I was in Detroit yesterday learning more about incubators. I came away thinking about metaphors.
My morning began in TechTown, where Faris Alami gave my research associate, Neesha Modi, and me a heady introduction to all that is taking place. TechTown is at once a research and technology park, a business incubator, and a collection of enterprises part of revitalizing Detroit.
We met in TechOne, a five-story facility where GM once designed the Corvette that looks out over the 12 city blocks that TechTown hopes will become home to all types of vibrant businesses. TechOne is home to IT and medical/biotech companies, as its name suggests, but it is more than that. For instance we met with Marion Jackson and Barbara Cervenka, co-directors of Con/Vida, a nonprofit organization that promotes the work of Brazilian and Peruvian artists by organizing exhibitions and selling their work. We also met with TechTown's former executive director, Randal Charlton, whose new venture, Boom! The New Economy, is helping adults 50 years and older create new businesses. But Jackson, Cerveka, and Charlton--themselves in the 60+ age bracket--might bump into middle school and high school aged tenants of TechOne who are there learning how to apply science to solve global problems.
TechTown also offers support services to entrepreneurs hoping to launch Detroit-based businesses. This program, "Thrive," supports entrepreneurs of all stipes, from one individual who needed support to purchase a truck and start a small transportation company to another who is developing a radiation-free breast cancer screening device.
Our next stop, the Green Garage, is another mixture of place, tenants, and business creation. The Green Garage (the place) was a show room for Model T's, but since the Detroit riots in the 1960s its windows had been bricked in, it had lost its charm, and it had generally fallen into disrepair. You'd certainly never know that today, as it has been spectacularly restored using reclaimed building materials and is worthy of a cover of Architectural Digest.
And that only begins to scratch the surface of what the Green Garage is. The Green Garage is designed to be a net zero energy building: consuming no more energy than it can produce. This is no idle boast, as the facility is constantly deploying new technologies like solar tubes for lighting and chest refrigeration systems and metering and monitoring everything that comes in and goes out of the facility. It represents the very possibility of creating and operating buildings without imposing a cost on the planet.
The tenants at the Green Garage are carefully selected for their "green" approach to business and for their fit with Green Garage's sense of community. I had a conversation with Chad Dickinson, a transplant from Nashville and new tenant, who has designed state-of-the-art recording studios in a holistic way without using blueprints. Dickinson by Design is his Detroit based business. Using vintage power tools in his workshop in a corner of the Green Garage, Dickinson creates beautiful, "green" furniture from 99% reclaimed and recycled materials. He is using his craft to create affordable, long-lasting furniture and woodworking that create inviting homes, just as these homes can help reclaim the city.
But what might be most remarkable at Green Garage is the work being done by its co-founder, Tom Brennan. A former business consultant, he now rejects the idea of creating businesses in the typical way: idea, business plan, financial backing, make money. Instead, he teaches a type of business creation that places any organization squarely in the midst of the other organizations to which it is connected. Brennan believes that any enterprise must create positive economic, community, and environmental benefits for all organizations in its ecosystem, not simply itself.
This idea is reminiscent of Paul Hawken's description of a series of mutually beneficial business relationships in Kalundorg Denmark. The waste (in the forms of heat, steam, gas, sludge, etc.) from various industrial processes became the inputs for other producers. For instance, gypsum, which was the byproduct of a power plant, was used to make sheet rock. Fly ash, the waste from producing coal, was used in constructing roads. These input/output relationships all arose by happy accident, not design.
Brennan suggests that we need not hope for such fortuitous accidents; these sorts of relationships should be baked in to our efforts to develop businesses. And, again, these relationships should benefit all parties in the ecosystem, not just immediate partners, by improving each element of their triple bottom line.
Which brings us back to metaphors.
The Green Garage explicitly embraces the idea that businesses are like living systems, not machines. For living systems to thrive, they must take care of themselves and the environment of which they are part.
TechTown, in contrast, conjures up the image of Edison's Menlo Park laboratory. A number of business experiments are taking place in parallel--even rubbing shoulders. There is a sense of energy and pragmatism but, by and large, these efforts form a greater whole mainly in the sense that each success creates jobs in a city that badly needs them.
On the drive from TechTown to the Green Garage, Neesha and I stopped for lunch at the Avalon Bakery. Avalon's funky appearance belies what it is: something of a powerhouse that serves 1000 customers daily and delivers baked goods to 40 additional locations in southeast Michigan.
