The World Economic Forum took place in Davos this week. There were some interesting discussions around the social economy, and there are other alternative ideas and voices springing up across the world. Have we finally reached a tipping point or is it just talk?
Mel Young: I heard an interesting discussion at this year’s World Economic Forum earlier this week featuring Margaritis Schinas (Vice President of the European Commission), Sharon Thorne (Global Chair, Deloitte) and Jeroo Billimoria (founder of Catalyst 2030) who discussed the imperatives of developing a social economy. It was a short discussion but it was very lively and actually very constructive. Whilst the media is almost exclusively negative at the moment with stories about a collapsing global economy, there are alternative voices springing up which are apparently being taken seriously. At The New Ism we have always said that there has to be a completely new system; I wonder if we are seeing the beginnings of a serious start or is this just people trying to sort the old system?
Alex Matthews: I would love to believe that there is a completely new system in the making, and there are so many people out there who are working extremely hard to bring that new system about. However – and I’m being cynical and jaded here – it doesn’t feel like their voices are being heard and/or taken seriously by people in power. Although the old system keeps rumbling on, it feels like it’s at the very end of its natural life. Maybe that’s ultimately a good thing because it could usher in a new system! What makes you believe that change is happening?
MY: I don’t believe fundamental change is happening and the global economy rolls on and the real challenge it has at the moment is that the rich are getting richer and the wealth gap is growing steadily. It isn’t sustainable but some people believe that the system will right itself. People like us are talking about alternatives and some institutions are beginning to look at this seriously now I believe. It is a tiny step but it is constructive. The Vice President of the European Commission was very keen on supporting the social economy and wanted coordinated action across Europe. So, that has to be positive. I don’t believe a collective theory exists but people seem to be clear that something is very wrong with the current economic system and want to try and change it.
AM: Yes it is promising that people in positions of power like the VP of the EC aren’t just interested in alternative systems, but are already looking for ways to implement them across Europe. But, at the risk of sounding like a merchant of gloom, I worry that there isn’t an appetite amongst national leaders to implement a new system, as they are benefitting from the current one. I guess that means that organisations like ours that want a new system have to keep talking about it and keep sharing inspiring stories of how people are already driving change! Because there are so many stories out there – I’m thinking about Louis de Jaeger, one of the young people we recently spoke to for the podcast (episode to be released soon) and how he is teaching people how to live in harmony with nature. I think the more that we hear those stories, the more people will demand that we implement those changes.
MY: We need to hear those stories and we need to amplify them. What it shows is that alternative ways do actually work. Jeroo Billimoria was talking about how collective action can bring about system change – it is that thinking which will bring together the actors into one body with momentum. Others are starting to take notice, like the European Commission as you say. The challenge is that in order to change systems completely, the European Commission and governments are going to have to change the way they work and potentially give up power which they won’t be keen to do. It was also interesting listening to Sharon Thorne who was looking at this from the business angle and talking about how business is beginning to change. The problem here is that many people think it is simply greenwashing by business rather than a genuine shift. There is a long way to go but there are some serious discussions going on – the proof will be to see if new systems start emerging. For example, for a real shift, we need the whole of the European region to embed the social economy in its DNA and way of life. Now that would be a real shift but it is some way off!
AM: That would be so exciting, to see a region as big and influential embed the social economy in its entire way of life. As humans we tend to avoid risk, so for other places to see that it can work and is indeed an improvement on the old system would be so powerful. As you mention, I think it’s great that large global companies like Deloitte are starting to have real, meaningful conversations about their role in driving and indeed leading this change.
I think the key is for social entrepreneurs and social innovators to become political leaders. Many of our current leaders across the world are too comfortable in the current system and aren’t motivated to change it. If we had people who really want to drive systems change – and have a track record of doing it – then I believe we would have a much better chance of changing the system. The problem is that political leadership doesn’t appeal to the right kind of people. If we can change that, I believe it could be really exciting.
MY: Yes, we have talked before about the lack of political leadership in this area. It is a nice idea to think of social entrepreneurs becoming political leaders but I don’t think they will. Most of them feel that they can create greater change without going near politics which is an indictment of the whole system anyway! But that’s another whole story. With the social entrepreneurs building a global movement in Catalyst 2030 it is possible that thepowerful institutions and big business will start to engage. They all know that the current global economic model just isn’t sustainable if they are being honest with themselves so they will always be open to looking at new models. There is some potential here for genuine dialogue followed by practical action.