On Saturday, September 8th, 2012, a few hundred forward-thinking folks gathered at TEDxPresidio at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco to talk about what’s on the minds of many these days: re-inventing capitalism.
Despite the event’s theme, many of the presenters didn’t focus on the system itself, but the individuals who comprise it. You. Me. Us. Dissatisfaction with the current economic climate and a “business as usual” attitude fueled the day’s discussions, which highlighted alternative models, personal development and better education.
Van Jones, former Green Jobs Czar and founder of Rebuild the Dream, illuminated a particular paradox in our current system: education, a path that historically led people out of poverty, now leads people to poverty through debt and a dearth of employment opportunities. He declared us casualties of a collapsed economic system based on: consumption over production, credit over savings, economic destruction over restoration, and individualism over the collective. The sharing economy (or collaborative consumption), Jones suggested, is a promising avenue to create support systems and refocus our values in a way that will improve our quality of life despite the economic environment. He added poignantly that we should be careful not to fashion it an elite, trendy movement but be sure to include those for whom it means life or death. In the face of our current and future crises, Jones asked, “Are we going to turn on each other or to each other?”
The emphasis on personal improvement surfaced in a variety of ways. In order to abandon business as usual, Brooke Deterline of the Heroic Imagination Project (HIP) urged the audience to be courageous in uncomfortable situations – like her example of a whistleblower friend identifying corporate corruption – by eschewing situational pressure and training one’s self to pause and follow one’s instincts through what HIP calls “Social Fitness Training.” On a grander level, Google’s Jolly Good Fellow, Chade-Meng Tan, and Marc Lesser of Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (SIYLI, pronounced “silly”), shared their goal of achieving world peace by bringing meditation to humanity. As Meng said jovially throughout the presentation: easy. The pair strives to turn meditation into a field of science thereby making it more accessible and demystifying the practice. They also intend to align meditation with leadership and everyday life. Meng and Lesser believe that they can reinvent capitalism by upgrading people. Easy.
Improving people calls for an investment in people, both economically and intellectually. San Francisco is, of course, ahead of the curve. The Honorable José Cisneros, Treasurer of the City and County of San Francisco, created the San Francisco Office of Financial Empowerment, which has launched a number of programs including Bank On San Francisco, CurrenC SF and Kindergarten to College. While these services all help marginalized residents access capital, the latter opens a College Savings Account and invests fifty dollars for every child entering kindergarten and continues to offer incentives for parents to contribute to the account throughout their child’s education. This is a promising step in the right direction considering Americans spend 2.5 times per year as much money on senior citizen as they do on young people. This statistic, presented by child advocate James Steyer of Common Sense Media, is not meant to condemn investment in seniors, but rather to highlight the skewed priorities of a nation that prides itself on opportunity but neglects to invest in the next generation.
As much as we celebrate ground-breaking business models that empower social entrepreneurship and embrace the integrated bottom line, it’s important that we not lose sight of the people who need to be “upgraded” in order to let this new economic system thrive.
Ali Hart is a sustainable communications and engagement strategist with a passion for behavior change, collaboration and storytelling. Her background in the Entertainment industry, penchant for humor and MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School are Ali’s secret weapons in her quest to make sustainability inconveniently fun.