Saturday, March 17, 2012

Success in 2050

The Empathic Business Landscape

In her post "Strategies for 2050: Forward Thinking for the Industry", my friend and colleague Pam Gordon at Technology Forecasters called attention to the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) and their VIsion 2050 program. She invited readers to consider the impact of global and societal changes on successful companies.

What will characterize successful companies in 2050?

I thought about it for a few minutes, and a surprising word popped into my thoughts: Empathy. I had to explore my mindscape for quite a while to figure out why. What follows is my excursion.

The Commons
In 2050, much will have changed. Human population is projected to be 9 billion. Technology will have evolved at least as far as it has since 1974. I was thirteen then. Harry Chapin's "Cat's Cradle" was at the top of the charts, as was Jim Croce's "Time in a Bottle".  Reflecting back, I feel a rush of ennui.

What ennui will we feel in 2050, looking back at 2012? And what changes to society will we have embraced and endured? Looking back 38 years, it's pretty stunning how differently we lived. Isolated, really. China was still an enigma. The Soviet Union was pushing closed, controlled markets.

Home videos were made with film, and were stored in the attic.

Ozone-depleting CFCs were not yet banned.

Although we understood the tragedy of the commons, we did not yet have an unequivocal awareness that "the commons" was the entire planet.

Now, we do.

Now, we have access to a more intimate understanding (if we're willing) of our friends, colleagues, competitors, and enemies than ever before in human history. We also have a more complete understanding of the limits of our "commons".

When I think of my own high-tech career, my most successful products focused on the user experience. When I look at Steve Jobs, and his world-changing successes, I see products focused on the user experience.

What is this "user experience"? Where does the magic lie?

In a word, "empowerment". 

A great user experience brings the user an experience of being empowered - empowered to find satisfaction, success, fun, creativity, expression..and on and on. The fundamental of a great product is not just the goal of fun, creativity, satisfaction, etc., but rather the degree to which the user is empowered to achieve that goal. In fact, without the empowerment of the user, the products value-function is just theoretical.

We tend to buy products that help us achieve our goals in the most engaging, fulfilling way possible. Some goals we pursue simply because we want to - they delight us, perhaps. We pursue other goals because successfully attaining them brings the resources to pursue the goals we really want to pursue. (For those lucky enough to make a living doing what they love, there is no difference - this point will be important in a minute.)

Apple products are very empowering. And we do feel good when we use them. 

Or, we did, until recently when we learned about the nasty practices of its manufacturer Foxconn, and the impact they have on their employees.

Suddenly, it doesn't feel so good to be using Apple products. Why not?

For me, the reason is that I have knowledge of the working conditions of those workers at Foxconn, and I hate the idea that I'm contributing to their suffering. That's an empathic response.

I'm having that empathic response because technology has empowered me to understand their world. I also now understand that the world is small, and that I share a destiny with those people

In a fundamentally enhanced way, I am aware. 

This awareness is a genie that will not go back into the bottle. In fact, it will become more powerful. Why? Because the world is too small (there are too many of us) for our actions to be inconsequential to the whole, and technology is too successful to prevent us from seeing the consequences of our actions. 

And because we all can see, we're beginning to be able to see the bad actors.

By 2050, a bad actor will not be able to hide. Whether an actor is bad or simply ignorant will matter very little. An ignorant actor may have a chance to be educated, and evolve. A bad actor will either reform or perish. 

Think of the systems of bad actors like cancer in the body. Either the cancer has to go, or the body will die. If the cancer wins, then 2050 won't be very interesting to talk about - because that win means death not just to the bad actors, but to everybody else, too.

Whole systems of bad actors will burn themselves out, because the consequences of their actions will not be tolerated by the rest of us. Not just because we'll have an empathic response. The systems we depend on won't be able to afford it.

The interesting thing about "bad actors" is that the awareness will also scope all the way down to an individual. We as individual actors will be subject to the same scrutiny. Are we acting sustainably? Are we acting humanely? Increasingly, these two terms will converge, from a business perspective and on a personal level. It's a pretty bold statement. But why might it be true?

The Core Delusion
Here's where we get down to the core axiom of the future, and the core delusion of the past and present: We're not in business to make money. We're in business to deliver value. "Making money" is something monetary systems do, not companies. Companies convert resources from one form into another. There is no "net gain" in money. 

This point may sound like sophistry, but it's not. 

If a company isn't "making money" when it turns a profit, then what is it doing? It's "taking money", from some other source. That source is either the closed system that is The Commons (the planet, on which we all depend), or that source is a neighbor. Ripping off your neighbor is not a sustainable livelihood. And in the future, we're all neighbors. So you'd better be focused on delivering value, not on "taking money".  It's at this nexus that "acting sustainably" and "acting humanely" converge.

Success in 2050
What products, and businesses, will succeed?

I believe they will have three fundamental characteristics:

1) Awareness of the Commons. Resources are increasingly limited. The planet's ability to replenish itself is limited. Those who jeopardize the commons will be rejected as "too expensive" to support.

2) Empathy for the Global Village. People will increasingly realize we all share a common destiny. As population increases and technology empowers us all, we'll have no choice but to cooperate. Products and businesses that are seen as bad actors will be rejected.

3) Empowering Fulfillment. Finally, as we use the same lens on individual lives as we use on businesses, we'll begin to realize that the only sustainable path for each of us as individuals is to pursue our own wholeness, our own fulfillment. We won't be so ready to tolerate dysfunction in our working lives because there won't be as much in it for us - there won't be the idea of a big "payoff" later on - because, remember, we're not "making money", we're "taking money". In the end, the only sustainable path for each of us as individuals is to work towards our personal fulfillment - "delivering value" for ourselves, and to our neighbors, so to speak. Primarily, because everything else will be too expensive, and too painful. But fortunately, pursuing our own fulfillment will be the most satisfying, most sustainable thing we can do! So we'll really be compelled (both positively and negatively) to live "sustainably", and that means sustainably pursuing our fulfillment. Products that empower us along that path will be amazing successes. Products that don't, won't.

The End of Externalized Costs and the Emergence of Empathy
To be successful, products in 2050 will have to recognize the new state of awareness of the people who use them - and that awareness includes both humanity and sustainability.

Any large systems that are unsustainable now will have ceased to exist by 2050, because the world is too small to sustain them. New systems that are sustainable will increasingly have an advantage over unsustainable alternatives. So successful systems (and products) will have sustainability built into them. That means they will have eliminated externalization of costs that impact the Commons. They will also have to empower their users to live in a sustainable way. That means they will have to recognize what humans in 2050 will have recognized: we're all in this together. 

That's a fundamental aspect of empathy, and the cornerstone of success in 2050. Corporations that don't master empathy won't have any customers to serve. 

Post Script: What could invalidate our evolution into the scenario above? Two items that I can think of:
1) Monopoly power - Monopoly is one way resources could continue to be allocated by a bad or ignorant actor. It could be a government, or it could be an old-fashioned industrial monopoly.
2) Massive population die-off - With fewer humans, the compelling pressure to preserve The Commons is relieved, and our interdependency is masked by the power of the planet to clean up after us.

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