.

Among the issues being thrown into sharp relief:

  • Work from home rules are giving everyone a sense of the daily challenges faced by many working mums (and dads), which will hopefully spark accelerated progress on gender equality specifically and flexible working more generally
  • The precariousness of many people’s livelihoods is once again shining a light on executive pay, with CEOs earning plaudits for cutting all or some of their salaries to protect against having to furlough or lay off staff
  • The importance of community is being highlighted like never before, hopefully causing the realization to finally dawn (on those it has hitherto escaped) that the health of business is inextricably linked to the health of the social and environmental systems in which it is embedded

The more I reflect on this (the last point especially), the more I wonder if my last post went far enough. The encouragement to think about ways of working that are worth hanging on to, once the crisis subsides, is a field of enquiry anchored in ‘what,’ when there are arguably much higher-order ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions at play here.

“What will be the new normal, post-coronavirus?” is perhaps the wrong question to be asking. A better one might be “How should the experience of coronavirus reshape what we value, and how we organize ourselves to deliver it?” – in other words, a question rooted in fundamental design values and operating principles.

The beauty of a question like this is that it can be applied at multiple levels – the systemic, the organizational and the individual. At the organizational level, it can help us to expand our mental model of ‘corporate responsibility’ – vital at a time when ‘responsibility’ no longer seems remotely adequate to capture the full breadth and depth of what’s at stake.

Indeed, as those smart folks at Volans observed in an email I received from them earlier this week, the irony is that ‘responsibility’ seems to be hitting the mainstream consciousness with a vengeance at precisely the moment when ‘responsibility-as-usual’ is no longer a sufficient response to the realities we face. As they argue (correctly, IMHO):

Change-as-usual strategies have tended to focus on Responsibility – or, in the financial world, risk. There’s nothing wrong with acting responsibly – in fact, in moments like these, we need responsible business leaders more than ever. But the focus on responsibility turns out to be only the base layer of systemic change.

What we now need is for business to embrace two additional Rs: Resilience, of course – a topic that has, rightly, if belatedly, shot to the top of every leadership team’s agenda in the last few weeks. And Regeneration – because, ultimately, no business can become truly sustainable or resilient unless it operates as part of a living system and contributes to the health of that wider system.

So, what might be the organizing principles of ‘regenerative capitalism’?

A good place to start, I’d suggest, is with the these eight, as put forward by John Fullerton, CEO of the Capital Institute, a few years ago. If these strike a chord, then you can find out more about them, and John’s research, in a more extensive white paper here.

In any event, the key point is surely that now is the ideal opportunity to use this crisis as the spur to ‘do’ capitalism differently – to reimagine what both business and government is for.

As for the former, I’d return to the British Academy’s definition of corporate purpose as ‘solving the problems of people and planet profitably, and not profiting from causing them’; also to the eternal wisdom of Charles Handy and these words from his seminal 2002 HBR article, What’s a business for?:

The purpose of a business is not to make a profit, full stop. It is to make a profit so that the business can do something more or better. That “something” becomes the real justification for the business. […] It is salutary to ask about any organization, “If it did not exist, would we invent it?” “Only if it could do something better or more useful than anyone else” would have to be the answer, and profit would be the means to that larger end.

As for the latter – as UCL economics professor, Mariana Mazzucato, argued in The Guardian a couple of weeks back – now is a perfect time for governments to seek to actively shape markets that deliver sustainable and inclusive growth, and to steer innovation toward solving the big social and environmental challenges of our time:

[It] is time to finally learn the hard lessons of the 2008 global financial crisis. As companies, from airlines to retail, come asking for bailouts and other types of assistance, it is important to resist simply handing out money. Conditions can be attached to make sure that bailouts are structured in ways that transform the sectors they’re saving, so that they become part of a new economy – one that is focused on the green new deal strategy of lowering carbon emissions while also investing in workers, and making sure they can adapt to new technologies.

