Can Capitalism Be Redesigned?

Plimsoll Line of a boat
A Plimsoll Line for companies or countries?

by Nancy Roberts

From financial system meltdown to Arctic ice meltdown, the detritus of a capitalist system gone off the rails is all around us. On June 15, four panelists with differing levels of optimism gathered to speak to an engaged crowd in San Francisco about how, if, and when Capitalism might be redefined. California College of the Arts and The Idea Hive co-presented a conversation among seasoned professionals Rory Bakke, John Elkington, Gil Friend, and Kirsten Ritchie, to hear their thoughts on what comes next (after capitalism) and how we can get there. CCA’s Stuart Candy moderated. Questions were the order of the day; none of the panelists had the hubris to claim they had the answer…or even that there was an answer.

Discussion revolved around corporations as drivers of, and barriers to, achieving sustainability, and around how best to measure progress toward a more just and sustainable economic system, beyond capitalism in its current form.

Prisoners of our Assumptions

Embedding a true understanding of the value of ecosystem services emerged as a theme. Panelists agreed that a shift in multiple assumptions is in order, from what accountants “count” to how a building, a neighborhood, or a city should be designed to maximize resource efficiency. Gil Friend noted the inherent problem that a perfect market depends on perfect data, which, being impossible, leads to all manner of price distortions which are then imperfectly addressed by special interests and legislative or financial regulations.

Corporations: Leverage Points or Barriers? Yes.

The speakers trotted out seemingly contradictory polls and research to support their points, mostly around the disconnect between what CEOs say about their the importance of sustainability, and how little the needle has moved.  Kirsten Ritchie noted the problem of corporate inertia and how challenging it is simply to move some businesses to do the necessary analysis to realize that sustainable actions make sense.

Courage is necessary for true disruptive innovation to happen, with leadership coming from both legislative and corporate sides, at local levels and beyond. For example, the panel noted that the state and people of California are taking some of the risks inherent in modeling behavior change for the rest of the country or for the world. Panelists noted in particular the legislation around global warming action (AB 32) and the new benefit corporation entity (AB 361 – now in hearings) that responds to historic trends that have chained U.S. corporations to consider only shareholder return.

Valuing What We Measure

John Elkington (most famous for coining the term Triple Bottom Line), noted the effectiveness of the Plimsoll Line, a simple mark that was added to the outside of ships in the 19th century that showed whether they were overloaded and therefore likely to run into trouble on the high seas. This simple visual tool saved thousands of lives and spared many lost loads. Could an important step to capitalism’s redesign lie in simple but effective metrics, like a plimsoll line to show when a country or a corporation is overloaded – taking up more than its share of the resources that we all share?

While some participants noted a certain measurement fatigue, Rory Bakke described the effectiveness of a recent meeting sponsored by Oxfam to uncover poverty metrics. She recounted how moved she was to see the group galvanized to action  by way of discussing a 5 x 5 cell matrix.  She noted that she, like the other participants, walked away, ready to help in whatever way that was necessary.

Next Steps: Look Deep, Look Outward, Look Around You

What are the levers for true, innovative disruption? John Elkington noted that real disruption is probably occurring at the fringes at the system, below the radar.

Panelists were asked to conclude with suggestions for what each of us could do to transform the system. Of necessity, the answers revolved around individual action, from embracing experience over consumption, to voting with our wallets, to helping C-Suite denizens “get out more.”

We can only solve the whole problem.

The evening ended on a “yes, and” note, as panelists agreed that all of the actions discussed must happen, all the time, by all of us, in order to achieve a more sustainable society. What action would you add to the list?


Nancy Roberts is co-founder of The Idea Hive.

Photo: Corrosion on Plimsoll Line by Brosen via Wikimedia under GNU Free Documentation License


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One response

  1. Thanks for the article. But I think you got my point backwards.

    Your quote: “Gil Friend noted the inherent problem that a perfect market depends on perfect data, which, being impossible, leads to all manner of price distortions which are then imperfectly addressed by special interests and legislative or financial regulations.”

    My point: This imperfection is not an inevitability of Universe, but a consequence of human choice and decision. Price distortions (like gasoline at the pump for perhaps one-quarter of its true, whole system cost) are the _result_ of actions (and inaction) by legislators and regulators (and of course their friends the “special interests”), and of accounting rules and practices that are unable to capture material but unacknowledged costs, risks and benefits.

    The consequence: imperfect price signals that make it impossible for economic actors (businesses, governments and you & me) to make wise or even rational decisions based on those price signals.

    (Watch my blog for more on sustainability and finance, and for my forthcoming book on “getting the prices right” — an indispensable element of the sustainability challenge.)

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