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Was Occupy Wall Street a Tipping Point? What Does it Mean for Your Business in 2012?

3p is proud to partner with the Presidio Graduate School’s Managerial Marketing course on a blogging series about “sustainable marketing.” This post is part of that series. To follow along, please click here.

By Griff Foxley

On October 26th, a beautiful video was posted on Vimeo of a murmuration of starlings. It was a rare occurrence to be captured: thousands of flocking starlings flying in fantastic unison over a river in Ireland. On November 8th, Wired writer Brandon Keim attempted to break down the science behind murmuration. What enables their ultra-quick connectivity, the author mused? How do thousands of birds across hundreds of yards of space seem to move almost simultaneously? Keim explains that starlings flocking are in a state of “critical transition.” In other words, the flock is like a system that is “poised to tip, to be almost instantly and completely transformed, like metals becoming magnetized or liquid turning to gas.”

You’ll forgive the (maybe obvious) analogy, but I couldn’t help but think of Occupy Wall Street (and likeminded movements across the world). Winter is coming, and the popular media coverage is down. Still, the movement is strong. Seattle, LA, SF and other cities have signed resolutions to investigate the local aspects of the broken, corrupt economic system. Regardless of what comes to pass with the protests through the winter, 2011 will surely be marked from here forward as the year of a huge culture shift. And regardless of one’s perspective of the movement - the clarity (or lack thereof) of its mission, the efficacy (or lack thereof) of its methods - what is clear from this writer’s point of view is that this movement has historic credibility, not only due to its breadth and scope, but due to its existence at the confluence of two super-trends, one in technology and the other in politics. And its credibility should be a signal to the business world of a "new normal" on the rise.

On the one hand, we are in the infancy of a major technological wave that’s dramatically changing information flows and interaction. People are hyper-connected and super-responsive, much like starling flocks. This digital technological wave - not unlike the railroad - is creating, as W. Brian Arthur puts it, a “second economy" that adds “intelligent, automatic response to the economy.” Good or bad, this is a truth, and it is big. As Sophocles said, "Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse." The curse here is that this second economy, the vast network of exchanges once undertaken by and between humans, takes place behind the scenes, between servers and networks. Arthur notes, this second economy will be the “engine of growth” and prosperity but it may not provide jobs given that the exchanges no longer need a human touch.

And this is where the second historic super-trend comes in, best elucidated in Jeffrey Sach’s “New Progressive Movement.” According to Sachs this OWS movement represents the third time a so-called American gilded age - of uber-wealthy 1 percent and rampant income inequality in a broken system - has resulted in a new progressive movement. The first movement, in the late 19th century, was a response to a rigged political system that catered to the coffers of the robber barons and created the 1893 financial crisis.

Then came the roaring ‘20s and the wide open “floodgates of corruption and financial excess,” which culminated in the Great Depression. After each of these ages of corruption came progressive transformations backed by considerable political will mandating fixes of a broken system. Today’s iteration of the gilded, broken system is a bigger, more interconnected behemoth than in prior eras. But the progressive movement Sachs foresees reiterates the aims of prior movements - first, the restoration of public services, second, the end of Wall Street fraud and impunity, and third, a return to people votes over dollar votes.

It’s only slight hyperbole to say the current system is a robber-baron escapade, in which corporations “own” the government, and the government “regulates” the corporations, as Jonathan Mariano eloquently stated. It’s not only unfair, it’s unstable. In fact, a study completed recently gives credence to the system’s instability. The study underscored how tightly-knit the leading companies in the world are financially, and proved that a “super-entity” of 147 large, interconnected companies control over 40 percent of the entire network. This type of consolidation highlights how unstable the global economy is, because if just one of the large 147 companies drops, defaults, or otherwise “suffers distress,” that distress multiplies through the tightly-knit system as quickly as motions of a starling flock.

So, the system is broken, and information about its instability is "out there" in the public domain. But is the political will enabled, as it was in progressive movements passed, to move to solve it? As Clay Shirky notes, “Access to information is far less important, politically, than access to conversation.” What OWS and the upswell of global protest signals is that these ideas - the precariousness and inequality inherent to the global economy - have moved forevermore into the public lexicon as a culture shift. What was once an “open secret” has now become a “public truth” thanks to the millions who’ve raised up their voices. And as Jeff Chang notes, “culture change is often the dress rehearsal for political change.”

So what does this mean for business? What import is it that an evergrowing market of activists is on the rise, clamoring for big change in business - from activist shareholders and consumers to students and even economists? What can business do in the face of this growing movement away from top-down business-as-usual to evermore common, local, social business signalled by “bank transfer days,” crowd-funding, and "localvesting?" How can business capitalize, for lack of a better word, on the changing market that more and more is “valorizing quality over hit-and-run greed?” Will this rising strain of “indie capitalism” leave well-meaning but inflexible companies behind?

Read on in Part 2 for examples of and recommendations for businesses big and small evolving in the face of this new normal.

Griff Foxley is an MBA Candidate in Sustainable Management at Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco. Contact him at griff.foxley@presidioedu.org

image: ad551 via Flickr cc