Avalon embraces the Buddhist principle of "right livelihood," its motto being "Eat Well. Do Good." Avalon has the ultimate respect for the earth, never using anything but 100% organic flour. It is also an anchor tenant of the Detroit "Agri-Urban" movement, bringing social and economic benefits to its immediate neighborhood and beyond for the last decade and a half.
All of which raises the question, "Do these metaphors matter in creating businesses?" That is the question that I'm thinking about right now as I reflect on how a city in need can be returned to greatness.
How do you restore Detroit economically while honoring its culture and community and improving the environment? And how do you balance the impulse to let things grow organically at their own pace with the knowledge that there are many people living on the economic edge?
It's Sunday after Thanksgiving. Christmas must be tomorrow, or maybe "Black Friday" has become "Black Every Day" based on my email inbox and all the TV commercials I've seen the past few days.
Buying stuff is alive and well.
But something else is in the air, something I'm reminded of as I plow through end-of-course papers written by my students in my course on "Solving Societal Problems Through Innovation and Enterprise." That something else is the spectrum of ways we can vote with our wallets to bend corporate behavior.
I believe that we can shape the evolution of a better society by creating better tests and then amplifying the efforts of companies that pass them (worldchangingbook.com). What follows are sketches, inspired from students, that give illustration. As these ideas continue to percolate, you'll be hearing more from me about nouveau consumerism.
Mia B. alerted me to consumerism for "slactivists." These are people who aren't deeply involved with political or social causes but can be induced to participate when the situation is right.
Carrotmobs (carrot: as in reward, as opposed to a stick) are relatively ordinary consumers who, when given a signal, mob a store that commits to using an agreed-upon percentage of the mob's revenue to make "sustainability" improvements like changing its lighting or buying organic seeds to grow and sell more healthful produce. 9carrots (9: I have no idea) operates similarly by letting shoppers find participating stores, buy lunch or a ladder there, and receive "9carrot receipts," which direct 10% of their purchases to the proprietor's energy upgrades and allow consumers to track these energy improvements.
For consumers, these can be fun experiences, maybe a bit time consuming if lines get long (but, hey couldn't that make them more fun?), and they just buy what they already intended to anyway. Companies learn that a more inclusive way of being tested ("I'll shop at your store more if you're more socially relevant") can help their business.
TOMS Shoes (TOMS: as in "tomorrow," not Thomas) creates a generational dividing line. I've polled friends and family in my age group -- above 30, well above -- and no one (and I've asked at least two people) has heard of TOMS. But as Mary Fritz begain her paper, "It's impossible not to notice that all the cool kinds are wearing TOMS." TOMS combines consumer choice with a business model built at its foundation to create a better society.
TOMS Shoes creates a better world through consumerism by donating one pair of new shoes for every pair that someone buys. This model has placed one million pairs of shoes on the feet of poor children.
Why shoes? When kids go barefoot it shows that they're poor, but it also contributes to their poverty by increasing the odds that they'll contract disease, get injured, or be denied admission to school. Other buy-one-give-one companies are sprouting up, selling everything from eye glasses and clothes to books, food bars, and even services like tutoring.
Whereas 9carrots lets consumers know that, if they need Crest toothpaste, they can purchase it "sustainably" by shopping at a particular store, the buy-one-give-one business model shapes consumer preferences. Consumers view TOMS as "social" shoes and seek them out, creating a strong, "hip" brand.
GoodGuide is a step ahead of TOMS, possibly 140,000 steps. GoodGuide lets consumers choose products based on characteristics covering their entire life cycle (from manufacture to disposal), helping put in place new and better tests of which products are best.
GoodGuide takes publicly available information and lets consumers conveniently use it to compare various products. Consumers choosing coffee, T-shirts, or even cars can make comparisons based on societal/environmental considerations including their toxicity, greenhouse gas emissions, labor practices, etc. All told, 140,000 products are rated using over 1,000 different indicators. GoodGuide's genius? Making its free information operate in the background on consumers' computers and smart phones while they create shopping lists, order items online, or want to spot compare at the supermarket. Social comparisons become no more burdensome than deciding that 2 for $1.50 is a better price than 1 for $1.
Bigger efforts to promote sustainable purchasing, led by other parties, are under way, too. Those will have to wait for another day.
Still, the best way to vote with your feet may just be to walk the other way. Ask Patagonia.
Physics Pop Quiz.
Can something be in two places at the same time?
The answer from advanced physics is a clear (if counter-intuitive) Yes.
Can you create something from nothing?
We all know that you can’t — except scientists explain that you can, by taking a vacuum (nothing) and blasting it into its dense, complementary matter - anti-matter components (lots of something).
