Verynice is a social enterprise design firm based in Los Angeles, with the groundbreaking business model of giving away half their work for free. To date they have gifted over USD 5 million in design services to worthy causes.
Having worked at the cutting edge of social enterprise for almost a decade, the Founder and Managing Director of verynice, Matthew Manos, is releasing a book about what he believes the next generation of this work calls for from entrepreneurs.
I'm honoured to provide the Foreword for Toward a Preemptive Social Enterprise, which features a cast of contributors including futurist Jake Dunagan, designer Nathan Shedroff, and science fiction author Bruce Sterling.
The book's worldwide digital release is tomorrow, 1 August 02016, with hard copies available in mid-September.
FOREWORD to Toward a Preemptive Social Enterprise.
Business as a category of human activity has traditionally aimed to maximise certain outcomes at the expense of others. Other communities, other species, other places, and future generations.
Take the oil industry for example. Like the endlessly ingenious tools of the extractive trade themselves, profit-first business morphs to fit the contours of the lucrative niche. I locate a rich deposit, I work out access to it by hook or by crook, and voilà: I drink your milkshake. Other impacts are someone else’s problem.
Traditional business is a badly broken finite game.
Yet it is possible to flip the premise. Here is the quietly revolutionary but increasingly obvious alternative: morph the enterprise to generate desired impacts, and reverse engineer a business model to make it economically viable.
This change-making path is often called social enterprise, and the figure animating that change and beating that path is the social entrepreneur.
Social entrepreneurship comes from the overdue recognition that business is an engine of change –– nay, a powerhouse. More and more of us see that to harness its institutional potential to worthwhile ends could be hugely influential, generating outcomes as deliberate and positive as the outcomes generated by legacy means have been accidental and destructive.
As Matt Manos explains in these pages, "A social entrepreneur is a designer of business whose intentions are not in capital gain, but instead in the advancement of the greater good of society." The central formula is, then, approximately: business + design + ethics (greater good) = social enterprise.
When one surveys today's fast-changing "ecology of commerce", in Paul Hawken's resonant phrase, we find a wide range of creatures from different evolutionary eras living side by side. There seem to be many recent, small initiatives nobly attuned to the full spectrum of their impacts. Generally these are nimble little Darwinian upstarts, yet to prove their fitness over generations. Such hopeful mutants co-exist alongside others, bigger and older, but catching on to the emerging rules of the infinite game, and if nothing else keen to be thought of as doing the right thing. Alongside these in turn can be found still others – some of the biggest, most formidable, and lumbering beasts in the landscape –– that show zero indication of giving any shits at all about the greater good.
Thus we find ourselves in a strange transitional era for business.
Consider entrepreneur Tony Hsieh's recent memoir Delivering Happiness, which documents the heroic efforts at his company Zappos to establish a viable niche as a service-oriented online shoe retailer. This story elicits a paradoxical kind of wonder. On the one hand, we can admire the way the organisation has promoted passion, purpose, and positive experiences for those in its immediate orbit. On the other hand, we may be simultaneously baffled by a lack of attention to the happiness of the invisible yet essential legions of workers further up the supply chain; those who actually stitch and glue together the shoes at the heart of each all-smiling transaction.
This integration of ethics into business, then, the "sociality" of social enterprise, is patchy, with even some of the good guys having serious blindspots, To misquote William Gibson, social enterprise may already be here, but it's by no means evenly distributed.
Still, there is no mistaking the direction in which the global connectivity, transparency, and systemic awareness are pushing. Some people, reporting right from the cutting edge, are perfectly positioned to help the rest of us understand where social enterprise, and ultimately business in general, need to go. Matthew Manos is such a person.
"The entire premise of social enterprise relies on reaction," he writes. The default setup is "post-traumatic innovation", but waiting until something has gone wrong––treating disaster as the trigger for action––is irresponsible.
It turns out that thoughtfully engaged and ethically motivated business can still be stuck in the past, solving one set of problems while leaving others untouched, or even making them worse.
It is therefore the aim of the book you are reading to show that a crucial ingredient is missing from the social enterprise formula: foresight.
The next generation of social entrepreneur must be "preemptive", less problem-ameliorating and more visionary, attending not only to traumas in need of remedy, but also to opportunities of shaping positive change, based in coherent, plural perspectives on how the whole system could evolve.
Social entrepreneurs should also be futurists.
