Dec 16

by Miriam Garvi

Having spent the past two days submerged in thoughts about urban poverty, the growth of megacities and the persistence of slums, tomorrow’s lecture on pioneering leadership will be a welcome relief, providing anew the opportunity to consider the world as if it were a blank page waiting to be written.

In the discipline of entrepreneurship, we celebrate the virtue of spotting and exploiting business opportunities. Seldom considered, however, are the wider premises framing this picture. When the needs of the desperate sustain the growth of another, the temptation to create dependency rather than self-sufficiency or independence is too great for comfort. Too many people know that in many industries, market jargon eclipses the miserable reality of the ‘clients’, as they become part of a compelling story aimed at attracting capital and funding: aid organizations need pictures of starving and destitute children to sustain fund-raising; less cancer patients would mean the loss of a huge market for pharmaceutical companies. And, if we want to take the analogy even further, war or the prospect of war sustains the market for weapons and military technology, a main driver for technological innovation that has spilled over into many parts of civilian life, including our ability to communicate over the Internet.

sunset

The world is full of ambiguities, more or less coated in opportunistic rhetoric, but placing high requirements on the existence of a moral compass that will steer efforts, energy and resources towards initiatives that do not sustain suffering and misery, nor create other unwanted side effects, but that seek to become redundant in the sense that the particular need disappears. This implies a dynamic perspective of constantly seeking new areas to improve that is challenging to implement in practice, and requires the support and encouragement of policy-makers, investors and the wider community. Cure or better yet prevention rather than lifelong treatment, helping people provide for themselves rather than falling victims to debt traps, making products that are better and last longer rather than encouraging people to consume and replace – all can imply the loss of opportunities from a marketing viewpoint, but gains from the perspective of human progress. In today’s world, companies and actors do still differ, though surviving without compromising one’s core values is a difficult thing to do. I hold in high esteem any drug development company, for instance, with enough moral integrity to invest massively in addressing the need for new treatment of a particular illness, while being able to consider the decline of patients in that market a success. This shows a company with higher goals and standards, unwilling to consider its own growth as detached from the wider societal framework in which it operates, and where it has the opportunity to do much-needed good. I do also realize, however, that unless society will reward this kind of behavior and enable such a company to access the support that it needs to do this well, then it will sooner or later succumb to the financial pressures of the stock market.

Be it in politics, finance, business or charity, we need more people to rise and show the way who are visionary in their thinking, and who will not shrink from addressing the combination of market and moral challenges that are inherent to any development worthy of its name. Pioneering is a spirit, free from the constraints of vested interests, where understanding, betterment and progress rather than control, self-preservation and replication constitute the focus. It is holding on to our purpose rather than what we have created, not forgetting that any product or service, however big or small, will always be used or consumed by someone – the people behind the market.

Apr 24

by Miriam Garvi

Sometimes I find myself amazed at the flexibility by which issues that seemed to be on no one’s agenda only five years ago now find their way into everyone’s rhetoric. Only recently, it was the rally for growth. Now a favorite epithet embraced across ideologies is that of sustainable, as the earth’s dwindling resources put the high-consumption lifestyle of the “developed world” into question.

Indeed, it would seem that anyone can do the talk. Some advocate for an era of the “WE economy”, of multiple voices emerging at the grassroots level and interconnecting by way of Twitter and other Internet-based social networking tools. More and more networks are professing to be addressing “world urgent issues” or “the global challenges of our planet”, suggesting that the pooling together of people in dialogues across the globe will unleash a creative force arising from turning the costs incurred by industrialization and modernization into opportunities.

And yet what astonishes me in these (business) models is the invariably short time span they encompass, as if we have but a few moments to spare on building sustainably for the future. Solutions for our world remain, for the most part, instant remedies that come to mind through the kind of superficial dialoguing that is enabled by networking. It is as if the very mindset that made us pursue a narrow-minded path of development in the first place, oblivious to the implications of a greater context, is now expected to generate solutions (called creative) to these problems. Are we left gawking at the emperor’s new clothes?

2008_frog

History will tell us that it is easy to rally people with cries for freedom and revolution, picking to pieces the policies and institutions put in place by others who came before us. The real challenge, however, starts once we are the ones left to govern the land. We tend to forget that exercising the freedom we have been given entails a sense of responsibility that goes with knowing that somewhere down the line also we will be held accountable in the eyes of those who follow. Indeed, lest we forget, the eyes of history are already upon us, questioning our ambition.

Sustainable can be more than yet another umbrella concept allowing new interest groups to position themselves on the global arena where they may influence how problems are defined and label their solutions. Sustainability is not a commodity that can be produced through intellectual stimulation; it is the implication that comes from the diligent implementation of a long-standing vision that does justice both to man and nature. It can mean a return to the roots of what once was, finding one’s uniqueness in the interplay between man and nature where man is the caretaker and nature the provider.