Can these esoteric observations help us address societal problems - problems operating on the scale of billions of people, not the sub-atomic level of quantum physics?
As metaphors and guiding questions, yes.
Let’s start with money. As a physical medium, if I’ve got a $5 bill in my wallet, it can’t be in yours at the same time. But, as a representation of financial value, my five dollars can be many places at once. If I deposit it in a bank, it’s mine, even if the bank considers it theirs and then uses it to make five $1 loans (meaning “my” five dollars is now in seven places at once).
A loan is the most basic financial derivative, a building block that, in effect, creates money and puts it into the hands of those who need it and can use it to create value. (This is not to overlook derivative’s frightening power and potential destructiveness. Derivatives too numerous and too complicated to describe account for more than twenty times the amount of money in the world’s annual economy, and those tied to housing values brought financial chaos to the world when they imploded.)
But let’s not forget the fundamental lesson: loans let us store the same medium of value in several places at the same time. And these loans need not be money. For instance, Impact Everyday is creating a credit card that lets you loan it the “points” your card earns, whose cash value is then used to fund renewable energy projects. Where do your points “live?” With you, with the card company, or with the solar farm you’re supporting? It’s not a stretch to say they live each of those places at once.
Or consider your time. We know that we can’t get it back, but we can come awfully close when we bank it. Time banks create non-monetary markets, often in income-strapped communities, where a unit of effort I perform (say, an hour’s worth of computer programming) is banked until I redeem it (maybe for an hour’s worth of repairs on my car). In obvious ways, this non-cash economy creates a powerful means for putting idle time to productive use and bootstrapping economic activity.
Lent time, as with lent money (credit card points, or other items of tangible value), unlocks value. In different ways, each transforms potential into value that can help people and communities right now. Dare we say, being in two places at once creates something from nothing?
I consider these examples of Big Picture Design. A principle of Big Picture Design is never to let a good idea go to waste. Good ideas are everywhere, often requiring nothing more than imagination to be applied in a new context. If you can lend money, why not credit card points, time, airline miles, equipment, … ?
Big Picture Design also teaches us to consider everything in developing a solution to a societal problem. By considering everything, not just features that first come to mind, solutions are more comprehensive—and better.
Wal-Mart, poster child for much that needs changing (especially in the area of labor rights), has also jumped to the forefront of the environmental movement by (finally) considering everything involved in its products’ manufacture and delivery. A company that values low costs over everything else discovered it had ignored waste. Once it recognized this oversight, it eliminated the water in its gallon-sized laundry detergent, producing a much smaller container that eliminated three-fourths of the packaging, weight, shipping costs, and shelf space associated with the product. Customers got a less expensive, more convenient product that cleaned clothes equally well. Wal-Mart made more money.
From 2005 to 2008, Wal-Mart shifted its entire detergent inventory to small-size containers, pulling the industry’s production (one billion units) along with it. During this period, Wal-Mart’s actions alone caused 95 million fewer pounds of resin from petroleum to be used, 400 million fewer gallons of water, and more than 60,000 fewer tons of cardboard. The reduction in weight resulted in less fuel being consumed by its fleet of trucks, saving the company money and keeping 11 million pounds of CO2 out of the atmosphere
Wal-Mart also learned that, while it had believed it had nothing in common with soft-headed environmentalists, they both wanted the same outcome. Whether driven by lower costs (Wal-Mart) or a sustainable planet (environmentalists), finding common cause was the best way forward.
To both, waste was the enemy. While it may have appeared that nothing could be gained from Wal-Mart and environmentalists joining forces, this nothing became something. A big, profitable, sustainable something.
My daughter graduated from Oberlin College on Memorial Day. The ceremony took place in a park with little shade on a crystal clear day, the kind you get in the Midwest when the temperature spikes 40 degrees in twenty-four hours. It was sweltering.
But the true intensity came from the anticipation of what lies ahead, measured in people to be helped, a planet to be saved, lives to be changed.
Of course, the template for graduation speeches is to remind students to remember friends and institution; follow their dreams; and give back to others.
But Oberlin is different. A liberal arts college and music conservatory founded in 1833 in Oberlin, Ohio, it admitted women from the beginning, and granted women the first bachelor's degrees in the country in 1841. In 1835, it became the first college to adopt a policy to admit students regardless of race.
The town has long had progressive roots as well. It was a pivotal stop on the Underground Railroad that ushered slaves to freedom in the north. Residents' of Oberlin and the neighboring town of Wellington efforts in helping a fugitive slave flee to Canada reportedly sparked the Civil War.
