All posts by Donnie Maclurcan

Dr. Donnie Maclurcan is co-founder of the Post Growth Institute – an international group exploring and inspiring paths to global prosperity that don’t rely on economic growth. He is also the founder and ideas guy at Project Australia – a community organisation helping people start, scale or sustain Australian not-for-profit initiatives.
download

How on Earth? Flourishing in a not-for-profit economy by 2050

Imagine waking up in a world where you feel good about going to work, no matter the nature of your job. You feel positive and motivated, knowing that your work provides you with a livelihood that also contributes to the well-being of others in a way that respects the ecological limits of the planet.

Welcome to a not-for-profit world, where businesses can still make profits, but any profits are always reinvested for social or organizational benefit, rather than being accumulated privately by individuals. This world emerged because, around 2013, a large number of people came to the realization that any economic system that centralizes wealth and power is, ultimately, socially and ecologically unsustainable. People were fed up with excessive executive salaries, a financial sector divorced from the real world, corporations with more say than people, endless spin from politicians and entrepreneurs about the latest technological ‘solution’, and the trappings of mindless consumption.

As the mainstream attention on the Occupy movement faded, protesters even started to question whether being fed up was worthwhile.

Then a real alternative emerged. The people already had a business structure that wasn’t centered on creating private profit and concentrating wealth and power; all they had to do was grow the not-for-profit sector, shifting power away from the for-profits. A not-for-profit economy changed the game by decentralizing wealth and power, while maintaining incentives for innovation and increasing people’s desire for meaningful work.

Before 2013, when for-profit enterprise was the main business model,  it was contributing to financial inequity and vested interests. This had led to an increase of status anxiety due to drastic differences in material wealth. The majority of people often felt that because they didn’t have as many material possessions as the wealthy classes, among whom the money had been concentrated, they couldn’t be as happy. For some people in the lowest income brackets, this inequality not only meant status anxiety and shame, but even a lack of consumption choices, affecting diet and health. For many, the solution was to consume more of whatever they could afford.

On the global level, this overconsumption went hand-in-hand with production practices that exploited workers in sweatshops to make cheap and plentiful products, while decimating key natural resources. This was clearly unsustainable.  As more and more people realized that all forms of capitalism and socialism – grounded in a growth mentality – centralize wealth and power and are therefore unsustainable, they also began to see how a not-for-profit economy offered a way to decentralize power, whilst maintaining innovation.  When a critical mass of people reached this realization and accelerated the shift to the not-for-profit business model, everything started to change for the better.

How on Earth could that be possible?

This scenario of a not-for-profit world is closer to the present reality than you might think. Across numerous countries, the economic contribution of the not-for-profit sector has beenon the rise since the late 1990s. In Canada, for example, not-for-profit institutions now contribute 8% of the country’s gross domestic product. This is possible because not-for-profit does not mean ‘no-profit’ or ‘can’t make a profit’. Not-for-profit actually means not for private profit or not for the primary purpose of making a profit. Across most countries and jurisdictions, not-for-profits can make as much or as little money as they want, they just cannot provide payouts to private individuals from any surplus.

The pioneering work of not-for-profit businesses, from sectors as diverse as construction,manufacturingbankinghospitality and healthcare, suggest that innovative, sustainable economies, with high levels of employment, can exist without the private profit motive.

Many not-for-profits also understand that generating their own income allows them to fund the good work they do (as opposed to the traditional approach that depends on grants and philanthropy). Take, for example, BRAC, the world’s biggest not-for-profit organization. Since 1972, BRAC has supported over 100 million people through its social development services, but almost 80% of its revenue comes from its own commercial enterprises, including a large-scale dairy and a retail chain of handicraft stores, all of which are run according to a holistic vision of sustainable business.

More importantly, not-for-profit enterprises could regularly out-compete equivalent ‘for-profit’ businesses in the near future, based on a combination of factors, such as:

• not-for-profit enterprises better utilizing the benefits of the communications revolution on reduced organizational costs;
• an increasing awareness of the tax concessions and free support available solely to not-for-profits;
• the trend in consumer markets toward supporting ethical businesses and products;
• the ability of not-for-profit enterprises to survive and even thrive during years of downturn, given their sustainability does not rely on making profits and that profit margins will continue to get smaller as resource constraints impact business costs.

How on Earth can you help?