Sustainable, pioneering commitment such as that which helped build our communities in the first place comes with a willingness to give up certain things in the present in order to sow the seeds that will allow the fruits of true transformation to be rooted in the future.

Is anyone willing to walk the talk?

Jul 10

by Miriam Garvi

In When progress equals devolution, I wrote about how easily wisdom is lost in our pursuit of knowledge, as we discard the natural in favor of the artificially modified that will allow for production and consumption en masse.

Lately, there seems to be a common understanding that in order for our post-industrial knowledge society to become environmentally, economically as well as morally sustainable, we need to see some kind of change occur. How deep this change should go, however, is not clear: whilst some are talking about replastering the capitalistic system to make it more palatable, other voices are calling for a more profound and complete transformation of our way of living.

miriam-garvi-1978

Through the eyes of a child, what beauty would we be able to see?

As we start out, life is rewarding in its simplicity and beautiful in all that it promises. But the precious innocence and playfulness of the young child is lost as we are socialized into the imperatives of modern society. So many of those treasures that are so easily discerned through the eyes of a child, become impossible to see once viewed through the lenses of what is socially correct and normatively acceptable.

People working with strategic change know that achieving transformation includes allowing the taken-for-granted to be shaken at its core. Yet unless there is truly a renewed mindset, any such «unfreezing» technique will only serve to build new walls on the same foundation. And, like the leaning tower of Pisa, it will matter little what we do above ground, if we do not concern ourselves with the fundamentals underground that will hold it all together.

More than change, vision pioneering is about reclaiming that childlike eagerness where life is yet an open book waiting to be filled and where what we make of our lives truly matters. And with the playful why we can rediscover the freedom that is ours to envision what is beautiful, useful, and helpful to mankind.

Let us be young again!

Jun 29

by Miriam Garvi

In this age of technological advancement, so much that was once unheard of has come within our reach. Old barriers are broken as we venture into space or create clones of the living. The enormity of resources that are poured into making scientific progress and creating markets for technology is a testament to how strongly the world holds on to its belief in the power of knowledge.

This last decade is favoring growth-oriented strategies that rely on innovation, entrepreneurship and venture capital to generate such growth that will be valued on financial markets. Little is said, however, about what kind of ideas are brought about and whether we believe that they are actually doing good, not just promoting a strategic agenda. The questions that we do not raise are fundamental in their simplicity: what is the purpose, and whom is it all for?

Our belief in knowledge springs from the assumption that any added building block brings the world enlightenment. In our efforts to exploit and manipulate nature so as to satisfy the growth agendas of our times, the natural is no longer good enough. Instead, we welcome industrially-processed substitutes that are labeled «improvements». And so we put ourselves at the mercy of streamlining profiteers, buying frozen chicken that has been «neutrally marinated» in water and food conservatives simply because someone just realized that the artificial replacing the genuine was a profitable strategy. Less of the genuine; more of the artificial, even as more people around us suffer from cancer and we see our nature going down the drain.

Implications of knowledge, but what of wisdom?

Red mountains of Colorado

The source of wisdom?

What good is technological advancement, unless it allows for meaningful progress and prosperity for mankind? Can we claim to be enlightened, if we consume what is at our disposal, with no concern for the legacy that we will be leaving behind?

Devolution tells us that everything started from a high and has been slowly deteriorating ever since. In this light, the need is imminent to move away from a foundation that is flawed, looking to discover a different source, one that will give rise to meaningful richness in all its diversity.

Mar 17

by Miriam Garvi

Imagine for a second that you have this beautiful Idea. A cure for breast cancer. A new solution for waste-handling. A brand of cookies made the old-fashioned way with real ingredients rather than artificial ones. Maybe your Idea was triggered by something on the evening news. Maybe it came to you as you were facing a problem, pondering on how to solve it. Maybe you were frustrated with the lack of good options available on the market. However it came to be, you’re full of excitement at the prospect of launching into business. Family and friends lend you the money for office space and you start working prospective clients.

Gradually, it all takes form. Yet it’s a slow start. After a couple of years, you’re still struggling to make ends meet, waiting for that major breakthrough that will awaken people to the beauty of your Idea.

Then someone comes along with an offer to invest in the business and a market plan that makes everything sound so simple.

Five years later, loans to family and friends have been repaid, with interest. Thanks to new resources and competent fellows on the board, the company has grown considerably and you’re working your way into the Chinese market. Sure, the journey has been slightly different than you imagined and things might have had a different outcome had you been the one making all the decisions. A new CEO has taken your place and you’re now in charge of research and development. But you’ve always considered that to be the most enjoyable part anyway!

