Carlos Lozada is Outlook editor of The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter: @carloslozadaWP.
The cover of Wired magazine’s December issue inspires me. But it also stresses me out.
“Guest Editor Bill Gates Wants You to Fix the World,” it proclaims. Then, three ambitions: “Big Ideas. Smart Innovation. Bright Future.” Next, three commands: “End Poverty. Save Lives. Cure Disease.”
I read magazines and books to learn how other people are making the world a better place. Now it’s up to me?
I appreciate the vote of confidence, but that’s a lot of pressure. Especially because it’s no longer just about volunteering on weekends or giving to charity. You can’t end poverty and cure disease in your spare time. No, unless you’re constantly innovating, disrupting, problem-solving, life-hacking, starting up and spinning off, you’re missing out on “The Solution Revolution.”
That’s the title — and the ethos — of a new book by management consultants William D. Eggers and Paul Macmillan, who take Wired’s ambitions and commands even higher. They describe an alternate economy, one devoted less to making good money than to doing good with money, one in which “businesses, social entrepreneurs, nonprofits and multinational companies compete, coordinate and collaborate to solve megaproblems,” whether poverty or poor housing, human trafficking or traffic congestion.
“For an individual citizen . . . these kinds of problems might seem daunting — even impenetrable,” Eggers and Macmillan acknowledge. But, they assure, “we show myriad ways regular people can participate in the solution revolution.”
So add another resolution to your 2014 list: Hit the gym, work on that novel . . . and save the world.
We know the knee-jerk Washington explanation for our big, persistent problems is polarization. If only we could put aside partisan animosities, we’d figure out how to have it all: lower debts, balanced budgets, reduced poverty, stronger economies, cleaner environments. Eggers and Macmillan reject that premise. Government isn’t just too divided to solve our problems. It is too limited in scope, too caught in old silos, too burdened by our ever-growing expectations. “The defining feature of Western-style government — its success in catering to a wide variety of citizen needs — has become its greatest liability,” they write. “Governments are going broke while contorting themselves into ever stranger positions to satisfy often contradictory constituent demands.”
Enter the problem-solvers! These aren’t traditional do-gooders; they’re more MBAs than MSWs. “Business should no longer solely cede the solving of social problems to governments and nonprofits,”Eggers and Macmillan write. And they devote much of the book to profiling social enterprises that, through innovative, high-tech means, are fixing stuff that needs fixing.
There’s Recyclebank, which encourages people to turn in their trash for points toward vacations, discounts and other prizes from hundreds of companies. The trick: a sensor on recycling bins than can be scanned so that individual accounts receive credit according to the bin’s weight. Or there’s a fascinating competition, started by Dartmouth business school professors, to develop a $300 ready-to-build home. Or, as urban-dwellers already know, there are car-sharing services such as Zipcar and Car2Go. Eggers and Macmillan offer many more compelling stories of social enterprises transforming the world, invariably with names that fuse two everyday words into an uber-innovative compound (ResearchGate, Crowdrise, WeFunder) or that place periods in clever spots (Emphas.is, d.light).
If this book were nothing more than mini-profiles of business breakthroughs aimed at social change, it would still be worthwhile — just maybe not a work that, you know, disrupts the thinkscape. So Eggers and Macmillan go revolutionary, laying out the contours of a complicated yet maddeningly vague “solution economy.”
Forget land, labor and capital goods. The key factors of production in the solution economy are the “wavemakers” — the “for-profit, nonprofit and governmental organizations or individuals that revolutionize how the world approaches thorny social problems.” Wavemakers work through “solution markets,” via “public-value exchanges” (such as innovation prizes or crowdfunding exercises), enabled by “disruptive technologies” (anything Internet-related), with success measured in “impact currencies” (data, reputation, social outcomes, citizen capital). All of these elements combine to create “solution ecosystems.”
And so we get passages like this one: “Much like the unique, converging causes of a problem, the resulting problem-solving ecosystem emerges and expands through its own distinct process. Certain versatile elements are adapted, technologies are leveraged, and currencies gain new context. Existing exchanges and business models may find fresh relevance in the budding ecosystem, and participants, often playing nontraditional roles, contribute to the flow of both resources and ideas, allowing new self-sustaining solution markets to thrive.”