[We] can use this moment to bring a stakeholder approach to the centre of capitalism. Let’s not let this crisis go to waste.

And with those last few words – wouldn’t you know it? – we arrive right back at an almost verbatim repeat of the final line of my previous post. (Spooky!)

On silver linings to a very large cloud

Times like these are a crucible, amplifying both the best and the worst in human nature. As news abounds of tragedy, idiocy and selfishness, I wanted to spread a little positivity, courtesy of a great letter sent by Jacqueline Novogratz, CEO of impact investor Acumen, last week.

You can read her message in full below, but one paragraph resonated with me especially:

This world is full of fear, not only of COVID-19 but of the economic hardship already happening in countries directly and indirectly impacted by the pandemic. And yet, in this past week, we have also become acutely aware of our interdependence—that our collective success will not only depend on how we care for ourselves, but also how well we include and care for the poor and the vulnerable. Everywhere, I am seeing people and businesses reaching out, connecting, offering support. This crisis is giving us the chance to find our best selves again and to renew our connection to one another in ways with deep local roots and with branches that extend across the world.

The chance to find our best selves again.

What a wonderful and powerful opportunity that is – to not return to ‘business as usual’ once the crisis fades, but to preserve some of the good that will have come out of it as a ‘new normal.’ To not bin those new ways we found to stay connected and have fun together. To retain and build on that deeper sense of our interdependence; to devote ourselves more fully to the ideals, people and relationships that are truly important to us, and to the health of the communities around us. And, yes, to keep reminding ourselves that maybe we don’t need to travel as much as we used to.

Those are just a few of the ‘close to home’ things I can think of, off the top of my head. I’m sure we could all think of many more, and I’d encourage us to do so.

It won’t erase the months of hardship and tragedy that will have befallen so many. But it can at least mean that we emerge from the experience wiser – more conscious of the precariousness of so many people’s lives, and more acutely aware of the impact of our behaviors on people and planet.

It’s a great opportunity to double down on building better. Let’s not pass it up.

PS. Jacqueline’s letter in full:

To our remarkable Acumen Academy community,

I’ve always marveled at the traditional greetings of different cultures, acknowledgments that range from, “Peace be upon you” to “How did you sleep?” The phrases we use in our daily interactions say much about the historical or modern experience of each generation. No longer able to greet with a handshake, today we find ourselves greeting one another with a look in the eyes, a question about health or an invitation to dance together through a cell phone or computer screen. Many people feel not just a new anxiety, but a new tenderness. And most of us agree that we suddenly find ourselves in a new world.

This world is full of fear, not only of COVID-19 but of the economic hardship already happening in countries directly and indirectly impacted by the pandemic. And yet, in this past week, we have also become acutely aware of our interdependence—that our collective success will not only depend on how we care for ourselves, but also how well we include and care for the poor and the vulnerable. Everywhere, I am seeing people and businesses reaching out, connecting, offering support. This crisis is giving us the chance to find our best selves again and to renew our connection to one another in ways with deep local roots and with branches that extend across the world.

We are also seeing new skills emerging among our most effective leaders, who are partnering in creative ways and prioritizing our collective health and well-being over individual profit. Shining examples of moral imagination, these entrepreneurs have the humility to recognize the ugly realities we must confront today and the audacity to envision and work toward a better future.

I couldn’t be more inspired by the actions members of Acumen’s community are undertaking in response to COVID-19. In Bozeman, Montana, Acumen America investee MyVillage, a company that helps people open and operate high-quality, home-based early education programs, has raised emergency grant funding to ensure that its childcare providers can continue to educate young children into April. MyVillage Co-Founder and CEO Erica Mackey says the goal of the funding is to minimize disruptions to educator income and help parents manage costs incurred during a COVID-19-related exposure or absence.

