I'm continually trying to come up with a way to capture the attention of those who wish to live a sustainable life. For those few who have an awareness of The Human Predicament, there appear to be camps on either end of the technology/organization spectrum. On one end are those who envision themselves living in small groups without much in the way of amenities. Some of this camp see themselves surviving as hunter-gatherers and appear, for the most part, to be unaware that with our current population, all that is out there to be hunted and gathered would be gone in a matter of weeks if we all made the shift. On the other end are those who think that if we toss enough money at new technology and let the free markets work their magic, a fix will be forthcoming and we will all live happily ever after in essentially the same way we have for the last few decades. Most of the technologists/corporatists seem unwilling to make any change in their lifestyle except for putting an extra hybrid car in the garage. Tom Friedman is the spokesperson for this group.
There has to be another way. A way that is somewhere between anarchy and business-as-usual corporatism. Some of the answers may be found in a ten-year-old book that I believe is a starting point for a move toward a more sustainable and quality existence. The book is The Living Company by Arie de Gues. It provides clues as to why we got ourselves in the mess we are in and how we can make adjustments to save core aspects of civilization. It helped shift my allegiance from the small group advocates end of the spectrum to the technologist/corporatist/organizational end of the spectrum. Like many, I have been turned off by the manipulation that is a key element of our current financial system. The result is that I have thought for a long time that there is little room for large organizations in our future. However, it is worth our time to sit down and determine if organization on a large scale can help us with our predicament.
Here are a few excerpts:
I put the question to a number of psychologists: Why do managers fail to exercise foresight? They explained that there is a human resistance to change -- a resistance which is basically good, for both the individual and society. One should not change for change's sake. However, said these psychologists, in effect, when change is demanded for survival, this resistance must be overcome and the only way for this to happen is through pain -- deep, prolonged pain! [p.29]
As I have mentioned before, the trick is to implement change that is not painful, but attractive.
Ingvar hypothesizes that our "memories of the future" provide a subconscious guide to help us determine which incoming information is relevant. The stored time paths serve as templates against which the incoming signals are measured. If the incoming information fits one of the alternative time paths, the input is understood. Information becomes knowledge, and the signal acquires meaning.
The message from this research is clear. We will not perceive a signal from the outside world unless it is relevant to an option for the future that we have already worked out in our imaginations. The more "memories of the future" we develop, the more open and receptive we will be to signals from the outside world. [p.36]
As for learning itself, according to the prevailing view, you (if you are a manager, at least) are supposed to learn only during a particular part of your life: the school years. This learning time is a time of fun, without too much responsibility. Then you move into real life, into work at a company where you apply your knowledge. Play stops and hard reality takes over. You are paid for what you know. The more you know (or have learned in school), the more you should earn. Education is not a vehicle for expanding your capability, but simply a credential for bettering your lot....
This attitude is a cartoon of intelligent human life. It portrays people as motorcars: you start at a service station (university) and fill up your "brain tank" with knowledge. Then you use your intellectual fuel to advance down life's highway. In this view, there is no need for institutions to make learning happen more effectively or on a larger scale. All the knowledge of the company is already embedded in the heads of its employees. Learning, except perhaps for a bit of "touch-up" learning to stay abreast of new technologies, is assumed to be already covered.
This view is reflected in the way we recruit, remunerate, and promote people. There is no place at the top for an actor who seeks to anticipate outside events by (for example) bringing people together to look at development that might turn into a crisis. There is no room for someone who admits that he or she does not have all the answers. The idea that the company itself could do some learning of its own does not enter into anyone's thinking. [p.56-57]
The other type of learning, as Piaget puts it, is learning by accommodation. In this type of learning, you undergo an internal structural change in your beliefs, ideas, and attitudes. When we learn by assimilation, says Piaget, the lectures and books of conventional school learning are sufficient. But learning by accommodation requires much more. It is an experiential process by which you participate fully, with all you intellect and heart, not knowing what the final result will be, but knowing that you will be different when you come out the other end. This interrelationship with the environment actually makes you grow, survive, and develop your potential. [p.60]
The second type of company, by contrast [to the economic company], is organized around the purpose of perpetuating itself as an ongoing community. This type of company has the longevity of a river. Unlike a puddle, a river is a permanent feature of its landscape. Come rain, the river may swell. Come shine, the river may shrink. But it takes a long and severe drought for the river to disappear.
