When the Internet first came out and people could find out bad stuff out about companies which news outlets could then latch onto and ignite a share price hollowing shitstorm, it felt like we might be on the cusp of a big leap in companies sorting out their impacts. The response was classic corporate: a certification, standards and NGO partnership jamboree. A tightly controlled measurement, management and communications festival that, while adding depth to businesses abilities, didn’t have us dancing in the aisles. But for companies, this worked. This type of approach is also part of the reason why they rule the roost and block the path to prosperity, thriving off the ‘fact’ that: a) they have all the answers (e.g hiring all the PhD grads to deliver more eyeballs to advertisements). b) they have no challengers (the fruits of a smattering of lobbying with a hint of recession fearmongering). c) they have sufficiently neutered the rancour (the cool wet wipe of now long-in-the-tooth partnerships and exemplary tokenism). Needless to say, this hasn’t been the most enlightening of experiences -for us or for them.
So here we are. Guests at the last banquet of the industrial age. Or should that be the hired help (or not, as the case may be) because we certainly don’t have a seat at the table. These days, for the most part, companies are doing fine when most people are not. And while the airwaves of bust advanced economies crackle with a looped chorus of predatory vs. responsible capitalism catcalls – a pseudo-debate not happening in new poles of economic dynamism by the way – real answers are nowhere. We are boxed in by the unwavering mediocre ambitions of our exalted titans. The thing is that despite a big business world that has turned its back on most people, our understanding of the power of networks combined with a global will to change things has never been greater, while, at the same time, the barriers to making things happen have never been lower. Hence, waiting for companies to catch up is utterly pointless and, with the tools we have at our disposal now, criminally negligent. What if we could harness our collective abilities to radically transform these moribund beasts that block our prosperity and, in the process, ignite a whole new world of possibilities? Could we turn these hopeless experts at the humdrum art of the possible into a showcase for the truly exceptional, the utterly brilliant and the next, next level?
Potential case in point: i-stuff
What could we do for Apple? Of late, this cherished leader of our times has been under the microscope for its labour practices. This has led it to deploy the tried and tested certification and standards shield of which we spoke about before. Will this improve the situation? Sure, to a point. But we all know that a credo of drip drip incrementalism can never create the types of outcomes we should truly aspire to. And though they may well be sitting on the pecuniary muscle to put out any labour issue bonfires, the burning will to totally transform themselves is somewhat lacking. After all, if we were to look at the actual footprint of an iPhone – it’s life from birth to death – we might conclude that it is quite a miserable product. Year on year the phone goes through another round of mining in Africa, assembly in Foxconn, stampeding hoards lusting after its latest incarnation, further tightening of its enclosed software ecosystem, a flurry of patent skirmishes and its final disassembly somewhere far, far away. For such a ubiquitous and seemingly miraculous product to have such a miserable footprint is surely a damning indictment of us and our times. I’d suggest that for Apple to cancel out the misery on its own could take a generation. Or maybe longer. I don’t want to wait that long.
Time to take the reins
So here is the challenge. Can we make the leap for them? And, in making this leap, can we advance our own causes – laying the foundations of a better, more human, productive economy fit for the 21st century. Can we build up a movement that doesn’t merely set out to apply pressure to this industrial age (albeit successful) relic in the tradition of campaigning gone by, but one that aims to totally transform it. Can we rid this phone of its footprint replete with sadness and gift it one that is 100% about happiness? Can we deconstruct every misery-filled step and replace it with one that is all about true human excellence?. Step forward the the Happiness Footprint Hub. Think of it as a type of roving 21st century micro-institution. A launch pad that aims to spark a networked, creative, global citizenry ready to rid products and services of their miserable footprints. For this particular task, its role is to provide everyone around the world who wants to take part with the tools they need to deconstruct and solve every problem currently embedded in the iPhone footprint. It might convene a series of pathbreaking seminars bringing together the world’s top experts to look at everything from labour practices to resource extraction; launch a thousand innovation prizes focused on modular design; organise global hack weekends exploring materials reuse; connect aspiring, passionate amateur developers with industry insiders to unearth unthought of applications; set up and promote the githubs and wikis where this new information is stored; get digital luminaries to chair groups to wrestle with patent legislation; or run pilot schemes from New York to Yokohama to actually come up with a way to remine landfill for precious metals. And what happens to the outcomes? Eventually, what’s created is nothing less than a working order blueprint for an iPhone with a happy footprint. Which we then gift it to Apple. And we also gift it to everyone else. It is out there for all to see, reuse and remix. And so an industry (and maybe more) transforms.
And in the process we create a network of ideas, people, thinking, passion and purpose that is unlike anything a company, however exalted, could ever come up with. This is the type of radical transformation that is totally within our (not their) grasp. It shows up current political debates and business approaches to problems as mere marginal improvements on a road to nowhere. And because of this, it shifts the balance of attention and power away from vested interests and their slovenly crew because, in comparison, they just can’t offer such a transformational and mindbendingly productive approach to our most pressing challenges. In the end, the Happiness Footprint Hub is just one of a set of mini innovations we are going to need if we want to escape this ‘managed decline’ mantra and kickstart a new era of prosperity. I think it’s gonna be fun.