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:
- 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);
- 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);
- 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.