Here at the Post Growth Institute, we are writing a book: How on Earth? Flourishing in a Not-for-Profit World by 2050. This will be the world’s first book to explore the prospect of not-for-profit enterprise becoming the central model of local, national and international business, by 2050. It will also outline practical steps that you, as a member of the public, can take to fast-track this evolution to a sustainable economy.

We have created a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo in order to gather the financial support needed to finish researching and writing the book, as well as the funds to publish, print, market and distribute it.  You can help by contributing money to the crowdfunding campaign and spreading the word about this project and crowdfunding campaign as far and wide as possible.

For an outline of the book’s main ideas, see this 2012 talk by the book’s lead author, Dr Donnie Maclurcan, at the Environmental Professionals Forum.

This post was originally published on PostGrowth.

Collaborating in Virtual Silence

By Donnie Maclurcan and Janet Newbury

True collaboration – where we actually influence each other’s thinking and develop collective plans and work – is a thing of beauty. The online space has opened up numerous platforms for such collaboration.

Yet the excitement of new partnerships also brings the prospect of new distractions. When we agree to assemble, virtually, for a higher working purpose, how do we actually ensure our work proves as meaningful as we had hoped?

As members of the Post Growth Institute, we would like to share one incredibly productive, flexible and democratic means of virtual collaboration upon which we stumbled in 2010. We say ‘stumbled’ because it became the default method for our Skype conference calls ten seconds into our first attempt for nine of us to connect via video across different time zones. It has since proven the foundation for developing our Free Money Day and (En)RichList campaigns.

The method: our meetings happen in silence. People log into Skype (as one would for voice and/or video conferencing) but then the whole meeting is conducted with participants typing out their exchanges. Two years into holding silent meetings, at least once each month, the benefits just keep appearing!

A productive use of time

Having typed meetings makes our lives easier when it comes to transmitting information amongst the group. With an agenda already established via email, each of us bring pre-typed, dot-point updates and discussion items to meetings. This saves a great deal of time as pre-written text can be inserted quickly by copying and pasting.


snapshot of Post Growth Skype meeting transcript

In contrast to video conferencing, silent Skype allows us to continually leverage the cognitive surplus of our group. Participants have the ability to reflect on what’s being shared without the distraction of someone speaking and the constant need to actively listen. In typed meetings, there is also no need to toggle between video and chat when someone sends a file or link.

Silent Skype eases the processes of decision-making and establishing next steps. Throughout the Skype chat we have a practice of typing ‘ACTION ITEM’ and ‘KEY RESOLUTION’ in capital letters as a way of noting these important moments.


snapshot of Post Growth Skype meeting transcript

Extracting important follow-up information, particularly delegated tasks, becomes as simple as searching for those phrases within the transcript. In the days following each meeting, the transcript – selected, copied and pasted into a text document from the Skype record – is shared and archived for both present and future team members. A missed meeting is not missed information. And the minutes? Already done. How easy was that?!

Accessible and flexible

Dramatically less bandwidth is needed for typed chat than for audio and video-conferencing. This makes silent Skype a more viable method for people living and working in areas with slow Internet connections, and means people are less likely to unexpectedly ‘drop out’ during meetings. Typed meetings are also more accessible given not every version of Skype allows group audio and video-conferencing.

The flexibility of silent Skype has been a pleasant surprise for our international group. Without voice, holding a meeting across time zones becomes possible; we can participate without fear of waking others who might be sleeping nearby. A similar dynamic occurs internally. People can easily step out of the chat without disturbing the group’s flow (a simple ‘brb’ suffices!). Upon return, catching up is as easy as scrolling back through what has been missed.

headshots of Post Growth Skype meeting participants

Silent Skype allows for the fact that we all have multiple demands on our time. If one of us is going to miss a meeting, we simply email through our update to be included, and review the transcript afterwards to keep up to speed. Typed meetings also enable us to share documents and links easily, in real time. We can even work on a shared Google document while meeting.

A democratic way to work together

The gentle, participatory nature of silent Skype fits perfectly with our group’s desired approach to social change. The typed method accommodates people who are more comfortable reflecting before speaking, whilst those who prefer speaking off the cuff still have an equal chance to share.

The soft nature of silent Skype also makes it easier for new team members to step in as valuable participants in meetings. For example, a new person can take on the Chair’s role almost immediately. Leading our text-based meetings is far less intimidating than doing so in person, since there is very little need to mediate the conversation. Inexperienced Chairs can see how others have done it by simply looking through past transcripts.

