The Good Future: People, Planet, Purpose, and Prosperity

Written by Matt Ward and Gerd Leonhard

Adam Smith, with his landmark book The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, is recognized by most as the father of capitalism. In 1970, Milton Friedman built upon Smith’s legacy with the Friedman doctrine, outlining the basics of what we recognize today as shareholder capitalism — which argues that a business’s primary (if not only) responsibility is to its shareholders, ie, making more money.

This has been the dominant operating framework for modern business that has driven the boards of big companies around the world. But today — as we are nearing the limits of expansion and increasingly suffering from our own anthropogenic aberrations (as discussed in a previous post), it is becoming clear that capitalism as we know it is unfit for the future.

The over-optimization of GDP and growth at all costs combined with the exponential economics of modern tech businesses has led to a world on the brink of climate catastrophe and likely civil unrest due to extreme inequality. None of what we are doing is sustainable going forward, and, as such, it is time we tried to define new target metrics for society, before it is too late.

A focus on People

Said another way: if a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Who cares? The inherent value of something is never in the thing itself, it is in the feelings and emotions it makes us feel. Beauty, as they say, is in the eyes of the beholder.

And yet, today, we are creating a beautiful future for the few, built upon the struggling backs of the many. We have allowed the focus of our labors to shift from bettering the lives of very people producing our iPhones, Starbucks lattes, and skinny fit jeans to blackening the bottomline — even as businesses attempt to outsource or automate (layoff) as much of their workforce as possible.

We’ve created a world where the average CEO in the US earns 278 times more than their average worker and the richest 1% own as much as the bottom 50% of the world combined.

Is that really a better world? Is that really one focused on people?

The truth is, the measure of a society’s goodness was never its GDP, its number of billionaires or tech giants, or the size of its population. No, the true measure of any society is how willing you are to being randomly born within its pecking order. Said another way by Mahatma Gandhi,

‘The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.’

But how?

In order to not only ensure, but fuel a better future for mankind, we MUST place a higher premium man him(or her)self and work to level the playing field. How many Einsteins, da Vincis, or Shakespeares have been lost to history, merely because they were born and died with nothing in the streets of Mumbai, or Rio, or gang-ridden LA, never once having a real shot or education?

This means not only investing more in things like public education (K-12, higher ed, and lifelong learning), healthcare, and social safety nets, but also creating regulations to protect workers, individual rights, and democracy as a whole.

A focus on Planet

It is a microcosm of pollution — a bit like measuring GDP or gross profits without taking into account negative externalities such as CO2 emissions. While every little cigarette break is like a breath of fresh air and markets are thriving, cancer is lurking around the corner in the form of rising sea levels, reduced crop yields, weather extremization, and the die off of much of the natural world we rely on.

If we are to not only survive, but thrive in the future, we MUST start taking the Planet scorecard more seriously, because the planet, like the body, keeps score. And we can’t survive without either, regardless of what Elon Musk may hope.

But how?

Are we ready to impose sweeping carbon taxes, end fossil fuel subsidies, cutback on meat, and in many ways, reduce our luxurious way of life to something the planet can sustain?

There are many ways to solve the climate crisis: technological, economic, societal… The most important thing is that we act, that we start measuring the true environmental impact of what we consume and that we hold companies and organizations accountable as we make a collective effort to save our world.

A focus on Prosperity

So where did we get the false idea that consumption was tied to happiness/contentment? Marketing. If advertisements were not constantly trying to tell us we were too fat, too ugly, or too unhappy, how else would they sell us their “magical cure” products?

The truth is, we need a better metric than consumption, ie, GDP, to optimize for, if we are to have a happier, better future. Which begs the question, what that metric should be?

We believe prosperity, and not profit or GDP should be the economic variable of choice. Profit too often accrues to too few and consumption/GDP leads to constantly striving for more — more houses, more streaming services, more BigMacs. In a world of limited resources, perpetual growth (ie, consumption) is not sustainable.

