Last week, Amazon acquired Whole Foods in a move that has many wondering what this means for the direction of the economy. In my view, Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods does to organics what Uber did to the sharing economy: it takes something that was born out of a different economic logic (a grocery store dedicated to healthy food) and then molds and morphs it to fit into an economic operating system that is firmly based in the old paradigm—i.e. in a paradigm that aims for world domination rather than serving a goal of shared prosperity and well-being for all.
In this post, inspired by a number of gatherings with change makers across sectors in China, Europe, and the Americas during the past few weeks, I outline a framework for understanding how the current limits of capitalism we are bumping up against in sectors such as food, finance, health, education and business are all related to the same outdated economic logic or “operating system” (OS). We need a new economic operating system, one that reinvents how we work together as neighbors, as businesses, as cities and as larger systems. Below I describe briefly the evolution of these five sectors from OS 1.0 to where we are today, which in most cases is OS 2.0 or 3.0.
The pressing challenges of our time, i.e. the challenge of losing our environment (ecological divide), our societal whole (social divide), and our humanity (spiritual divide) calls for reinventing our systems of food, health, education, finance and management towards 4.0. This essay lays out the rationale for OS 4.0 and a possible way to get us there through an Asian-American-European initiative called 4.0 Lab.
Five Sectors, One Problem
As the labels of the new economy have gone mainstream (green, organic, sharing economies) the underlying economic reality stays the same. That is to say, the immense buying power of giants like Amazon squeeze the supply chain, workers, farmers, and the planet through the same patterns of exploitation and structural violence that gave rise to the movement for a new economy in the first place.
On one level you could describe the problem by saying that companies like Amazon and Uber misperceive the new economy as just another app that runs on their old corporate operating system (i.e. world domination through economies of scale). In reality, though, the new economy is not just another app—it’s a radical upgrade of their entire operating system. The difference between the old and the new paradigms can be summarized in three words: ego vs. eco. Ego-system awareness means “me first”, while eco-system awareness means an awareness that focuses on the well-being of all.
There is a profound systemic barrier that exists in all major sectors today. It’s not only the mainstream players like Amazon and Uber that are stuck in their current economic operating systems; many of the innovators who once broke through that model are now also stuck. The global food system is still profoundly destructive. The health system is still sick. The educational system is unable to learn. The global financial system is heading full throttle into the next crash—as if 2008 never happened. Foundations and philanthropists still place their assets in the old economy, thereby harming people and planet, in order to use some of the profits to fund projects that alleviate symptoms but don’t deal with root causes. The innovators in all these spaces are stuck in the niches that first gave them space to develop something new. But now these niches are increasingly crowded, and mainstream players adopt the new labels and sound bites while often perpetuating the old models.
With MIT’s delta v student venture accelerator, the Martin Trust Center MIT Entrepreneurship welcomes a new group of students each summer and puts them through “entrepreneurial boot camp.” I want to give you a glimpse at some of the inspiring female entrepreneurs I’ve worked with, and how they are succeeding at what they do, shattering glass ceilings at every level:
• Take Natalya Brinker, CEO of Accion Systems, an MIT PhD graduate and a member of the 2014 accelerator cohort. Accion is developing revolutionary propulsion for satellites that will make space more accessible and affordable across industries. The company itself is seeing quite a bit of propulsion receiving funding from the Department of Defense and a Series A round and winning numerous awards.
• Or Katie Taylor, the CEO and co-founder of Khethworks, who earned her Master’s degree from MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering in 2015 and was part of the accelerator program that summer. Khethworks is a company that supports farmers in eastern India, where more than 30 million farmers tend to an acre or less of land. The company has developed a solar-powered irrigation system that lets these farmers affordably cultivate year-round.
• And Steph Speirs, a member of the 2016 delta v group who is co-founder and CEO of The Solstice Initiative, a nonprofit with a goal of providing solar power to underserved Americans by partnering with communities to share solar power. Speirs graduated from MIT with an MBA this June, and was honored as an Echoing Green Fellow and Soros Fellow during her time here as a student.
“Sensemaking,” one of the four leadership capabilities, is the ability to make sense of what is happening in the greater marketplace and discern emerging changes and patterns. In the era of President Trump, business leaders and CEOs need to shift their sensemaking skills into high gear. Along with that, they may have to exercise Improvisational Leadership skills in the Trump universe.
CEOs, like the rest of the country, are faced with the challenge of making sense of Trump’s policies and actions, but his favorite method of communication – Twitter – sows chaos not clarity. Typically, when CEOs or leaders want to convey an important message, they talk to key stakeholders, convene a meeting, or give a nuanced speech to build relationships and foster buy-in with targeted audiences. A tweet has no eye contact, nod, smile, or handshake. A tweet’s brevity can foster confusion because it has no context.
Tweets by the president singling out specific companies with thumbs up or down can rattle markets, precipitate boycotts, unnerve CEOs and boards, and affect stock prices – if however briefly.But even if they dislike Trump’s tweets, many business leaders are encouraged by the president’s attitude about rolling back regulations; his comments about reducing taxes are music to their ears. However, a reflexive decision to placate or ingratiate oneself to any powerful figure, even the President, may prove to be a big mistake. Trump may be gone in four years, or even sooner, but your customer and client base will be with you for decades.
In a recent study, people who sweated when the stakes were low did the best when stakes were high.
IN “GATTACA,” THE DYSTOPIAN cult classic set in the “not too distant future,” parents genetically program their children before birth, coding them for desirable strengths and skills. For them, biometric data is destiny: A person’s genetic code, tracked through a massive database, determines their career, which, of course, affects everything.
Nearly 20 years after that movie’s release, we are closer than ever to using biometric data as part of the hiring process, specifically to solve one chronic problem: Employers are bad at predicting who will perform under pressure. Each year tens of thousands of new Wall Street hires undergo boot camps that cost up to $6,000 a person, yet finance has a suicide rate 1.5 times the national average and the second- highest voluntary turnover rate (14.2%, after the hospitality industry). And if an industry as well-funded as finance struggles with vetting applicants, what hope do smaller businesses have?
We are well-accustomed by now to the ways in which women are mistreated and discriminated against on Wall Street.
Over the past decade, nearly every major bank — from Goldman Sachs GS to Morgan Stanley MS, Citigroup C— has settled a sex discrimination suit. News reports have exposed in lurid detail just how badly women are underpaid; the degree to which they face hostility from their male peers; and how they are subjected to a demeaning environment and made to feel inferior.
The latest gender bias suit, filed by Megan Messina, a senior fixed-income banker, is against Bank of America. The suit accuses BofA of vastly underpaying her and other women. In addition, Messina said her boss made her feel unwelcome in his “’bro’s club’,” and subjected her to questions like, “Have your eyes always been that blue?” The suit also accuses the bank of misconduct, and describes alleged instances of front-running trades and withholding information from clients.