Also part of Acumen America’s portfolio is a restaurant chain called Everytable that offers healthy grab-and-go meals in low-income, underserved communities. Last week, its Founder and CEO Sam Polk wrote a letter to his community stating the company’s commitment to doing, “whatever it takes to ensure that everyone across greater Los Angeles has access to healthy meals,” including senior citizens, underserved schools or individuals who are struggling. Sam and Erica’s moral leadership remind us that we need to celebrate the actions of such role models so that more actions like these become the norm.

Acumen is fortunate to also be able to learn from its leaders in communities around the globe. Whether their communities are plagued by viruses, conflict, homelessness, despair or the stressful uncertainty that poverty brings, they constantly remind us what resilience looks like, and the importance of kindness and gratitude when all you see around yourself is darkness. One such leader is Acumen West Africa Fellow Niniola Williams, founder of DRASA Health Trust, a public health organization named for her aunt, Dr. Ameyo Stella Adadevoh, the doctor credited with halting the spread of the Ebola virus in Nigeria. Since 2015, Niniola and the DRASA Health Trust team have been creating government partnerships and public education campaigns to promote good hygiene to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. In many ways, they’ve been preparing for five years for the arrival of COVID-19.

We have miles to go, but we can address the new realities of this global health and economic crisis while holding with fierce, persistent aspiration to the good that can be done in the midst of it. Every Acumen entrepreneur, Fellow, Partner and, of course, our amazing team, Board and Advisors are in this together, equally committed to keeping one another healthy and safe so that we can stand together and bring our best selves to the work we came to do.

And we are thinking hard about what we can do to keep our community connected to one another during this time. We welcome your ideas, your stories and your inspiration.

With gratitude to you for all that you do. With hopes for peace, good health and love for you and for all who are suffering, for the lonely and fearful, for all of us. And with an abiding commitment to give everything we can to a world that needs all of us.

Jacqueline Novogratz
Founder & CEO, Acumen

Make way for the future of sanitation

There’s a saying in the north of England: “Where there’s muck, there’s brass.”

If I thought this’d mean anything to anyone outside the UK, I’d love to have made it the title of this new EY study, produced in collaboration with the Toilet Board Coalition (TBC). Roughly translated, it means that dirty work can be lucrative, which seems apt in the context of a piece that starts with the premise that there’s a multibillion-dollar economic bounty to be derived from human poo.

Yes, you heard me right!

As if it wasn’t scandalous enough that 4.2b of our fellow human beings still lack access to safely managed sanitation – and 830,000 people die each year due to poor water, sanitation and hygiene – we’re compounding this by missing out on a massive opportunity.

As the global population continues to rise, human waste is one of the few natural resources that will increase. Right now, trillions of liters of these valuable “toilet resources” (the TBC’s preferred term for poo!) go lost and untreated every year, when their capture, treatment and productive use could create a transformational sanitation economy worth an estimated US$62b a year in India alone.

Looking to shift the debate from why creating said economy is a good idea to how to make it happen faster, the TBC engaged EY to write this report, which shares insights into the practical and replicable steps that impact enterprises in their Sanitation Economy Accelerator program have taken to achieve scale and sustainability (several of those enterprises, incidentally, having benefitted from not-for-profit EY projects to help build their capacity to scale).

I hope you’ll find it as fascinating to read as I did to write. As ever, I found myself marveling at the ingenuity of some of these models – my personal favorite probably being Sanergy in Kenya who, alongside their Fresh Life toilets business, have built a facility housing a colony of black soldier flies that feed on the waste collected and upcycle it into high-quality animal feed and organic fertilizer.

As well as being a great example of circular economy principles in action (turning the waste from one process into food for another), it’s also a brilliant illustration of how social business model innovations can address multiple Sustainable Development Goals – in this case not only SDG6 (clean water and sanitation), but also SDG1 (no poverty) and SDG2 (zero hunger) by virtue of creating markets for affordable, quality agricultural inputs that smallholder farmers can use to increase their yields and incomes.