Skype has a brilliant feature that allows participants to see when someone is typing (by showing either a moving pencil alongside that person’s name in the conversation panel or text saying ‘so and so is writing’). Our tacit rule is that, as long as the meeting’s Chair sees that someone is still typing, the conversation remains open. This format of meeting also allows multiple team members to type simultaneously – it’s literally impossible to interrupt someone! In a somewhat nuanced way, these aspects flatten power relations. The absence of a physical presence (including voice) accompanying proposals put to the group reduces a sense of pressure when it comes to making collective decisions. We all have ample time (and silence) in which to vote and/or respond.

A final, but significant, aspect of the democratizing dimension of this approach is its transparency. What better record for groups, companies or, where appropriate, the public, than an entirely accurate meeting transcript?

Building great relations

Team building could be seen as a challenge for our disparate group, situated around the globe, even when the profile pictures of all team members are at the top of the screen to remind us exactly with whom we’re engaging! Surprisingly, however, silent Skype has proven a useful tool for relational engagement. Humour and wit commonly find their way into our conversations via emoticons, puns and bad jokes. Rather than detract from the direction of our work, such interludes are a welcome break that make silent meetings fun!

Typed meetings also allow us, as participants, to be very intentional with our language, contributing to civil and productive discussions. Since our comments aren’t visible to the whole group until we press ‘Enter’, we have an extra moment to reflect and revise our thoughts before making a statement. This can mean more formulated, less reactive responses to things that, had the meeting been in spoken form, might have sparked a fiery exchange.

This method also helps cultivate interpersonal relationships within the group. For instance, if something arises during a meeting that may require follow-up with only one team member, silent Skype makes it easy to have one-on-one ‘backchannel’ chats, even while the meeting proceeds. This means urgent matters can be addressed immediately, reducing misunderstandings or oversights, without disrupting the broader group meeting.

Limitations and Applicability of the Approach

Admittedly, some things are lost when engaging solely through text, and working without access to facial and tonal communication can feel a little ‘removed’. To overcome this, we all make efforts to have regular contact with each other using different means. We have one-to-one Skype video conversations; daily email exchanges; and – although rare – several opportunities have arisen for team members to meet and work together in-person. So as long as silent Skype is not our only mode for relating, our experience is that, overall, it enhances, not detracts from, our relationships.

While the silent approach certainly increases our group productivity, stress levels can often be elevated during the meetings by the relentless speed our efficiency is enabling. Since none of us hold the ‘talking stick’, it can be tricky to know whether we should respond immediately to questions our team members might be raising as part of a broader point or hold off (whereas with voice this can be communicated simply through intonation or volume). As a team, we are slowly developing ways of negotiating these complexities. For instance, beginning a longer idea with a quick statement that we’d like feedback at the very end, or posting a longer idea one sentence at a time, can let team members know their patience is appreciated. Also, as our relationships with each other strengthen over time, we are more able to be frank and direct about our needs when it comes to ‘floorspace’.

Overall, these brisk, content-heavy meetings can be intense and exhausting! Processes that might normally take place over a matter of days are compressed into an hour or two, and multiple time zones always mean a late night or early morning for some of our team. In order to deal with these challenges, we have had to be deliberate about setting time limits for meetings and enforcing breaks from our work following the launch of big projects.

Given the rise in remote collaboration, silent Skype may be of use for a wide range of organisations, movements, and companies. The method favours groups whose members can type quickly and is therefore less suited to people’s participation via web-enabled phones. Having silent, typed meetings could also suit those who want to collaborate virtually but need to multi-task throughout meetings (for example, parents). From the experience of our team, the method works best for groups that have made efforts to get to know each other first, via alternate means. It is not suitable for groups requiring anonymous meetings, given the transcript remains within the group’s Skype history (now owned by Microsoft). The size of meetings seems to matter little. We’ve successfully trialled silent, typed meetings with participant numbers as small as three and as large as eleven. Whilst Skype is blocked in some parts of the world, this method should also work for any chat-based platform that has a conferencing option, such as Windows Live, AIM, QQ, Yahoo!, Google, Facebook, ICQ, MySpace, Sametime and Gadu-Gadu.

The irony of this all? We’ve been finding collaboration is not be just about being heard; it’s also about providing the platform for silence to do its work. In a world of overwhelming noise, could silence be more powerful than we ever realized?

 

This is a cross-post with Post Growth and previously appeared in an edited and abridged form at: 

www.fastcompany.com/1838321/why-silent-meetings-are-the-most-productive


Alternative approaches to nano-innovation and global health equity

If nanotechnology  — engineering on the level of atoms and small molecules — is to play an appropriate role in addressing many of the health-related targets set by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), there needs to be greater focus on some of the more equitable ways it can be developed.

