Over the years that I’ve been writing these columns for Sublime I have been quietly beavering in the background on a social venture called Ecoinomy. (Not so quietly now; there is an article elsewhere in this Maximising issue that explains how Ecoinomy aims to make the most of using less). As a short summary we have built a workplace scheme which specifies and tracks eco savings to be made by employees by reducing travel, waste, energy… and allocates a share of the money saved to community causes chosen by self organizing groups of the employees. Which is of course why they are motivated to make the savings in the first place. As one client put it it’s a “win:win:win:win:win” – benefiting the environment, local community, profits, internal engagement and external reputation.
The core principle behind the scheme is as old as humanity. You could call it goodwill, altruism, the gift society, co-operation, mitzvah, potlach and many other names. The idea is that there is a just-out-of-reach revolutionary potential in human beings and their societies – whereby people could deal with each other out of some primary love and generosity of spirit, not just for family, friends and communities but even enemies. The idea took root, for instance, in a sect called Christianity that appeared to take off in the free fall collapse of the third century crisis of the Roman empire; when Christian welfarism became a kind of safety net that helped society to catch itself in the midst of economic collapse, invasions, civil war, plagues, famines and all sorts of natural disasters. That might be its relevance today too – its potential to help us catch ourselves in the decades ahead.
We have - you could argue - abundant resources, even for the billions alive today, if we were able to avoid the colossal waste inherent in individualistic societies based on the security, recognition and status that derives from hoarding. If we could design an economy based truly maximizing human wellbeing, it would likely be based upon just such a transformational increase in goodwill and social participation. It would not be about settling for less but the potential to become so much more as a truly human society. This many of us feel is what society hungers for, even if it currently expresses its frustrated desires in other far more selfish and destructive forms. That the spontaneous generosity of the cleanup after the UK riots was a natural counterpart; and that both sides point to the untenability of a society based on anything but generosity. The idea is also expressed for instance in the recent bestseller “The Power of Half” by a family in Atlanta Georgia, persuaded by their teenage daughter to sell their house and buy a smaller one, giving half of the original value to The Hunger Project who work in developing countries on bottom-up ways to end hunger through self-reliance.
What is new in our scheme and what connects to a topical trend is the social network. We explicitly set out to find a way of using social networks to create a step change in sustainability. We explored various ways you could do this such as sharing, pooling, peer to peer rental libraries. The system we hit upon with Ecoinomy first of all made basic economic sense; each party experiences a positive gain (including us, as we met organisations willing to pay for such a service). But what convinced more was that it made emotional sense. As our chairman and investor Deborah Meaden said when she first saw the system “you can see employees doing that”. And it’s no longer just an idea. As we have started to deploy the system in workplace tests and have been holding workshops with employees and we have come to realize that the scheme is 90% goodwill and 10% technology. But still the precise social network nature of the technology is important. And not just because it makes all this convenient, or visible. There is something deeply social in social networks – one that seems to favour a kind of systemic altruism that exceeds its previous framing as a personal moral choice. The key feature of working with such systems being how you structure the goodwill and participation, to make it catching.
Recent research by Fowler and Christakis (authors of other seminal research on the role of networks in obesity, optimism, loneliness and giving up smoking) found that generosity is contagious. Specifically what their public goods game experiment showed was that one participant’s experience of kindness creates a cascade of onwards acts of kindness that exceed any effect that can be explained by self interest (for instance by reciprocal kindness with known people; expecting some return from mutual obligation or reputation). The effect of one individual act of kindness was on average tripled by the onwards imitation or ‘paying it forward’ by a network of strangers. The researchers described this as the network acting as a “matching grant”. And they came to quite a radical conclusion about what this simple result means when writ large across the current global social networks and indeed their evolutionary precedents: "Our work over the past few years, examining the function of human social networks and their genetic origins, has led us to conclude that there is a deep and fundamental connection between social networks and goodness. The flow of good and desirable properties like ideas, love and kindness is required for human social networks to endure, and, in turn, networks are required for such properties to spread. Humans form social networks because the benefits of a connected life outweigh the costs."
The implications of this research, if we take it to heart, are profound. It offers the potential for a new kind of culture to “spring up” rapidly. It has everything to do with gaining maximum wellbeing from the least resources. It also hints at a new sort of economy, and newer freeform kinds of charity (where the social nature of generosity is reinstituted). We are aware that our own scheme is one small manifestation of this potential (and indeed that it may still turn out to be flawed in its current design). But it’s a fascinating, sweeping and wholly heartening trend to be part of.
