“The future’s already here—it’s just not evenly distributed,” observed author William Gibson. That phrase became a mantra of ours, and at our recent Breakthrough Capitalism Forum we curated a series of 3-minute short-burst presentations demonstrating Gibson’s perceptive insight.
Here are 10 lessons we have learned from innovators, entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs, and investors.
A growing number of the challenges we face are systemic. We must move from change-as-usual framings to breakthrough strategies. As Justin Adams (the former head of BP’s Emerging Business and Ventures) argues, it’s time to collapse the easy but misleading dualisms, the stark blacks and whites, and see the world as it is: complex and dynamic. Fossil fuels, for example, do a great deal of good, as well as much harm. But don’t expect transformative change to come from incumbents, most of whom will fight tooth-and-nail for the status quo.
Next, use maps to identify the critical pressure points in the relevant systems. This is what Marshall Clemens of Idiagram has done to help Nike and other sportswear brands develop their Roadmap for Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals. As Jen Morgan of the Finance Innovation Lab argues, it doesn’t pay to do system change on your own. And in mapping the relevant systems we should beware of simply paying attention to where media coverage is focused—for example on Western brand-name companies. Many key players in tomorrow’s economy will be state-owned industries, sovereign wealth funds, and family businesses, which rarely court the limelight.
Technology can be a great enabler, but it rarely provides silver bullets. Often, as with the HIV/AIDS challenge, the behavioral and cultural contexts are crucial. So we need to engage the cultural and creative industries. And we should watch our language, which is often loaded with regional biases—something that Bronwyn Kunhardt of Polecat stresses in her brief overview of the language used to describe capitalism in countries as diverse as Canada and China.
The design sector has a profound impact on our adverse environmental footprint, as Pete Baxter of Autodesk notes, but also has a central role to play in driving towards breakthrough solutions. A key new set of tools is evolving around computer modelling, 3-D printing, and “prototyping for the future.”
It’s time to be mega-ambitious, to set stretch targets. Growing numbers of companies are setting themselves net zero, zero, or even beyond zero targets in such areas as waste-to-landfill rates and carbon emissions. This sort of ambition is evidenced by Unilever’s “we’re going to double the value we create while halving our environmental footprint” strategy. And by the sustainability work of David Stubbs and his team in the London Olympics project.
Young people, as Gen Y climate activist Casper ter Kuile reminds us, can be dangerous if aggrieved, but are also potential powerhouses if engaged in the right way. Still, as he notes, this isn’t “about an infusion of young people into the existing system, it’s about redesigning the system itself.” Young or old, it’s time to boost everyone’s Future Quotient.
You can plan all you want, but social entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs trust serendipity, though they acknowledge that you have to make your luck rather than simply waiting for the future to fall into your lap. There are a growing number of incubators and “serendipity engines,” networks, and events designed to boost the likelihood of new relationships and successful outcomes.
Politicians, policy-makers, and public agencies aren’t wildly popular at the moment. But governments have a central role to play in shaping markets. Pioneering organic farmer Patrick Holden, for example, calls for policy-makers to apply the same ingenuity they have tried with feed-in tariffs in the renewable energy sector to the organic food sector.
City administrations may be doing better than the federal government at the moment, but most aspects of government must now be rebooted to be fit for purpose. Just as intrapreneurs are now seeded throughout the business world, we need to train and insert breakthrough change agents into key parts of the public and citizen sectors.
Storytelling is key, particularly in complex, confusing times. Too often, uncertainty becomes an alibi for inaction. By contrast, the breakthrough narrative, as Kunhardt argues, has the potential to become the “central story of our time.” Or as Morgan puts it, “We are all the cathedral builders of the 21st century, though we may not see the results in our lifetimes.” Now back to work.