Today, Oberlin and its environmental visionary, Professor David Orr, are in the early stages of creating a carbon-neutral, economically vibrant community that brings together town and gown, farm and city, today's needs and tomorrow's demands. The Oberlin Project is a beacon pointing to the kind of world we can create if we try.
So, there was a rich and storied context as Oberlin's commencement speaker, Dr. Helene D Gayle, spoke about changing the world.
Dr. Gayle had planned to be a pediatrician but had an epiphany at her brother's college graduation, where an epidemiologist described a successful campaign to eradicate smallpox. The speech allowed Gayle to see how her own skills in medicine could be more broadly applied in a career in public health, providing her the opportunity to address interlinked problems of poverty, lack of affordable health care, and a broad set of inequities throughout the world.
Thus was launched her remarkable career, first with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention where her efforts focused on HIV/AIDS; then at the Gates Foundation, where she directed the foundation's HIV, TB and Reproductive Health program; and now at CARE (one of the best known organizations in the world devoted to fighting poverty, supporting women, and bringing about social justice), where she has been President and CEO since 2006.
All because she was moved by a commencement address.
Some Oberlin graduates undoubtedly were moved by Dr. Gayle's remarks, their futures shifted in positive ways that will be revealed over the course of their lifetimes. And yet others - including those who want to make a difference in the world - are still searching, despite the glimpse of all things sustainable, equitable, and right about the world that four years at Oberlin exposed them to. I know, because I asked. And because I teach students who are also looking to create meaning in their lives.
As a professor at the Ross School of Business I teach courses with titles that are a bit too long, like Solving Societal Problems through Innovation and Enterprise. In these courses, I want my students to see that innovation can propel for-profit and nonprofit organizations to tackle some of the world's chief challenges: poverty, health care, education, the environment. And taking these problems on can be done from a sense of opportunity, not just responsibility.
We discuss ways to dramatically improve health care with cell phones, discarded medicines, and video games. We consider improving education for children in India with "educational Karaoke," teenagers in the worst Bronx schools by training them as entrepreneurs, and college-ready students in Arica who cannot afford tuition by providing free, world-class college curricula. We discuss charities run as for-profits, multinational corporations working in full-partnership with slum dwellers, alliances between environmental NGOs and huge retailers who intimately depend on each other for their mutual success through saving the rainforests, and powerful means of harnessing the power of collective action to identify, solve, and accelerate solutions to the world's most pressing challenges.
Why do students flock to these courses? Because they hunger to combine their intellect and their hearts. They crave the sense of meaning that comes from creating, especially when they find work that provides them with a means of support and a vehicle to have huge impact. And mostly because they see the world with fresh eyes, free from the cynicism that that can come from thinking that anything that can be tried, has been tried.
The companies and organizations that are forging a better world need fresh eyes, too. The practices that have gotten where we are - a physical planet in perilous shape and a socio-economic planet where the distribution of wealth and access to life's necessities (let alone luxuries) is more skewed than ever before in history in favor of the "haves" - are not the same practices that can lead us to a planet capable of sustaining us physically or providing a secure, healthy world that truly creates opportunity for all.
Graduation is both an end and a beginning. It is a time to reflect, give thanks, and seek renewal.
To my daughter Hannah I say,
"Congratulations on completing your degree. I'm so proud of you. As you take your Oberlin degree into the world, I know we are lucky to have you joining the fight for a more sustainable world. Lead, take action, and become a life-long student." (The word "student," derived from Latin, suggests study, scholarship, and learning - not necessarily formal education, you know.)
And to students everywhere - whether you're enrolled in a degree program; striking out on your own as a (social) entrepreneur; working in an organization; or possibly running one - I say,
"There's never been a time we've more urgently needed new ways of addressing the societal issues in front of us. There are innovative ways for business to seek opportunity to serve, rather than acting purely with greed, frustrating progress, or withholding their formidable talents that could be used to create immeasurable benefits. It's time to see the world with fresh eyes and create a better world. It's time for us to graduate from old ways, which no longer serve us, and look at the world anew."
I have had the privilege to teach and learn from "students" of all stripes who want a more just society: those enrolled in my classes of course; but also those who I've worked with and supported on the ground in inner cities and the farthest corners of the planet; officials of organizations devoted to a more equitable society, whether they occupy corner offices or cramped quarters in an attic; and like-minded do-ers seeking to make inroads against injustice through the provision of clean water, access to microfinance, more sustainable food systems, the elimination of homelessness, to name a few areas.
I invite you to join me in exploring a new world where we solve societal problems through innovation and enterprise. Let us learn together.