The recent UK riots highlighted the role of social media and the networks. Key features being the use of BBM (Blackberry messaging) to coordinate among rioters. And the use of Twitter to coordinate @riotcleanup. We also saw examples of citizen journalism: eg Leon Piers, 21 year old in Bristol – who covered riots by cycle & twitter "A guy on a bike & a group of friends, dotted around Bristol, bringing you only CONFIRMED riot news & Keeping you updated so you can stay safe!" And the role in amplifying the story and tracking both it and the public reaction realtime: #londonriots was the trending topic on Twitter one day and #riotcleanup the next.
David Cameron was said to be considering shutting social networks down to prevent their use by rioters. He should be aware that precisely this action by the Egyptian government was what turned a 20,000 activist protest into a 2 million public one (what would you do if the government pulled the plug on internet and phone?)
Also from Arab Spring we learned (as if it needed to be learned) that brands should not try to take the credit for ‘enabling’ such processes: as one Egyptian blogger put it "Never mind the years of activism, the protests, the decades of cumulated grievances, the terrible economic situation, the trampled political freedoms, the police brutality, the torture, etc. Nah - we just watched a Vodafone ad, and thought: 'Hey! We're powerful! Let's topple the president!'" (Mohamed El-Dahshan).
More broadly there has been a stream of successful challenges to corporate and government power, particularly around the theme of information, secrecy and privacy. Wikileaks successfully opened government in the way that was often promised but never delivered. The Newscorp phone hacking scandal lifted the lid on journalistic ethics and celebrity. And more importantly on corporate governance as the debate about who knew (and hence who should go to prison) continues. The Murdoch campaign was partly coordinated by Avaaz, which is a growing force in galvanizing and coordinating public pressure.
What many are starting to recognize though is that the role of social media has been limited mostly so far to digital demos; attacks on the status quo from the fringes, or solutions for when society is under extreme stress – like Ushahidi for mapping election violence or in disaster relief - rather than citizens getting involved in the everyday running of society. I heard recently that there is a UN project underway working with some leading global innovators in technology to look at developing positive applications for everyday democracy.
True digital democracy is still cut short by the “leave it to us” model. 1 in 7 American voters took active part in the Obama campaign, but once he got in it seemed to be back to business as usual (meetings with lobbyists behind closed doors) and an administration quickly bogged down in climate backtracking and healthcare reform. In the UK you can now at least table a proposal to be debated in the House of Commons if 100,000 sign your petition. Stimulated by the UK riots, 2 million did visit this site in the first two weeks and the first petition has achieved its goal, with 208,000 signing a proposal that “Convicted London Rioters should lose (social security) benefits”. Meanwhile in America a new scheme called Americans Elect looks set to offer voters the ability to nominate their own presidential candidate; it is accredited so far in 4 states, has passed the crucial 1.6 million signature test in California and the organisers say they expect to be accredited in all states by 2012.
One criticism of direct digital democracy is that few people can actually be bothered to get involved. So that you will get rule passed to those with time on their hands (as is often seen in online forums) regardless of their actual merits. But the evidence is that with the right scheme you can actually get mass participation. There were 76 million votes cast in the $20m community cause giveaway scheme Pepsi Refresh.
Another is that the ill-educated public will always make kneejerk choices and proposals of the “take away the benefits of convicted rioters” or “bring back hanging” variety. It is true that a thriving democracy relies on educated citizens. But having spent the last fifteen years exploring digital lifelong learning models I would suggest that if you give people a meaningful, compelling and relevant decision to make then (and only then) they will inform themselves perfectly well using search; just as they would around issues like a child’s health symptoms or a legal problem. For instance working with an ethical coffee company last year, one of my suggestions was to allow consumers to set their own price buying online; but to do so by moving sliders to decide how much money should go to farmers, community, development projects and so on; taking Fairtrade to the next level. Of course if having deeply researched a subject people still want to make choices which are unfair or illiberal, it is their society: the principle which Socrates literally died for.
The questions posed by digital media to democracy, are in many ways the same ones which they pose to all old world institutions, including companies and brands. As Nicolas Negroponte wrote in Being Digital in 1995, the media are not just restructuring how messages are distributed, but actually who is in control; moving from a passive audience to active participant or agent. We have adjusted our style of marketing accordingly; for instance modeling strategy on (computer) gaming. But we have hardly changed the democratic access to real decisions a company makes. So that so far it is only protests – by eBay users over a new feature, by a passenger whose guitar was broken by United Airlines, by green leaning Apple fans – which have brought any real response.