The health-related benefits of nanotechnology are said to exist directly in terms of providing cleaner water, enabling more rapid and accurate disease diagnosis, and creating more efficient drug delivery systems (relating to MDGs 1: eradicate extreme poverty and hunger; 4: reduce child mortality;  5: improve maternal health; and 6: combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases). But nanotechnology is also envisaged as having indirect benefits, such as providing ‘cleaner’ energy, thereby reducing respiratory diseases caused by the use of less clean fuels (linked to MDG 7: ensure environmental sustainability).

It has also been suggested that health benefits will trickle down from the ability of nano-innovation to spur economic growth in the global South, through various levels of engagement with research and development (R&D). Countries as widespread as Costa Rica, Nigeria and Thailand, are already engaging in nano-innovation, with the Thai government having allocated 300 million baht (around US$10 million) to nanotechnology R&D in 2010. The country has already produced nanotechnology products for export in areas including food.

However, many of the optimistic claims accompanying the emergence of nanotechnology are eerily reminiscent of those made for biotechnology and its attempts to address global inequities. This presents considerable challenges.

First, presenting nanotechnology as offering blockbuster ‘solutions’ for the MDGs gives little consideration to the complex socio-political nature of health challenges. Such challenges demand more than technological ‘fixes’ — they also need awareness of the gender, geographic, cultural, societal, philosophical and religious biases that are built in to technologies throughout the various phases of R&D.

Second, harnessing nanotechnologies for the MDGs is largely presented as a process of transferring nanotechnologies from rich, developed settings to poor, undeveloped ones. International debates say little about the potential for local, village development of ‘appropriate’ nanotechnologies. This is despite recent acknowledgement that many traditional Chinese medicines contain metal nanoparticles, as do certain bhasmas — ayurvedic traditional medicines resulting from the combination of metals with herbal extracts, and used for millennia in India.

In this way, mainstream approaches connecting nanotechnology to the MDGs perpetuate deficit thinking within international health, technology and development policy. The immense knowledge already existing across the South is unconsciously denied, as is the ecological wisdom inherent in subsistence lifestyles.

Finally, little consideration is made for what Southern populations might lose through trade liberalisation (MDG 8A: part of developing a global partnership for development) accompanying developments in nanotechnology. If carbon nanotubes replace copper wiring, for example, what detrimental impacts might this have on the economies of Chile, Indonesia, South Africa and Zimbabwe if such countries have little recourse for protecting their important markets in such commodities?

In a similar vein, the international patent system presents immense barriers for accessing relevant nano-innovations. The world has already experienced a ‘land grab’ in nanotechnology patenting that far surpasses what was seen in the equivalent historical period for biotechnology patenting. These matters are all the more critical because the value of nano-enabled products was US$166 billion in 2008 and is anticipated to rise to US$2.6 trillion by 2014.

However, more equitable avenues for the development of nanotechnologies already exist. For example, the process of constructive technology assessment — in which technological development is simultaneously influenced by technology users, developers, investors, procurers and decision-makers — is already being used in the Netherlands for the development of nanotechnology-based treatments in oncology. Similarly, the 2006 ‘Nanodialogues’, held in Zimbabwe, sought to inspire bottom-up approaches to nano-innovation by concurrently engaging local community groups and scientists from both the South and the North to assess the appropriateness of nanotechnologies for community needs.

To bypass the inequity-creating patent system, the open source movement offers new avenues for the distributed creation of health-related nanotechnologies. The nanoHUB, for example, is an online gateway providing over 100,000 annual users from more than 150 countries with information and tools, largely free of charge, for use in nanotechnology R&D. Furthermore, sites such as Open Source Nano provide do-it-yourself instructions for creating simple nanotechnology-based devices for use in addressing challenges such as the removal of arsenic from water.

A more critical approach to nano-innovation that consciously considers the concept of in-built bias and the prospect of alternative paths towards its development could offer a beacon for new approaches to science and technology, and boost the role of innovation in achieving many of the MDGs. Ultimately, such changes could fuel broader movements for global health equity, and the possibility of innovation that is de-linked from national economic growth yet remains meaningful to people’s lives — ‘innovation without growth’. Such an approach would seem the only realistic alternative for humans living in a world with biophysical and productivity limits.