But what is prosperity? If it isn’t a bigger house, a better car, or a trip to the Maldives (before they are lost forever), what exactly do we mean with prosperity? The way we define prosperity is the ability to do what you want, when you want — within reason of course. If I could stay in some guy’s flat in Australia, dive the Great Barrier Reef for a weekend, and have a plant-based or lab-grown burger for dinner, all before accessing a free MIT lecture on quantum computing before bed, that sounds pretty prosperous to me.

But where in that equation did I need to own the apartment, the scuba gear, or attend (and pay for) in-person university?

But how?

But as we enter an age of automation, can we not go beyond that? Henry Ford invented the Mobile T, the modern assembly line, and the 40-hour work week in 1926. Since then, worker productivity has risen hundreds of percent thanks to technological advances. For some reason however, worker compensation and quality of life have struggled to keep pace, especially since the 80s when average wages began to flatline (especially in the US).

The question is: if it took forty hours of work in 1926 to assure a certain standard of living, why is it still taking forty-plus hours in 2021? In a world where AI and robotics will increasingly replace manual human labor, should it not be possible for the people to benefit from the boom of automation making many of their jobs irrelevant?

Said another way, if we are able to sustainably produce X number of solar-powered Teslas a year without human labor, and at any given time, Y number of them are not being used, is it really a problem if the people who used to produce them (or anyone, really), can have a free carpool ride around the city, assuming there is a car available.

Here’s a shocking statistic for you: There are 59 empty houses/properties for each homeless person in the US — that’s an increase of 43% since 2010 (Source: Self.inc).

If we each didn’t have to own our own car, our own lawnmower, etc… we could come together as a community, buy much higher quality products than any of us to afford on our own, and then be able to mow the law, go for a spin, etc… pretty much whenever we wanted. That is a lot less stuff we would have to have in our lives (and landfills) with almost no change in our habits/options.

Don’t know about you, but that sounds a lot like prosperity.

A focus on Purpose

But the future doesn’t have to be so. In fact, the future holds the potential to become a new human Renaissance of flourishing, life, and creativity. Imagine the possibility of being freed from hours of mindless repetition to focus on your true passion, to find your purpose. For many, this can be an incredibly scary experience. Who am I when I am not working?

If you are like most people, you may have forgotten (or never discovered to begin with). The education system and working world mold us from an early age to the factory-efficient robo-workers Henry Ford once needed in his factory. But humans are quickly being outpaced by AI/automation in all aspects of efficiency, productivity, and logic.

For us to not only stay relevant, but thrive and live in a future worth inhabiting, we must learn to shift from productivity to purpose. Because each of us has our own internal purpose, our own set of uniquely human (us) things to bring to the world. But we don’t get the Harry Potter, the Beatles, or even Henry Ford’s Model-T without the creative, driven individuals who made it their life’s mission to follow their calling wherever it may lead them.

But how?

Even before today’s modern age of on-demand entertainment, purpose was challenging. But also critically important. In fact, the Buddha once said,

“Your purpose in life is to find your purpose and give your whole heart and soul to it.”

Although we cannot claim to have the formula for finding one’s purpose or happiness in life, there are a few universal truths that seem to come up again and again. For instance, play. We firmly believe that unstructured, unmitigated play, and joy, are critical for the next generation of work. There is nothing more creative or more fulfilling than that moment when one enters the all-encompassing flow — be that acting, building, coding, teaching… certain experiences allow us to become children once more, to be lost in the flow of time, space, and imagination. This is where we find our purpose, our passion, and our place in the future of work.

The Good Future: Bringing it all together

We live in an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it world.” Unfortunately, things are broken and fracturing worse than ever. But the good news is that we still have time, we can still change the underlying cause of so many of the crises facing our world, if we can but muster the courage to make the necessary changes.

Want more? Please visit mattward.io

Investor, Startup Advisor & CEO/Business Coach: mattward.io | Sci-Fi Author: mattwardwrites.com | Futurist Tech Podcaster: disruptors.fm | 3 Exits @mattwardio

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