Now, this is a big idea, and dealing with big ideas is hazardous, especially when it comes to value shifts. The more basic, load-bearing, and "self-evident" the assumptions at issue, the more readily attempts to address them risk being dismissed as irrelevant (incompatible with current settings) or redundant (since, once absorbed, previously unfamiliar settings become normal again).
However, someone has to take on the big ideas, and in business, “normal” needs major renovations. So regardless of whether you already share its view, or disagree vehemently, you should read this book.
To be slightly pre-emptive myself for a moment, it may be that some readers find this argument for foresight to make a poor accompaniment to a fond belief that the market already and automatically incorporates whatever information about the future it needs to.
You are invited to consider that the invisible hand mediating market participants works only with information in the system, and since there are no future facts, the hand can contribute no more foresight than the parties themselves bring to the situation. If we want markets to take the future into account, the people in them need to do it.
Then again, there may be some entrepreneurs sceptical about the value of designated “foresight” tools, since they already are creating the future, thank you very much. This resembles claims I have heard from some designers I’ve met over the last ten years.
They are partly right, of course. But it is a truism to claim that business, or design, is creating the future. As Kenneth Boulding has pointed out, all decisions are about the future. Merely existing helps to create the future, and inactions can have an effect just as surely as actions do. Neither the claim nor the fact that one is already "shaping the future" puts that activity beyond the possibility of improvement.
The good news is that designers and entrepreneurs alike are perfectly positioned to use strategic foresight approaches, such as horizon scanning, scenario generation, and experiential futures; the inherent future-shaping properties of design and business make these valuable places to integrate such a futures literacy.
Part of what Manos and his collaborators seek to do in this book, very successfully I think, is show that entrepreneurs and designers must take it upon themselves to be more systematic, deliberate and detailed in articulating which futures are at issue; which scenarios their efforts mean to help avoid and, more importantly, which ones they intend to help realise.
Preemptive social enterprise, therefore, ties our initial recognition of institutional capacity ("business is a powerful category of actor") to the capacity for individual action ("what can I do?"), and turns a personal ethical problem ("how can I as an individual exert meaningful influence?") into a collective design invitation ("what can I start, or help to grow, that may have the outcomes I wish to see?").
But let’s be clear about the depth and reach of what is being suggested here. We are not talking about a one-time goal shift, but about the development and integration of a permanent and self-renewing orientation. Not merely a new direction, but a new way to navigate.
One way to appreciate the significance of the argument is to call to mind the generic taxonomy of "places to intervene in a system" offered by Limits to Growth lead author and pioneering systems thinker Donella Meadows. What Manos is inviting social entrepreneurs to do, in effect, is move some of their effort and attention upstream where greater influence can be had. He would not merely have us put business in service of different, even if more worthwhile, "goals of the system" (number two on Meadows's list). The case for preemptive social enterprise is directly affects "the mindset or paradigm" out of which the goals themselves arise. This is leverage point number one, which implicitly impacts goals, and everything else.
Why does this matter? The cultivation of a capacity for strategic foresight entails a rigorous, informed, creative, generative, and always updating view of the world's and of one's own possibilities. Integrating it represents a change with ongoing and ever-evolving implications for organisational and individual activity.
In earlier work, echoed and amplified here, Manos has set about addressing how entrepreneurship is done, carefully documenting all existing business models in order to work out where underexplored potential lies. So the perspective of this book is –– bear with me now –– meta-entrepreneurial. It is being entrepreneurial with regard to entrepreneurship itself; not only using existing tools to put the changemaking powerhouse of enterprise in service of "better goals", but seeking to make it self-improving. Retooling the toolkit.
As Stewart Brand, another important social innovator, and a futurist too, has pointed out: “Nobody can save the world, but any of us can help set in motion a self-saving world." Foresightful, anticipatory, or to use Manos's chosen word, preemptive social enterprise may well be a critical, organic ingredient of a self-saving world; more flexible and resilient, more apt to adjust and to learn.
Preemptive social enterprise is a bid for business to embrace an iterative, anticipatory learning function, and for this to face outwardly and inwardly at the same time: "The design of scenarios, and, most importantly, the design of ourselves within those scenarios allows for a deep understanding of our potential, preferred, probable, or plausible futures."
“The design of ourselves” seems an important phrase. What might this entail?
I suspect that the answer may rest in a central, and highly valuable idea explored in this book. If you wish to realise a changed world, it is important to invest in imagination.