This and other examples in the report show that better answers to the global sanitation crisis already existthey just need to be scaled. And in sharing how Sanitation Economy Accelerator enterprises are doing it, EY and the TBC aim to encourage others like them to follow suit, and to stimulate the kind of investment that can help make that happen.

As the report concludes:

We sit at a critical inflection point in the pursuit of the Sustainable Development
Goal of access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all by 2030.
With the UN suggesting that achieving universal access to even basic sanitation
by 2030 would require doubling the current rate of change, we need to go
further, faster. In particular, we need to go further, faster in scaling the impact
enterprises whose innovative business models are reaching the parts that
conventional sewerage, waste treatment and processing can’t.

The business case has already been made — powerfully. And better answers to the
global sanitation crisis already exist in the shape of past and present participants in
the TBC’s Sanitation Economy Accelerator program. But unless and until the
debate meaningfully shifts from why a transformational sanitation economy is a
good idea toward how to rapidly scale and replicate the success of these enterprises,
the prize is likely to remain elusive.

That prize — estimated to be worth US$62 billion a year by 2021 in India alone — deserves greater attention and commitment to act. It deserves greater attention and commitment from governments and municipal authorities who can reduce the unaffordable public costs of sewered sanitation, while reaping huge cost avoidance advantages in improving community health. And it demands greater attention and
commitment from entrepreneurs and impact investors who can unearth huge
value, not only from serving the 4.2 billion people still lacking access to safely
managed forms of sanitation today, but also helping to tackle adjacent goals for
sustainable development, such as safe water, food security, renewable energy, and good health and well-being.

Building a profitable, sustainable sanitation business serving low-income customers
is hard, but as the examples in this report show, it can be done. From bundling
sanitation with other services to create a better, broader user experience, to
creating demand for transformed toilet resources, to becoming asset light to make
invested capital stretch further, Sanitation Economy Accelerator enterprises are
illuminating multiple pathways to greater efficiency, profitability and scale. And in so doing, they’ve already brought dignity and a better quality of life to millions of people.

With the right support — particularly innovative forms of finance — EY and the
TBC believe that they, and others like them, can bring affordable, sustainable
and safely managed sanitation to hundreds of millions more of the people who so
desperately need it.

Could business hold the key to universal access to safe drinking water?

Imagine a life without safe drinking water. It isn’t easy. Most of us take for granted that we can just turn on a tap and fill a glass. But that’s not an option for roughly one in four of the world’s population — the 2.1 billion people who still lack access to safe drinking water today.

With half of all hospital beds in low-income countries occupied by people with water-borne diseases, it’s hard to overstate the importance of reaching the UN Sustainable Development Goal of equitable access to safe, affordable drinking water for all by 2030.

While the current rate of change isn’t fast enough to hit that target, some fantastic research by EY’s Wayne Simper suggests grounds for optimism, thanks to the growing number of impact entrepreneurs innovating new models for the scalable and sustainable provision of safe water in underserved communities.

That story of optimism is one that Unilever and EY were shouting loud and proud at World Water Week in Stockholm, late last month, drawing on a joint report based on Wayne’s insights, and which I had the pleasure of writing.

Co-signed by Kees Kruythoff (President, Home Care, Unilever) and Alison Kay (Chair of the EY Global Accounts Committee), How can a trickle become a torrent? shines a light on the critical factors influencing impact entrepreneurs’ ability to build truly scalable and self-sustaining Safe Water Enterprises (SWEs) with the capacity to bring safe drinking water within reach of hundreds of millions more people.

