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10 Steps To Transform Capitalism For The Better

Our economic system could better serve people and the planet. These are the small pivots we can take to make it more equitable.

"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.

Get the framing right

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.

Map the system

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.

Address the cultural context

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."

Be ambitious

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.

Enable young people

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.

Court serendipity

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.

Re-engineer government

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.

Embed breakthrough change agents

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.

Get the story out

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.

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  • Tolerantvoice

    Capitalism for the US was working fairly well until Clinton and NAFTA. We
    have a Congresses and Presidents that pass laws increasing the cost of US
    producers yet allows imports that are not required to follow the same rules.
    Maybe that is why 90% or more of consumer goods sold in retailers in the US is
    made offshore, mostly China. :  “A
    country will go broke if it makes domestic producers incur expenses from which
    they exempt offshore producers.”

  • Atlas Friedman

    excellent post. much more enlightening and in context than the article; namely, the government, not capitalism, is the problem 

  • TolerantVoice

    pass laws increasing the cost of US producers yet allows imports that are
    not required to follow the same rules. Maybe that is why 90% or more of consumer
    goods sold in retailers in the US is made offshore, mostly China. :  “A country will go broke if it makes domestic
    producers incur expenses from which they exempt offshore producers.”

  • DoctorWally

    New world order, didn't we fight a world war over exactly this type of thinking.  Left out freedom, and who or what is going to lead, maybe dictate, this grand plan.  If I didn't know any better this looks like the blue print to over throw government and enslave free people.

  • gbacoder

    Don't take the problem definition for granted. Question it... Reverse assumptions, and see where it gets you.. 

  • gbacoder

    I like this a lot. Nice thinking. It is making people re-look at things, not take for granted, a complete re-look / analysis, on an on going basis.. And watching what matters. 

    A warning. Framing can be used as an excuse - and what is more important is getting the balance right. Taking the BP example above, one could easily say, "Fossil fuels do a lot of good as well as bad", and just stop there, thinking you can use the good to justify it. The real question to ask is: is the balance too much on the benefits. E.g. do we really need to make so many car journeys, have so many throw-away-gadgets that are way out of date. The question then comes down to priorities. Happiness should surely be what it comes down to. Does current gadget spending (for example) justify it. I wonder if my thinking in that area is way too far head of its time. The question has to be, how can we show the population that they need to start thinking in terms of happiness. And how can we educate them on really matters, in a way that gets through? Questions well worth exploring..

  • Josko Sestan

    Not sure which part of your thinking you consider ahead of its time, gadget as an example meaning smartphones need to grow into a faster processing capability, what would be worth while I think I saw this being done but rather than throwaway the older smartphones send the to developing world countries so they can have acess to the think tank, you'd be surprised what goes on in those minds. Ofcourse infrastructure is required not just the goodness of the philanthropic hearts giving their smartphones to developing countries. There is one way we can resurrect one gadget from the tip. Yes happiness is important but can anyone be happy with the World the way it is at the moment,  capitalism is what got us here. Capitalism will have to go for sure. 

    And who would you term as "them" and what is "happiness"?