It’s easy to poke fun at the breathlessness of “The Solution Revolution,” but it’s also necessary, because the authors’ utopianism clouds the risks of the solution economy. They mention any downsides only in passing. For example, in a lengthy ode to cloud-computing: “One caution: the lines can blur when it comes to who is responsible for protecting data housed in the cloud.” Or when praising a Pentagon marketplace for military apps: “Of course, there are also dangers. The ease of bringing military-strength apps to soldiers may also mean nonmilitary individuals may get their hands on similar apps, presenting safety and security risks to citizens. . . . The low barrier to development also puts it within reach for militant and terrorist groups.”
Yes, there’s also that.
The innovations Eggers and Macmillan outline, and the possibilities they imagine, are fascinating and tantalizing. But “revolution” is an overstatement. Revolutions upend power structures, while the solution economy depends on them. Although these enterprises are multiplying in the United States, Britain, Australia, India and parts of Africa, for instance, the authors note that they’re barely evident in much of the rest of the world. Why? “The solution economy grows to fill the space it’s given,” they write, “and certain regions offer habitats more hospitable for a robust solution economy than others.”
And who creates that space? Surprise — it’s those creaky, siloed-up governments that Eggers and Macmillan dismiss so quickly at the outset. “Government’s willingness to forge partnerships . . . to make data more open, to contract for outcomes, to reduce regulatory minefields, and to convene diverse groups of contributors will hold tremendous sway over the scale of the solution economy within its borders,” they acknowledge.
The role of government in solving or causing problems is a recurring focus of “22 Ideas to Fix the World,” an anthology of conversations with notable academics and activists, edited by political scientists Piotr Dutkiewicz and Richard Sakwa. It is an unusual volume: The 22 interview subjects are all men, they largely lean left and they’re pretty pessimistic, despite the optimistic title. But the book still provides sobering counterpoints to Eggers and Macmillan.
Sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein could be ridiculing the wavemakers when he imagines a conclave of business leaders plotting PR strategy: “No, we have to sound progressive. Everything must change so that nothing will change. We’ll be green capitalists, we’ll be this, we’ll be that.” But microcredit pioneer Muhammad Yunus seems on board with the revolution: “How can we create a business on the basis of selflessness? What would that look like? How might I create a business to solve certain problems, rather than simply to create financial benefit for myself?” Economist Kemal Dervis is more critical of technical innovation than Eggers and Macmillan are; he worries that new technologies have “reduced the need for labor while creating a skill premium in the workforce.” And economist Joseph Stiglitz could be speaking for the group when he blames economic turmoil and income inequality on oversimplified macroeconomic models, faulty government policy and a “democratic deficit” in “global governance.” Stiglitz writes, “We have rules where we don’t need to have them and don’t have rules where we need them.”
With challenges this big, what can an individual do?
Eggers and Macmillan’s final chapter (“Creating Your Own Solution Revolution”) attempts an answer but falls a little short. “Forget for a moment about how you currently do things,” they advise. “Begin by asking, ‘What is my goal?’ And this time, ignore the caveats and parameters that usually filter the question. Think bigger.”
They tell us to focus on outcome, not process. To risk failure. To create an environment that encourages exploration.
All good advice, but I was hoping for something more specific. Maybe Gates has something I can use. He’s the one bugging me to fix the world, after all.
“People often ask me, ‘What can I do? How can I help?’ ” Gates writes in a 2,200-word Wired essay reflecting on his experience and philosophy of philanthropy.
His answer for how to help the poor: “Rich-world governments need to maintain or even increase foreign aid, which has saved millions of lives and helped many more people lift themselves out of poverty. It helps when policymakers hear from voters, especially in tough economic times, when they’re looking for ways to cut budgets. I hope people let their representatives know that aid works and that they care about saving lives. Bono’s group ONE.org is a great channel for getting your voice heard.”
Plus this: “If you write great code or are an expert in genomics or know how to develop new seeds, I’d encourage you to learn more about the problems of the poorest and see how you can help.”
So, say you live in Washington (i.e., without representation) and your coding and genomics skills are a little rusty. How do you save the world?
I guess you call Bono.
The solution revolution