Thursday, December 09, 2010
Radical Creativity: Where Big Business Meets the Greater Good
The interests of big business are not necessarily at odds with those of the greater good. We tend to think they are. Advocates on both sides often act as though they are. But if we are to make any progress against the many great social injustices plaguing this world, we need to think about things differently. We need to understand that big business is not the enemy but rather one of the most important keys to a more humane and sustainable 21st century.
This argument isn't new, but it's often quickly dismissed for the (seeming, I'll argue) impracticality and sheer magnitude of the execution. Seriously, say the doubters, how can we get big business to focus on anything but profits? How can we penetrate through layers and layers of corporate and governmental corruption to actually do some good? And how can we possible align interests and resources across nations, corporations, non-profits, charities and everyone else under the sun?
You know what? Maybe we can't. And I don't think that matters as much as we think it does. The trouble with these questions is that they distract us from actually doing anything. They're so big and so daunting that they overwhelm us into inaction and automatically shut down our creativity, making it very easy for us to shrug our shoulders and feel helpless. They also treat these problems as purely institutional, which also breeds a sense of individual helplessness. So here's what I propose: What if we stopped focusing so much on seemingly insurmountable problems and started looking for opportunities instead? What if we just got radically creative with what's in front of us.
Here's where big business comes in, and I do mean big business specifically, because of one thing: infrastructure. Large, multi-national corporations have built well-developed distribution channels to transport their products all over the world. Think about the ubiquity of Coca Cola. From sub-Saharan Africa to southeast Asia, northern Canada to southern Chile, you can buy a Coke almost anywhere. Imagine a group of nations or charities trying to accomplish a network of that size and efficiency! And now imagine how many big businesses already have.
Can you see the potential here? The infrastructure is there. It's not perfect, but it's there. If we can get Coca Cola to the poorest, most desperate places on earth, why can't we leverage those same (already built!) distribution channels for medicine, textbooks, clean water filters, you name it? We could conceivably construct a world where access to Coke means access to a better life.
Enter a scrappy nonprofit called ColaLife. Years ago, while traveling through an isolated area of Zambia where 1 in 5 children dies before the age of 5, ColaLife founder Simon Berry was struck by the wide availability of Coca Cola and saw an opportunity. The AidPod, a wedge-shaped container that fits between bottles in a crate and can carry medicine, condoms, oral rehydration tablets and other live-saving treatments, is now being prototyped. Berry is working with Coca Cola and stakeholders in Zambia on a pilot plan to being distributing the first AidPods, mother's kits to help prevent child dehydration. They are using Coca Cola's distribution network, but this is all happening at no cost to Coca Cola itself.
You can read more about the pilot plan here. It's inspiring how Berry has managed to collaborate with one of the world's largest companies, local distributors, government officials and other stakeholders in Zambia and a huge network of volunteers to impact real change. And he did it, not by trying to change broken institutions but by leveraging systems that were already in place in a radically new way. That is radical creativity - taking honest stock of the situation and looking for opportunities where others see roadblocks, or nothing at all.
Radical creativity is the intersection of big business and the greater good. Institutionalized approaches are troublesome and complicated. On the other hand, if you see the world through radically creative eyes, you can start doing something right now, without worrying about how to address all the institutional problems. That's not to say that fixing those problems isn't important, but you might have to wait a long time for them to change. In the meantime, there's work to be done.
ColaLife is just one example of radical creativity. Have you heard of Interface, the global leader in sustainable carpet manufacturing? How about Vestergaard Frandsen, creators of LifeStraw and a host of other life-saving products? Their business model of profiting from global carbon credit markets is arguably imperfect, but on the other hand, ColaLife found a silver lining in the distribution of what is essentially caramel-colored sugar-water.
Imperfection is kind of the point. If we wait until we find the perfect solution to all the world's problems, we'll never accomplish anything. What makes ColaLife and Vestergaard Frandsen so radically creative - and effective! - is that they didn't wait. They saw an opportunity and pursued it, imperfections and all.
What are your examples of radical creativity? I'd love to hear about them in the comments.
Robin Cangie is a writer, thinker and digital geek who likes to wonder about things. She writes about 21st century business, sustainability and whatever is on her mind on her blog, robinoula.com. She tweets as @robinoula.