But we are starting to see companies embrace a truly participative way of operating, for instance in open innovation. It is most obvious in the case of digital brands where the users create the value – for instance the 15 million user logged venues in Foursquare. And there is just the distant possibility that in future every brand will be more mutualized and democratic. The customer as citizen. Might this not be the key to the value most desired and most distant in all modern marketing – loyalty?
My friend and sometime collaborator Paul Skinner has launched a lovely collaborative platform for marketers to help out with worthwhile causes. What follows is their press release - do join up and pass it on!!!
An online initiative is set to bring marketing experts and non-profit organisations together for the first time, in a free skills matchmaking service. The web-based platform, called Pimp My Cause, aunched on June 9th, providing professional marketing support for charities, NGOs, social enterprises and citizen organisations looking to address any type of social, environmental or charitable need. Additional features will include a Twitter Help Desk and a Hall of Fame, featuring member-nominated awards.
Alex Epstein, the popular candidate from the last series of BBC’s ‘The Apprentice’, fronted the initiative’s first campaign, contributing brand management strategy to ’UK Youth, a charity that supports 750,000 young people each year.
“By ‘adopting’ a good cause, talented people can help make a big difference, sharing powerful ideas, expertise and creative thought. Pimp My Cause is a new era for charitable organisations - and I’m a staunch supporter!” Alex remarked.
“The most successful organisations are those that shout the loudest – which means spending money on big campaigns. But not everyone has such deep pockets. There are causes out there, with amazing stories waiting to be told – they just need a helping hand to make themselves heard”, he added.
Pimp My Cause presents marketers with a unique opportunity to broaden their experience. Larger organisations can take advantage of the chance to increase staff morale, enhance their corporate profile, and learn more about the social and environmental issues facing businesses planning for a sustainable future. Smaller agencies and independent marketers can use the platform to build a portfolio of exciting case studies that showcase their abilities.
The initiative is the brainchild of global marketer and sustainability pioneer, Paul Skinner, the founder of Blue Marble Consulting.
“Good causes in need of marketing support and exceptional marketers looking to donate their talent to the project of their choice will now be able to browse and search for the best matches online, using much the same mechanism used in online dating sites,” he said.
Having established a stellar career working on big brands, including L’Oreal, Siemens, Toshiba and Panasonic, Paul’s interest in environmental issues was sparked whilst working on General Electric’s ‘Eco-magination’ project. He has since worked on numerous high profile, non-profit marketing ventures and campaigns, as well as setting up his own sustainability strategy agency.
For more information, please contact Paul Skinner:
I am working on a presentation on global trends for a large private bank and its clients. For me it’s quite nostalgic as a task - a throwback to 10 years ago. Back to when I was invited to apply for the role as “head of trends” at a TV station finding future hot topics that could lead to TV programme and/or audience opportunities. I was flattered to be asked (it’s a cool sounding job at a creative, trendy company). But I could immediately see a problem with long term job security: ie how to have a second year in that job? (given that most predictions fail to come true).
Perhaps getting it right didn’t matter. The trend I saw discussed most often at the time in client meetings was “cocooning”. Whereas the study of American time use for the 1990s showed that people spent more time at work and in commute and dramatically less time at home. Fact didn’t seem in this case to get in the way of a good theory. (The other “hot trend” at this time being “the Y2K bug”). Even if it doesn’t matter though it bothered me at some level to be producing potentially misleading predictions – out of professional pride.
During the “new economy” years, I did have regular consulting work on trends reporting to clients – particularly in the area of new media. This would be used to fuel innovation. Here it was a matter of stimulating new thinking rather than definite predictions. Management consultants told me they were taking me to meetings to “add wow!” The bottom seemed to drop out of that market after the dotcom crash. People became wary of wild blue skies prophesies that “the internet changes everything” or (from John Chambers at Cisco) that “eLearning will make email look like a rounding error”
What people meant then by trends was a kind of “management fad”. In one workshop instead of using my prepared presentation on key trends I asked the participants to come up with their own list; only to discover they got to 9 out of 10 of my list. This was because we were all parroting the consensus – the ideas that were doing the rounds. For instance “mass customisation”. The role of a trends consultant would be to ensure that this particular client was up to date on that consensus. It’s a pretty fair methodology, especially in any area where the predictions have a tendency to be self-fulfilling (as they are in financial markets). But despite the much-vaunted wisdom of crowds, the consensus is seldom exactly “cutting edge”.