Now, one reason why I think Matt Manos is so effective as a designer, as an entrepreneur, and as a person is that he doesn't take conventional dichotomies at face value. He does not, for example, seem to see invention as being somehow elevated over or opposed to the legwork of researching that which already exists. This attitude lets him do the due diligence of assembling a near-exhaustive catalogue of business models, as well as adding his own––not only in theory but in ever-iterating, ever-improving practice. Nor does he snap-to-grid with an assumption that many others seem to live by, that imagining and implementing are somehow opposites. Instead, he treats the two, rightly I think, as equal, necessary and complementary facets of the same changemaking work. This lets him try out more ideas in a single project than a lot of people could be proud to have initiated over a span of years.
Even the seemingly foundational opposites of fact and fiction, when it comes to navigating change towards preferred futures, are unhelpful signposts. For what is a dream that one means to manifest if not both fiction and fact at once? Or rather, fiction that aspires to fact, and thereby creates it?
So one of the conventional dichotomies that this work refuses, critically, is the putative "realism" of business vs the "indulgence" of imagination.
Again: Imagination is an investment.
Over the past decade, designers have turned to futures practice, and futurists to design, out of a mutual need to integrate speculative and material registers. A flowering of hybrid practices – experiential futures, design fiction, speculative design – has been the result. All sorts of tangible artifacts and immersive experiences that make futures more easily shareable, thinkable and feelable. A few years ago, fellow traveller Bruce Sterling proposed this definition of design fiction, “the deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change”. However, as digital media professor Janet Murray has observed, "When we enter a fictional world, we do not merely 'suspend' a critical faculty; we also exercise a creative faculty. We do not suspend disbelief so much as we actively create belief." Similarly, interactive performance specialist Jeff Wirth points out that his artform "does not rely on the 'suspension of disbelief'", but rather "calls for an 'investment of belief.'"
After a decade of working at this intersection of design and futures, I think it may be time to retire our long-term loan of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s wonderful but too-limited notion of "suspension of disbelief", in favour of this idea that we really invest belief in our imaginings, in order to see where they may take us. Suspension implies an interim state, with nothing much changing once the thing suspended is reinstated. But one invests with a view to a return.
Peter Lunenfeld's "return on vision" cited by Manos is right on point: we should invest in imagination, and seek our return in the new options and pathways that thereby become available.
Why so? People are extraordinarily plastic, and versatile, as testified by the massive (if lately endangered) diversity of human cultures built atop a more or less identical biological substrate. I've suggested this before, mashing up media ecologist Marshall McLuhan and sociologist-futurist Fred Polak: we shape our images of the future, and meanwhile they shape us.
Therefore, if design has given to business some tools with which to be more creative and intentional, and futures has offered business a vocabulary of long-range outcomes, then perhaps here we have a hint as to how business can return the favour to both. The framing and language of investment, unshackled from its bloodless, numerical bottom-line connotations, but retaining the impulse to clear-eyed evaluation of what one really values, and how much difference one’s actions are really making, could prove an important loan for designers and futurists alike.
This book calls for bringing futures and foresight work into the repertoire of the social innovator or entrepreneur. We have touched on why, and also also, broadly, how, by investing time and effort in experimental belief structures, the imagination of alternative worlds. If you're as pragmatic and results oriented as I hope you might be, then at this point you'll be itching for more concrete details. But WHAT does this mean, specifically, on Monday morning?
Good, good. Read on!
The ultimate test of these ideas does not consist in what they do for you on the page, but in your search for ways to take them on in your life. The truest and fullest response is one for you –– for all of us, a community –– to find in the doing, and share.
I know, and suspect you know too, that business is changing, and that it needs to change, dramatically so, in order at last to fit the contours of the infinite game that makes all of this possible.
I believe that if you follow along a little ways in the direction this book is pointing, towards the preemptive social enterprise, your practice may become more imaginative, your convictions more grounded, your perceptions more trenchant, your action more effective, and the world incrementally more just.
And I hope you will agree that it is well worth a try.
Museu do Amanhã, Rio de Janeiro, July 02016
Toward a Preemptive Social Enterprise is available in full on a Pay-What-You-Want basis via futureimpact.co.
The Foreword above can be found in pdf here.
> The act of imagination
> LEAP Dialogues: Impacting the Social
> Foresight is a right
> Design is a team sport
> Strategic Foresight and the Design MBA