The Widening role of business in a fast-developing society

The Widening role of business in a fast-developing society

This article was first published in Business Times on 25 May 2019

The Widening role of business in a fast-developing society
John Bittleston

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) was launched several decades ago with the best of intentions and the highest of aspirations. If every company chipped in both money and free work-time the social scene could be improved, efforts to help the less fortunate could be increased and the issue of the climate could be addressed. The bonus for a company was that it would be seen to be a Good Citizen. In other words, the investment was not wholly profit justified but could be deducted from the public relations budget.

What became of CSR?

Today CSR is seen to have failed to achieve enough of what was expected of it. The finance devoted to it was relatively small. PR budgets are among the first to be cut in a crisis and the demands on them are notoriously mercurial. They were neither consistent nor substantial. But the concept of CSR is alive and thriving. Not as originally conceived, but as an acknowledgement of the duty of all wealth creators to finance and drive the development of a stable and sustainable society. That development is now partly visible, although daily technological progress raises new needs for understanding and control.

The issue of the urgency of planet survival is well understood even if not yet fully accepted. The loss of many species due to climatic forces has happened in the world’s history before. The planet didn’t disappear and humanity survived. However, history is a poor guide in this instance. The population of the planet was then a tiny fraction of today’s seven billion, which is itself expected to increase to nine or more quite soon. The population then lived simple, rural lives. Climate change either killed them, which it did many, or the survivors found new streams from which to draw their water. The cockroaches helped keep them going anyway.

Problems more than saving the planet

If our problems were only climate-related we could roughly measure the resources needed to handle them. They are significantly greater than that. The relationship between humans and AI is the determinant of our species future existence. Allowing our sensitive, creative, spiritual nature to be turned into robotics is a real possibility. If we do so we can probably say goodbye to feelings. It is a situation we can avoid if we want to. It is not one that we have had to face before – as we have climate change – and it is one for which we are singularly badly prepared. We do not know the learning, guidance, promotional or political effort needed to educate a majority of humans to decide what element of their being they wish to retain and what to devolve.

Since those who run companies and shareholders who finance them will be the first to need to understand this, an urgent job of education is required. The evidence is that business has been getting increasingly short-term in its outlook as data has become faster and views of the future, more difficult. A sensible reaction to this would have been to learn better forecasting rather than give up and live for the moment. The astonishing selfishness of human beings that allows them to say ‘it will see me out’ is a damnation of much ethical and religious teaching.

Where is the wealth to do all this?

So far significant wealth to support major projects has come largely from individuals giving away their money. For example, Bill & Melinda Gates’ Foundation, whose asset value is over US$50 billion, has contributed substantially to the US Government’s programme saving an estimated 1.2 million lives by expanding access to HIV prevention and treatment. Again, Richard Branson has contributed to many entrepreneurial startups with both funds and advice. Among company efforts, Shell is developing climate help with technologies that have far reaching potential in the efforts to preserve a habitable planet. Whether from individual pockets or not, the origin of the funds in all these cases is business. Companies must now make strategic contributions to both planet and humanity directly rather than through earnings of owners and management.

Fundamental to handling this is accepting that only significant wealth will provide the necessary impetus to move fast enough to save the planet and order society so that it can still decide what it wants humans to be. Inevitably that will require a greater sense of responsibility than ‘wealth’ has shown in the past. It will require an opt-in by voters, many more of whom will have to recognize that they are wealthy. It will also demand longer-term thinking than by those fiddling their political lives and future away over Brexit and electing clowns to preside over them.

Political weakness at a time when strength is vital

Shareholders in particular will need to be educated to understand that the return for their company’s investment in both saving the planet and designing and implementing the new relationship between science and human beings is time sensitive but not such that it will show a short-term return. At present demonstrable wealth creators are treated differently from those who do jobs not intended to produce immediate profits. Privileges afforded this group, especially those heading large corporations, are visibly disproportionate to the effort they make and the risk they take. Social economics suggest that generally reducing the incomes of one group shows little improvement in the incomes of the poor.

However the disparities are now so visible that resistance to them is becoming a matter both at the polls and in the streets. Social media have shown their ability to whip up rage and, often, unreasonable behaviour. What does this have to do with management? In fact, a lot. Markets depend on finance and finance, even in today’s VUCA world, depends on stability. Most politicians have demonstrated their inability to stabilize their currencies let alone their electorates. Now business must step into the gap so created. The main ways in which it can do so quickly are:

# Education – company (or collective company) university to teach what
needs to be learnt in a way that it can be applied quickly
# Think tanks – to ponder the fundamentals of the problems facing us
and seek realistic solutions
# Science and arts start-ups – to attract working students to balance their
disciplines with others that promote the other side of the spectrum
# Question Centres – to define the questions that matter for society, for countries,
for companies, for communities. At present all the wrong questions are being asked.

Education is the root of the solution

At the root of the problem is education both in how to qualify and use the internet and in what new ethical standards can and are to be adopted to sustain a world of vastly changed resource. Neither pessimism nor optimism answer these needs to which business must additionally apply itself.

As in the issues mentioned above, so with education, business should make its presence felt in time to assert enough influence to bring about change in time for it to be effective.

It’s not that business is so much smarter. Merely that it has the money and mechanisms to do it.