This article first appeared at SciDev.net

Social business and the limits to growth

Earlier this year I attended a presentation by Dr Muhammad Yunus, Nobel Laureate for his pioneering work in micro-credit. Titled ‘Abolishing Poverty – The Human Rights Priority’, the central messages in Dr Yunus’ presentation, to an enthusiastic and highly receptive Sydney crowd of more than 500, were simple. He believes access to credit is a human right; that we can end poverty by channelling the market forces of capitalism; and that we can ‘solve’ all the world’s problems if only private enterprise would be more widely accompanied by ‘social business’ – a term he uses to describe commercial activity whereby businesses whose primary goal is to help ‘the poor’, reinvest their entire profits back into their work, rather than into shareholder pockets. Holistically speaking, I am not convinced.

Dr Yunus’ track record is as incredible as his ideals are worthy. His present-day work began in 1974 when he loaned $US27 to a Bangladeshi woman who made bamboo furniture. Viewed as a ‘repayment risk’, traditional banks were not interested in considering such individuals for the provision of small loans. This experience was to prove life-changing for Dr Yunus. Nine years later he established the Grameen Bank that has since disbursed US$6.6 billion in micro-loans averaging US$130 to ‘the poor’. Bypassing the traditional method of a customer needing to demonstrate collateral before a loan can be administered, the Grameen bank uses a customised approach to solidarity lending whereby each drawer must be in a five-person group that merely serves to encourage repayment. The results have been stunning. The bank boasts a repayment rate of 98.35 per cent and 97 per cent of its members are women. As Dr Yunus noted with a smile in his Sydney presentation, the global financial crisis showed who you can really bank on when it comes to repayments.

The Grameen model has now been replicated in over 100 countries, with proposals on the table for its extension to poverty-stricken cities in the ‘developed world’ such as Glasgow, in the U.K.

There is no doubting that Dr Yunus’ approach continues to challenge attitudes of business in both the ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ world. But does it challenge these views enough to ensure our longer-term sustainability as a species? Thinking ahead, perhaps Dr Yunus’ approach sets us up to hit a fundamental ceiling in which inequity-creating businesses continue to thrive, removing hope for ‘poverty alleviation’ and sustainable futures, because their image in the community is largely defined by publicly-embraced subsidiary social businesses.

Unfortunately, Dr Yunus’ presentation reinforced my frustration with what I see as ultimately atomistic arguments made by our ‘poverty champions’ (think Jeffrey Sachs, Bono, Hugh Evans). Thus, when the floor opened up to questions I asked:

In a world with serious biophysical limits, how can any growth-based financial system – including micro-credit – ever be truly sustainable?

Dr Yunus quickly replied that human creativity is an amazing thing and that I should not be so grim.

I sat down. Given the chance, I would have responded by saying that his answer is the kind men have been giving ever since anthropogenic global warming became accepted by mainstream audiences and the news on this front is not getting any better. At its heart, I believe Dr Yunus’ answer falls somewhat into the common habit of using the term ‘creativity’ as a pseudonym for ‘technological innovation’. In this sense, there is mounting evidence that such faith is misplaced; that the idea of de-coupling economic growth from environmental degradation at the speed required to avoid catastrophic effects from climate change is totally unrealistic. In addition to the problem that increased technological efficiency often equates to greater levels of associated consumption, as Professor Tim Jackson from the University of Surrey in the U.K. has recently shown:

In a world of 9 billion people, all aspiring to a level of income commensurate with 2% growth on the average European Union income today, carbon intensities (e.g.) would have to fall, on average, by more than 11% per year to stabilize the climate, 16 times faster than they have fallen since 1990. By 2050, the global carbon intensity would need to be only 6 grams per dollar of output, almost 130 times lower than it is today…

All said and done, I remain critically hopeful. I think Dr Yunus is inspiring and well-intentioned, and I like his concept of social business – similar to what we, in Australia, call not-for-profit social entrepreneurship. In fact, I like his concept so much that I propose we be brave enough to entertain the thought of a world in which every business is a social business. From large multinationals to small cafes, what could we create if the ‘developed world’ unhooked itself from its addiction to quantitative growth and the ‘developing world’ was free from ideological and physical coercion to adopt unsustainable ‘development models’? As Dr Yunus is quick to note, when you take the individual profit motive out of it, anything becomes truly possible.

Donnie Maclurcan runs an Australian social business and is working on a film about the limits to growth.

This article first appeared on Steady State Revolution on 8th March 2010 and in the National Times on 15th March