But one day life’s not all peachy anymore. Your solution for waste-handling needs  improvement but there is no patience for that. Your investors give priority to sales and marketing – but there is no way of reaching the milestones that have been set whilst pushing quality to the right level! Angry customers are calling in, they feel cheated. Employees are coming to you for advice, imploring you to resolve the situation. Fatigued and frustrated, you try raising your voice at the board meetings but you seem to be speaking a foreign, quite exotic, language. Keep pushing is the message; we’ve got a prospective buyer for the company that will move things to the next level!

And one day, when someone close to you asks you about what happened to that dream of yours, it hits you. In the effort of turning your Idea into a lucrative service, it is becoming just another one of those things that promises far more than it delivers. Where are those beautiful qualities that you could not wait to share with the world? Longing for the passion for what you once saw, you ask yourself if it is ever too late to go back to what initially sparked the desire to do something that can make a difference.

No, it isn’t.

Oct 2

by Miriam Garvi

Since his speech in Davos last January, Bill Gates has been receiving accolades for launching his version of capitalism, which he has labeled «creative capital».

Creative capital à la Bill Gates (“Microsoft”) is a wonderland vision where global corporations satisfy their hunger for new markets by introducing technology to the poor, making everyone prosperous in the process. According to Gates, this will generate both profit and recognition, whilst making astonishing headway in the fight against world poverty. An improved variant of corporate social responsibility that we simply cannot do without.

And since the speech, creative capital has been center-stage.

The stage

But beyond the shimmering rhetoric, however, what does his suggestion really mean? Are we to understand that for the first time in history, the profit maximizing agendas of global corporations find themselves in harmony with the needs of the poorest of the poor? That products and services will now be created that can really help people out of their miseries?

Inspired by professor C.K. Prahalad’s fortune at the bottom of the pyramid, Gate’s version of creative capital envisions to reach untapped markets with technological salvation, making the rest of the world dependent on the know-how of those controlling the innovation.

This is not an eradication of poverty through profits, but a strategy for creating the capacity to consume where there would appear to be none. It would seem that our global society welcomes the poor as consumers, as long as they are not empowered.

Sep 18

by Miriam Garvi

The other day, I had a refreshing meeting with a senior executive of an international supplier of patient handling solutions.

Our conversation was not about market positions or impressive margins. Instead, this senior executive talked about the difference it makes when handling equipment is designed so as not only to simplify the work process of the caretaker, but also to improve the quality of life of the patient.

It was an uplifting conversation with a man with a passion for helpfulness.

Philosophical musings

Roughly 50 years ago, Harvard professor Doriot was teaching his manufacturing philosophy to future American senior executives. «… if you have these qualities and the determination to do well… then you will have the privilege of the greatest profession I know: converting plain material into useful, beautiful, helpful products. This takes some of the greatest qualities man possesses, but it also pays high returns in creative satisfaction.»

The senior executive I met was no Doriot alumni. Yet he knew that manufacturing a product was not the real challenge - it was imitable enough by any competitor who would put its mind to it. But it was the thinking behind their product line that made them unique, that which would keep them pushing to fulfill useful, beautiful, helpful qualities.

Such uniqueness comes from the inside.

Jun 12

Light in the dark?
“Has the venture capital industry grown and become so institutionalized that partnerships with founders are no longer possible? If so, then where do Innovators go to find capital to support radical product innovation?”

- Lee Tom Perry

(from PERRY, L.T. The Capital Connection. In: Academy of Management Executive, 1988. Vol II. No. 3. pp. 205-212)

Apr 23

by Miriam Garvi

This week’s news have been dominated by the less flattering aspects of ethanol production and combustion.

Since the mass diffusion of the car, radical ideas on how to address everyday needs of transportation and mobility are rare to come by - despite undesirables such as traffic congestion and pollution. As ‘inconvenient truths’ fuel anti-global warming trends, biofuels are being promoted as the sound alternative for any citizen adhering to social responsibility.

Hong Kong traffic

But how can ethanol production be a sustainable solution when it is so inefficient that more energy has to be put into the process than what comes out of it? Or when agricultural land is reclaimed for biofuel production thus threatening to make large parts of the world’s poorer, rural population dependent on the World Food Program?

Is this the best we can do? Economic interests aside, when fear drives innovation we are walking backwards into the future. We find ourselves embracing solutions which are not sustainable in the wider perspective. And which upon careful scrutiny may reveal themselves to do as much harm as good - depending on whose interests and needs are in focus.

Vision pioneering is about taking radical steps towards improved fulfillment, driven by a vision of the purposeful rather than avoidance strategies. There can be no progressive thinking unless we shift focus from the products and technologies that we know to those invisible qualities we want to enjoy.