The market leading SWEs, analysis of whose businesses forms the basis of the report, are already serving more than 15 million people across Africa and India, and we may only have scratched the surface of what these, and others like them, could achieve with the right focus and support. Wayne’s research and analysis suggests this rests on recognizing three things above all:

  1. That the high fixed costs inherent in any SWE operating model mean that only SWEs that operate at scale can achieve true sustainability
  2. That there’s no “ultimate” SWE model that works best in all circumstances, which means that the path to scale depends on finding the best fit to a particular blend of market conditions
  3. That we need investors who are prepared to take a more balanced view of SWEs’ potential to generate returns — from a social impact as well as financial perspective — so as not to overlook promising and scalable models for safe water provision

Picking out just one of these themes, to give you a flavor of the kind of insight you’ll find in the report, it’s worth taking a closer look at the third point.

We’ve all seen the power of a “magic metric” to galvanize action, a prime example being how a single piece of data such as grams of carbon dioxide emitted per kilometer (gCO2/km) has transformed perspectives and behaviors across the automotive industry. The report introduces a new one that has the potential to create a similarly seismic ripple effect: Impact Return on Capital, or IROC for short.

In the case of safe drinking water, this metric represents the number of daily water consumers whose needs can be served per thousand dollars of invested capital. It’s an important measure because it opens up an entirely new way of looking at the capital efficiency of SWEs — one that properly takes into account the purposeful trade-offs these life-changing businesses make, often intentionally running close to breakeven in order to keep prices low and make safe drinking water as affordable as possible.

With innovative SWEs clearly so vital to reaching the SDG target of equitable access to safe, affordable drinking water for all by 2030, we can’t afford to overlook any model with the potential to accelerate that access. Combined with more the more traditional measure of Return on Invested Capital (ROIC), IROC paves the way for a more holistic approach to building and evaluating investment cases that can help guard against this eventuality.

For more on this and other insights for accelerating growth of SWEs, I urge you to read and share the full report. The health and wellbeing of more than 2 billion people could depend on following the advice within its pages.

Discovering new-found respect for philanthropy

I’ve always had a bit of a downer on corporate philanthropy, having tended to equate it with first generation sustainability strategy and practice – a model based on ‘giving something back’ that often pays little or no heed to what the corporation takes in the first place. In so doing, I’ve always felt, it tends to perpetuate the framing of sustainability as a discrete agenda, separate from core business.

Reflecting further on the latest Acumen Debate hosted by EY earlier this month, however, I’m thinking it’s maybe time to revise that view.

The spur for this reflection is a thought-provoking comment made by Sam Parker, director of the Shell Foundation, in speaking against the motion that, “This house believes that impact investors don’t need to compromise between financial and social returns.”

He was following on from – and directly responding to – the argument made in favour of the motion by Diana Noble of CDC, the British government’s development finance institution. Her experience, she said, proved there was no compromise. CDC has achieved an average 6% return on investments in its portfolio of ‘base of the pyramid’ (BoP) enterprises over the last 20 years; and on her regular visits to Africa and South East Asia, she could not go anywhere without seeing the benefit of businesses, “that simply wouldn’t exist without CDC.”

The essential thrust of Parker’s retort was that’s grand, but how did those businesses get to a place where they became an investible proposition for the likes of CDC? “Somebody somewhere had to do the heavy lifting,” he said. “Somebody somewhere paid for that.”

And you know what? I think he’s right.

If you think about it in terms of something like Ichak Adizes’ famous corporate life-cycle model, impact investors like CDC might only really enter the fray once an enterprise has reached ‘adolescence’ and the risk of ‘infant mortality’ has passed.

Work backwards through the ‘go-go’, ‘infancy’ and ‘courtship’ stages – where ultimately the business idea is but the proverbial twinkle in the parent’s eye – and, chances are, you’re going to be looking at investors with a very different profile.

Go back one step, and you might be looking at investors prepared to work at breakeven; go back two and they’re maybe willing to put up with a 50% loss; go right back to the outset, and you’re probably looking at pure philanthropy – the, “early-stage patient grant,” as Parker put it, without which, “there would be nothing to invest in.”