I’m not going to rule out the possibility that some futurists have a genuine spooky, prescient ability to “read the future”. Some I have met have often struck me as “prophetic types” – complete with wild eyes, strange moods and hairstyles or mad dress sense to match.
What interests me more than the content of trends though is the methodology. The famous astrologer Nostradamus had a surprisingly scientific method. In simple terms he assumed that astrological correspondences ensured that history would repeat itself. When the celestial patterns associated with for instance Julius Caesar were repeated then there would be “a new Julius Caesar”.
Leaving astrology aside, it is perfectly valid to ask questions like “what happened last time we experienced xyz”. A few years ago it was current to wonder about what changes a recession would bring to brands; something I built into my Green Marketing presentations. For instance in a recession you usually see a cultural regression to past certainties – the comforting and familiar. In the UK we drink more coffee in boom times and more tea in downturns.
In any article on trends you must of course have “ a 10 point list”. Not to disappoint, here are some of the other methods I’ve deployed in innovation and similar work (methods that happen to be associated with predicting or interpreting “trends” but are more generally useful):
1. Fashionability: looking at what is in the American term “trendy” or “cool”…. (The only catch being discerning which avant-garde trends will go mainstream, or prove lasting).
2. “Say goodbye too”: I’ve often found it’s sharper and more revealing to look at what we wont be doing in future. I once predicted we’d “say goodbye to luggage” (because of the risks and costs associated with travel, ideas would travel more than people).
3. the remake: the recent return to 3D cinema would have been a great thing to predict (most predictions on the future of games ten years ago saw new fangled interfaces like the hologram, or the virtual reality headset, but not this).
4. Sci-fi. I predict that in future we will wear data tags and these will shape what we can access – for instance whether we are given access to shops, clubs, offers. The killer application will be in dating and socialising (I don’t know if this will happen… but it’s horrific enough as a prospect to make good sci-fi!).
5. Logical conclusions of long running changes. For instance I once predicted to Coca Cola that they (as the American Dream brand) could start to struggle in The Chinese Century.
6. Cross-pollinate. My suggestion back to the TV company was that instead of hiring me as trends analyst, that we convene a forum of leading innovators from different creative industries (you know what the ‘in colour’ will be for 2012 if you work in fashion – because you are already ordering the fabric).
7. Counter trends. Take a dominant trend and reverse it. For instance the recent American trend to “Domestic Goddess” was a natural counter-reaction to the last 50 years of feminism.
8. Curation. Pick any old theme and bombard blog readers or clients with current examples. (The insight being that we really learn from and copy the examples, not the general themes).
9. Combination. Take the client field plus a trend from another sector and create a new hybrid. For instance I can imagine iPhone style “apps” being added to my internet bank account?
10. The underlying pattern. This is the only type of trend that genuinely interests me – and is what I’ll mainly cover in my upcoming bank presentation. “Co-opportunity” (the book I brought out last year) was about one such trend: a new pattern of collaboration in networks (social networks, but also in real communities) – taking in examples as diverse as Obama’s election campaign, microcredit and crowd sourcing.
The truth about trends? The future is as baffling, beautifully unpredictable and compelling as a new baby arriving in a settled family. Of course we look forward to this arrival. But proper response to the topic of trends is perhaps using it as a way to see past the tyranny of past habits of thoughts, and inculcate a fresh way of looking at the present?
Imagine by some future quirk of human evolution, telepathy is a reality. But there is a twist. Rather than hearing others’ thoughts in proximity (as if they were auditory, and hence limited by the same physics), we would filter out very large parts of what everyone else was thinking, and only hear others’ thoughts (from anywhere in the world) if they were about us.
You’d think it would be the death of indiscretion? But quite the opposite. Because of course, if you think about it, I just described one of the many stubbornly strange features of social media. Let me explain or elaborate, through some typical examples:
- - yesterday I sent a Tweet, asking if anyone else had the experience of making an important business pitch from a train toilet (because it’s the only place where you can both be discreet, and hear the call)? At the time it struck me simply as an amusing new variant on the idea of the “elevator pitch”. But then today my business partner asked me about this. Because my Tweet was in the name of my start-up, and we have Google Alerts. Lucky I suppose at least that i didn't name the client!
- - a few weeks ago, I read a Tweet by a respected author, asking if anyone else thought the main idea of a (well known, current and successful) book by another respected author, was insubstantial and transient? Yes it’s very standard bitching. He probably didn’t even mean it as personally as it sounded. But my very first thought was – oh my god - that thanks to Alerts/Tweetdeck/PR monitoring she would have undoubtedly read his comment too.
