Opinion – Things Evolve and All is Emergent

We Americans are an interesting lot: for all of the great qualities of our “anything is possible” culture, there are some that defy imagination. The reaction to the most recent United States Business Roundtable (USBR) statement is a case in point.

As we read in this month’s lead story, the USBR statement is certainly a good sign for those of us committed to the sustainable, triple bottom line business movement. On the other hand, to go from a good sign to the complete conversion of our entire economic system is a bit of stretch. Yet, some seem to think the USBR statement has brought the US to the precipice of becoming a northern European style social-democracy overnight!

This is a caricature – to be sure – but we need to view the USBR statement in the proper context. Can we expect our Western style of capitalism, a system that has taken nearly three hundred years to evolve, to suddenly turn on a dime? Systems of economics, which are human systems, generally don’t convulse into whole new behavioral traits in a matter of days – they evolve.

Recognizing the evolving and emergent nature of systems behavior is something I’ve come to appreciate over the years I’ve been working in Detroit. One of the places I’ve learned quite a bit about systems thinking is the Green Garage.

SMSBF is co-located at the Green Garage, which is a sustainable co-working community in Midtown Detroit. On two Wednesdays each month, the community holds what we call our Sustainable Business Leadership conversations. One of the themes or pillars of these conversations is the notion that sustainable businesses are those that grow, mature, and die “naturally.” In other words, we need not expect a business to hit the scene and become an overnight success.

The best way to launch a sustainable business is to foster and nurture its growth, much like one would grow a plant. The sustainable business leader will take time and discern how the business will be part of and serve the community, or market, in which it will operate. He or she will ask questions and listen carefully. The sustainable business entrepreneur will take a living and dynamic approach to launch and grow the business. This is the antithesis of what’s expected of single bottom line strategies, wherein the “hottest” ideas – the potential unicorns – get loads of cash pumped-in up front, with the idea that the business will gobble up the market, excreting boatloads of returns for the starved investors. “Speed to market” is the mantra.

This longer-term view is predicated, not on “business as a machine,” but on “business as a living organism,” which is a more appropriate model, one that better harmonizes with the reality of the Earth system. It also relies on Schumacher’s “small is beautiful,” wherein many small businesses will provide the resilience the system needs.

We cannot expect the USBR statement, which comes at such a high level, to have immediate and significant effects on business strategy and practice. The system is far too complex for that. We can, however, take notice and recognize that the narrative is shifting.

One thing is certain: we cannot consider the USBR statement as the answer to all of our questions. Climate scientists are telling us that unless we reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the next ten years by 45% below 2010 levels, climate change will become dangerous to human life. In other words, Earth will begin to become uninhabitable. The step the USBR took, while laudable, will take a long time to produce any fruit.

While we certainly must hold large businesses accountable for making progress toward sustainable practices, we need to work even more diligently to develop a local and diverse business community, one that is sustainable and triple bottom line in scope. We have so much talent, drive, and ingenuity right here in Detroit and Southeast Michigan. By working together in our community and applying the resources we have, we can develop the solutions we need for our survival. Success will take collaborative effort on the part of local private, government, and non-government sectors.

Another great quality of our culture is the value it places on innovation. Let’s collaboratively build-upon our strengths, know that anything is possible, and innovate like crazy!

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