For me, that logic felt hard to refute and, whereas the show of hands at the end of the event appeared to show several of the audience metaphorically crossing the floor from the ‘opposed’ to ‘in favour’ camps, much to my surprise, I found myself moving in the opposite direction.

A more beautiful question

For a while now, I’ve been searching for what author and journalist Warren Berger calls ‘a more beautiful question’ – the kind of question that, with elegant simplicity, can encapsulate a wealth of ideas, concepts and possibilities; that can help to shift the way we perceive or think about something; and that has the capacity to spark breakthrough ideas.

While that kind of preamble almost inevitably sets me up to fail, I think I may finally have fashioned one worth sharing, and it goes like this:

What if business were society’s greatest problem solver?

I use the word “fashioned” advisedly, of course. I don’t claim any originality, save perhaps for the particular combination of words. The ideas and concepts that underpin it are many, varied and long-established – the self-same ones that have preoccupied me (and many others) for years now.

While people may choose different labels to describe the conceptual space here – be it sustainability, creating shared value, purpose-led business, inclusive capitalism or whatever – they are fundamentally united by a common set of assumptions:

  1. That, whatever your views on the role of business, and the capitalist system more generally, in creating many of the problems and inequities we see today, it’s also essential to solving them (as evidenced, for example, by the inclusion of business as a key partner in achieving the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals);
  2. That business, and again capitalism more generally, is perfectly capable of this kind of ‘reboot’ (indeed, as powerfully argued by some smart folks at McKinsey, creating and scaling solutions to human problems may always have been at the heart of how and why capitalism works);
  3. That the fates of business and society are interdependent and it’s in the best interests of both that business steps up to assume this role as a partner of choice in solving social problems (whisper it quietly, but business-based approaches are frequently more effective than government or charitable aid in reducing inequality).

What this all boils down to – what we arguably lost during the cult of maximizing shareholder value, and what we are now slowly rediscovering – is the understanding that the long-term prosperity of business and society go hand-in-hand. Business cannot, and should not, divorce its success from the health and resilience of the social and ecological systems that give it life.

Moreover – in line with Peter Drucker’s famous dictum that the only purpose of business is to create a customer – the idea of seeing business first and foremost as a problem-solving engine, rather than solely a vehicle for maximizing short-term shareholder gain, would seem a much better and broader reflection of what successful companies actually do.

With specific regard to the third point above – and offering an inkling of what reorienting business as society’s greatest problem solver might look like – probably the greatest joy of my current role is the exposure I get to the work of some outstanding social entrepreneurs.

As a firm believer that the sustainability imperative represents the innovation opportunity of a lifetime, understanding and telling their stories (and EY’s role in helping them build the internal capabilities to extend their reach and impact) is something I find endlessly fascinating. After all, in many ways, social entrepreneurs are the purest incarnation of purpose-led business – a mash-up of the social mission of a non-profit with the market-driven approach of business to innovate new products, services or approaches to tackling society’s most pernicious problems.

Take Jibu, for example, a clean water franchise business in East Africa, conceived by father and son, Randy and Galen Welsch, as a better way to tackle the problem of affordable access to safe, clean drinking water. Its ingenious business model equips local franchisees with advanced, solar-powered filtration equipment that can clean locally sourced water and make it available at a fraction of the price of other bottled water – each franchise effectively becoming a water purification plant for the surrounding community.

More than the question of affordability, the structuring of the business as a franchise also neatly addresses the problem of sustainability in the sense of long-term viability (i.e., sustainability = the ability to sustain!). Whereas donor-funded water schemes often suffer from a lack of local ownership – as a consequence of which, around half of them fail within a couple of years – every Jibu franchise is run by a member of the community it serves.

This puts the very people who benefit from the service in charge of running it, combining their need for clean water with their desire to control their own destinies and build a more prosperous future for their families. It’s a virtuous circle that should see the growth of the business not only provide permanent access to safe water for more than a million people by 2020, but also create 8,000 jobs, in turn providing 8,000 families with a decent and reliable income.

