Peter Menzel, is an award winning photographer, takes photographs of people posing next to their possessions taken out of their home and piled high on the pavements. The pictures paint a vividly clear picture – we live in a Material World, also the name of his book. You do not need to look at the pictures for long before it becomes clear that around the world, the industrial system has been immensely successful. Our parent’s parents bought into the system, our parents bought into the system and so have we because it has given or promised to give us a lot of cheap stuff. But here is the catch; whilst capitalism has served us enormously well – it has helped reduce property, improved standards of living around the globe, there are a number of perversions and the system come at an enormous cost: unsustainable levels of public and private debt, excessive consumerism, and, way, too many people who are left behind. As Paul Poleman explains in a recent Mckinsey article: “Any system that prevents large numbers of people from fully participating or excludes them altogether will ultimately be rejected. And that’s what you see happening. People are asking, “What are we doing here?”
The facts of the situation are alarming:
- we currently use is 1.5 times the world’s resource capacity.
- Over a billion people still go to bed hungry.
- The richest 85 people have the same wealth as the bottom 3.5 billion.
None of this is sustainable. If the post industrial capitalist system does not change itself it will be changed through the power of protest. Just because we are living in the 21st Century does not mean that the power of protest will not result in another “French Revolution.” As digitisation and the Internet give consumers enormous abilities to connect and aggregate their voices, we will see the impact of power being dispersed and the pressure in the system will rise while wealth remains concentrated. Further development and population growth will put a lot more pressure on our planet and more and more people will ask why so few do so well when so many suffer. We are sitting on a powder keg of disruption like no other ever seen in the history of our planet.
Addressing the perversions of capitalism needs to become a strategic priority for all companies. Virginia Rometty, the Chairman of IBM cucintley puts it in her message to shareholders “How will we engage with an emerging global culture, defined not by age or geography, but by people determined to change the practices of business and society?”
I believe this is the single biggest threat facing the world of business today. By 2035, a single person, through a bio-pathegen will have the ability to end it all. But that should not be the motivating principle to find a solution. Capitalism on the whole is a very good system, but it can be made better and in doing so business can make a lot of money and society can prosper. So, I’m on a quest, to change the future of capitalism. It’s a big quest, and ideological one but it is a quest worth fighting for. Let me make this clear, I am a capitalist, it is a system I believe in, but…and this is a big BUT, capitalism needs to change if it is to be the relevant economic system propelling economic growth and prosperity into the future. I fear for society if it does not. But there is good news on the horizon because increasingly a number of hard nose business leaders and successful businesses are positioning themselves for the changes that will redefine capitalism as we know it. We are entering an exciting time and whilst there will be naysayers and people who want to protect the current status-quo I’m optimistic that business leaders will find solutions. Want proof? Here’s a starter-for-ten. Unilever chief executive Paul Polman explains why capitalism must evolve, his company’s efforts to change, and how business leaders are critical to solving intractable problems.