At the margins of the current order, a new breed of innovators has stopped waiting for big business and big government to fix our problems, writes John Elkington.
Standing next to me in the baggage line at Heathrow a few weeks ago was Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple computer back in 1976. But as I was about to turn and thank him for all the Apple technology I have enjoyed over the decades, someone else did the same. Yes, Apple has been in serious trouble because of working conditions at Chinese contractors like Foxconn, but its beacon continues to burn bright. Indeed, Apple remains something of a “Teflon” company (to which few bad things stick) rather than a “Velcro” company (to which everything sticks).
But the flight Wozniak and I arrived on had come in from San Francisco – and some people there now see Apple as an icon of an older, vulnerable economic order. Having just met some of these innovators, entrepreneurs and investors in the Bay Area, I think there’s something going on here that is worth paying serious attention to, even if many of these people are still Apple devotees when it comes to the tools of their trade.
Instead of waiting for big companies and big government to solve our problems, a new breed of innovators is in the process of creating a “Do-It-Yourself” revolution. We saw elements of this with social entrepreneurs like the Grameen Bank’s Muhammad Yunus, the sort of “unreasonable people” who decided that if banks wouldn’t do what people needed then the answer was to set up a new sort of bank. Now the champions of the Do-It-Yourself revolution are also encouraging each of us to build everything from phones to satellites.
Among the companies I visited in Silicon Valley was HP, whose founders created their original technology in a garage – as would Apple’s Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak 37 years later. So there is nothing new in this can-do spirit, but what is extraordinary is the sheer range of potentially breakthrough opportunities that this new generation of entrepreneurs is going after.
And that’s just as well, given the deeply disappointing results of the UN’s Rio+20 summit. Political leaders seem unable to get their collective act together. As their status slides, expect growing interest in the champions of breakthrough capitalism. Among them could be the sort of business superstars you would feel excited to find yourself standing next to in the 2020s and 2030s.
It’s true that not all the venture capitalists and entrepreneurs I met were as bullish as their equivalents were when I made similar visits to biotechnology firms in the 1980s and 1990s, or to clean-tech firms a few years back. They worry that there is still weak government support for “green growth”, slowing the scaling of market solutions.
This downbeat mood was reinforced when I began to read 2052, a new book published to coincide with Rio+20. Its main author, Jørgen Randers, a leading figure in sustainable development for 40 years since he co-authored the Limits to Growth study, concludes that many of the changes needed to ensure true sustainability are not going to happen – at least on the necessary scale and in the required timescales.
The bit of the book that resonated most powerfully with me was one of the perspectives contributed by external experts, and predicts that the 2030s will see worldwide revolution, as the 1840s did in Europe, driven by disenfranchised young people. “They are already now beginning to wake up to the fact that their parents and grandparents are in the process of leaving them an exploited planet with degraded life-support systems, indebted economies, few jobs, and no affordable housing,” warns Austrian biologist Karl Wagner. “In developed countries they also inherit the responsibility of caring for an increasing number of retired people who plan to receive pensions and health care for the next 30 to 40 years.”
Revolution is inevitable, Wagner says, “because the old system will not go away by itself”. The revolutions, Wagner predicts, will begin in the global north, but spread to Latin America and, somewhat later, to China. By 2100, the surviving young may be better off, but at the cost of the elderly. Unless, that is, a new generation of breakthrough capitalists emerges, triggering seismic shifts in our expectations and ambitions. Happily, a new, scrappy world of innovation is surfacing at the margins of the current order.
Anyone lucky enough to make it to June’s TEDGlobal event in Edinburgh would have seen some of these pioneers in full flow. The focus: a global movement that aims to take manufacturing out of factories and into people’s homes. And another of the companies I visited in San Francisco was Autodesk, which creates software products used by everyone from architects and city planners through to film-maker James Cameron for his Avatar series. One emerging area of business is 3D printing, with the ultimate goal that any of us would be able to print out a motorbike or microscope at home.
While in the city, I also visited an exhibition featuring the work of Buckminster Fuller, inventor of the geodesic dome, who had a huge influence on my thinking and work. Among the exhibits were copies of the famous Whole Earth Catalog, published between 1968 and 1972, which I read cover-to-cover at the time, and which helped spur a global movement in such areas as appropriate technology. It was no accident that one of Steve Jobs’ most famous speeches, at Stanford University, quoted the last in the Whole Earth Catalog series: “Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish”.
Most of the political or business leaders who convened in Rio de Janeiro are far from “foolish” in the sense that Stewart Brand, the other Whole Earth Catalog author and Steve Jobs intended – prepared to risk everything to create a potential solution to key world challenges. This is partly a function of their age, partly of the rules of the game they play. Some will adapt ahead of the curve, but most can’t or won’t. If history is any guide, this means someone else is going to have to do their job for them.
John Elkington is executive chairman at Volans and non-executive director at SustainAbility. He blogs at www.johnelkington.com and tweets at @volansjohn.
This article is published here as part of Nuclear Enery and Developement Programme, which is supported by the Heinrich-Boell Foundation.
Homepage image by Waag Society shows a prototype 3D printer.