- - some years ago, when blogging was at a similar stage, I wrote a light hearted post complaining about the demise of the seriously mad 1970s self-help scene (Est, rebirthing and similar) dwindling, in my view, to the half hearted, lifestyle pap that was “Psychologies” magazine. And of course the very first comment was from the editor of Psychologies, herself: wondering if I had read it, or was qualified to cast such aspersions? (Fair point).
It’s all a bit like the scene from the Woody Allen movie, “Annie Hall”: where Marshall McLuhan - playing himself - is brought into an argument between Allen and someone who had been pontificating loudly about McLuhan’s work (in the queue outside a cinema). “If only life were like this” comments Allen as McLuhan won the argument for him. Although the line from this scene that sticks with you more is probably “Oh, for a sock full of horse manure”.
Being confronted by who you detract is some kind of defining dilemma of social media. “On the internet no-one knows you are a dog.” They used to say. Whereas now, in web 2.0 it's more that: "anyone instantly knows if you call them a dog"?
I suppose it is a matter of habits catching up with a new quirk of social communication? Either we will be more honest, or more guarded, who knows?
But what about the generalised effects of sharing private thoughts so publically? Is it changing the nature of our discourse, our culture? Making us more emotionally explicit. There are theories that Facebook is making the English less reserved, and making men less prone to hiding their feelings. Research into social media like Facebook shows that being single will incline people to reveal significantly greater quantities of personal information. Other research into the phenomenon of couples who met online shows it is a media almost perfectly adapted to the process of falling in love (because it accentuates positive projections - like "we are so alike" - while providing fewer of the bubble bursting cues and clues we get on meeting in reality). Russell Davies complained about this to me once - that his global team meetings on (the then new) Second Life were always haunted by the suspicion of flirting. Is that it? Are we inadvertently using "love letters" as a medium for other purposes? Russell will no doubt pop up to comment!
It may be just me. But when I sat down to write “an article” some years ago, I’d never have dreamed of using the word “I”. Let alone revealing personal details. Now I write as I blog. As a form of thinking aloud. And I assume you - the reader - are used to being addressed in this way. So that our communications are more personal, one to one. Am I right? Is our discourse becoming more intimate? In the online edition, perhaps you too can comment and let me know?
Back at Marshall McLuhan, I rather doubt that the medium is the message. I tend to think that the media are only partly instrumental – expressing (rather than ever entirely causing) some broader trend, some pattern or reconfiguration. That the Romans made the roads more than the roads made the Romans. (The proposition that sticks in my mind from his famous book being that “the radio made Hitler” – as if economic depression, radical right politics, scapegoating mechanisms writ large and other factors played no role).
I would hazard a guess that we have been drawn to the precise modern forms of social media – including this "directed telepathy" and their general broadcasting of our inmost thoughts – by some cultural tide. It might the radical loneliness of competitive individualism (where everyone is a pseudo pop star and hence no one feels that they have any real friends)? It might be that we are evolving into Rifkin’s “Empathic Civilisation” (which I discussed in a previous column)? It might be something more enigmatic. A re-emerging small world consciousness that’s reviving something like a palpable sense of "Fate"?
I suspect that personally - cultural trends aside - it’s also simply good to blurt every now and then. Even if occasionally embarrassing, or humiliating, for ourselves, or others. There’s something healthy and wholesome and right about speaking the truth. Not the factual truth. Nor the kind of truth that is deployed in “feedback” to curb or manipulate another. But the sort of objective, emotional truth – often, a shock of self recognition – that you find occasionally in movies, and poetry and glances in the mirror.
I have no idea why I would tell you all this. I'm just thinking aloud. But then again, isn’t that my point?
Great post over at good design about Alex Bogusky (as in Crispin Bogusky the US agency) and friends' creative attempt to engage us all in thinking about Co-opportunities; an open innovation platform for social ventures crowd sourcing large scale solutions.
Or to put it another way (via PSFK) "Common – an open-source living network for a new brand of capitalism."
John Grant is author of Co-opportunity (Jan10) and the award winning 'Green Marketing Manifesto' (Oct07), and three previous books. John was a co-founder of St Luke's the socially aware ad agency and is the co-founder of Ecoinomy which applies community self organising principles and social web platforms to greening the office through behaviour change. Contact me at john.grant(AT)ecoinomy.com