Yet from the point of view of the drops of water, the river is horribly turbulent. No drop of water remains at the center for very long. From one moment to the next, the water in one part of the river or another will have changed. It will no longer be the same. Finally, the drops of water run out to the sea. The river lasts many times longer than the lifetime of the individual drops of water which comprise it.
Instead of stagnating like a puddle, long-lasting companies seem to emulate the flow of the river. No one drop dominates the company for long; indeed, new water drops continually succeed the old drops and then in their turn are carried out to sea. The drops of water are not destroyed; they are carried forward. The river is a self-perpetuating community, with component water drops that enter and leave, with its own built-in guarantees for the continuity and motion of water within its banks. A company, by initiating rules for continuity and motion of its people, can emulate the longevity and power of the river.
In such a "river company," return on investment remains important. But managers regard the optimization of capital as a complement to the optimization of people. The company itself is primarily a community. Its purposes are longevity and the development of its own potential. Profitability is a means to that end. And to produce both profitability and longevity, care must be taken with the various processes for building a community; defining membership, establishing common values, recruiting people, developing their capabilities, assessing their potential, living up to a human contract, managing relationships with outsiders and contractors, and establishing policies for exiting the company gracefully. [p.102-103]
Similarly, the river company has an underlying implicit contract. It, too, may never be written down, but it is obvious in every personal decision made by the company. The individual will deliver care and commitment in exchange for the fact that the company will try to develop each individual's potential to the maximum. [p.118]
Even if you develop a high-caliber system of innovation, you will still not have institutional learning until you develop the ability to "flock." Flocking depends on two of Allan Wilson's key criteria for learning: mobility of people and some effective mechanism of social transmission. [p.135]
The picture was very different in the ten successful companies, all of which eventually became significant international businesses. Eight of the ten had never held a loan. They were entirely debt free and always had been. The two companies that had borrowed money had done so to meet specific short-term needs. They had since repaid the debts in full.
Conservatism in financing, in short, is not merely a conceit of a former, less credit-happy age. It seems to be an essential condition for companies that hope to survive to a ripe old age. When companies know how to "listen" to their financing, they are ready to follow the path of a natural, long-lived evolution. [p.174]
After the euphoria of the Liberation (which in Holland is still written with a capital L) came, with the Marshall Plan, a dogged mixture of realism and idealism. There would be social equality to prevent the misery of the crisis years from reemerging. The rebuilding of the town, the port, and the factories would create wealth for a "new beginning" (as we called it) after the depths of the war.
The times created a great feeling of togetherness. Everybody pulled their weight for the general good. If the country did well, if Rotterdam did well, and if our companies did well, we all knew we'd be doing fine. And it worked.
By the early 1950s, there was an atmosphere of enormous hope. Everything could be done -- no, it would be done. It was great to play on a winning team. At the same time, there was not much wealth. Life was simple and spartan by today's standards. We did not question the necessity of creating material wealth. Anybody could see the need for it. There was constant reminders in the lingering memory of the Great Depression, the war damage, and the displaced persons everywhere. Material wealth was necessary to repair and to prevent it from ever happening again.
Unfortunately, our current crisis is not as evident to the casual observer as it was in postwar Rotterdam. And, we are going to have to solve it by contracting rather than expanding.
Nor did we question what, in retrospect, seems like a paradoxical premise: that the most effective way to produce this wealth was to join together in large institutions. We knew that we could create wealth only on a large scale. [p.187-188]
The wide distribution of power can be incredibly frustrating, but it means that the number of minds that are actively engaged in the decision-making process is increased considerably. [p.193]
A healthy living company will have members, both humans and other institutions, who subscribe to a set of common values and who believe that the goals of the company allow them and help them to achieve their own individual goals. Both the company and its constituent members have basic driving forces: they want to survive, and once the conditions for survival exist, they want to reach and expand their potential. [p.200]
Do companies such as this exist today? Are there any focused on developing sustainable infrastructure?