What makes stories like Jibu’s more compelling still is the fact that, more often than not, social entrepreneurs are achieving this kind of success against a backdrop of massive resource constraints. These are master hackers, and you have to wonder what might be achievable if big business took the time to observe, draw inspiration and reverse innovate from their approaches.

Of course, encouraging business-at-large to do so is precisely the purpose behind searching for (and hopefully finding) that more beautiful question in the first place.

Mindset matters

Just over a year ago now, I wrote about the vital importance of ‘metaskills’ as an (possibly even the most?) important avenue of intervention if we are to equip young people with the chops to succeed in an ever more complex and rapidly changing world.

A good place to start this post is exactly where I left off last time, with a thought-provoking extract from Marty Neumeier’s excellent book, Metaskills: Five Talents for the Robotic Age.

Today we find ourselves caught between two paradigms – the linear, reductionist past and the spiraling, multivalent future. The old world turned on the axis of knowledge and material goods. The new one will turn on the axis of creativity and social responsibility. To cross the gap we’ll need a generation of thinkers and makers who can reframe problems and design surprising, elegant solutions. We’ll need fearless, self-directed learners who embrace adventure. We’ll need teachers, mentors and leaders who understand that mind shaping is world shaping – who give learners the tools they’ll need to continually reinvent their minds in response to future challenges.

If you’re anything like me (and since you’ve found your way to this post, I’m guessing you are) you’ll be nodding in vigorous agreement with everything Marty says.

I mean, think about it…

Kids starting school in 2015 probably won’t retire until 2070. Our education systems are meant to be preparing them for this life ahead, yet we can’t even predict with certainty what the world will look like five years from now. The U.S. Department of Labor apparently estimates that 65% of children currently in grade school will end up in job functions that don’t even exist today. Meanwhile, research by the Oxford Martin School on the future of employment suggests that as many as 50% of current corporate occupations will disappear by 2025 as a result of computerization.

How on earth are we supposed to help our children prepare for, and succeed in, such an unpredictable world? For folks like Marty, education gurus like Sir Ken Robinson, and my friends at the Network For Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), the answer is as plain as day…

The secret has to lie in fostering agility, adaptability, and applied knowledge and imagination. That means helping young people to develop typically entrepreneurial skills and behaviours such as initiative and self-direction, communication and collaboration, and creativity and problem solving — fundamentally human characteristics that can help our kids to stay ahead of the ‘robot curve’ (as Marty puts it), to be able to adapt to constantly changing circumstances, to better recognise opportunities, and to remain confident and resilient in the face of challenges.

The teaching of these very sorts of skills and behaviours – fully integrated into the school curriculum – is one of the main reasons my wife and I chose our daughter’s school, and I’m constantly reminded of the difference it can make. Every year, I take part as a judge in the school’s Dragon’s Den-style event (Shark Tank in the US?), where girls as young as six pitch their innovative ideas for new products or services. They never cease to amaze me – not just with the quality of their ideas, but with their confidence, self-assurance and ability to think on their feet – and it seems so obvious that it’s this emotional intelligence, more than their recall of history or trigonometry or whatever, that will stand them in greatest stead in the future.

Cards on the table, this is a fee-paying school and I fully appreciate that these sorts of programs are a luxury not afforded to the vast majority of students. But then that’s precisely why I’m so excited by NFTE’s work on an Entrepreneurial Mindset Index – an emerging methodology for measuring and evaluating the presence of an entrepreneurial mindset among young people and, potentially, to influence policy in such a way that teaching it is given much greater prominence in all our schools.

I’m excited because, IMHO, learning about this stuff shouldn’t be the exclusive preserve of a privileged few. Mindset matters. It should be available to everyone.

If you’re interested in learning more, NFTE is hosting an Entrepreneurial Mindset Summit in New York on 27 October. Check it out.