My friend Roshin says of herself in her recent blog post, “Living car-free was never a conscious choice, just an obvious one.” How can social entrepreneurs make their solutions for complex problems into ‘obvious choices’ that are widely adopted?
I contemplate the obviousness of Roshin’s choice having just moved from population-dense urban Vancouver to car-centric suburban Kitchener, where I am getting accustomed to driving for nearly everything. While I still love my bike, and I know where my political loyalties are, I am working hard to understand the urban/suburban political polarization in Ontario, surrounded as I am by a majority who seem to endorse Premier Ford’s rhetorical framing of a “war on cars.”
The tri-cities (Kitchener, Waterloo, and Cambridge) have just elected a new Regional Chair, and there is an abundance of choices for how the cities will develop over the next decade, at the end of which my children will be old enough to get drivers’ licenses—but will they choose to? The eventual outcome depends partly on the skills of tri-city planners and elected officials, partly on the political choices of the constituents, quite a lot on forces outside our local control—like gas prices, driverless car technology, and federal and international policy and economics—but partly (and perhaps significantly) by the viability and availability of alternatives, substitutions, or replacements for personal automobile use in the local market.
What will it take for us all to make the obvious choices for sustainability and social equity?
I come back to the question, how obvious are the choices for my neighbours and fellow constituents? What is the shortest route to a majority of us making the most desirable transportation choices—in terms of sustainability and social equity—because they are also the most obvious?
Market-based solutions can maintain the status quo.
The popularity for market-based solutions to complex problems is based in the belief that when something becomes the obvious choice, and not the “conscious choice,” it will succeed at scale because it is elegant and intuitive, and people do not need to be persuaded or coerced to adopt it. Market-based solutions, however, can be prone to rewarding short-term thinking and maintaining the status quo.
Solutions that work for the time being —such as incremental changes built around car-centric urban development, like electric vehicles, ride-sharing, or even transit infrastructure—are more obvious choices than longer-term and more disruptive plans like widespread rezoning to salvage dense, walkable neighbourhoods out of the suburban sprawl.
How should social entrepreneurs and impact investors avoid this pitfall on the way to creating and funding obvious choices? Appeals to completely regulatory-led change or ‘voting with your wallet’ fall short: How do my kids get a say when they’re not yet enfranchised voters or consumers? Yet they’re less than 10 years from having to live with the constraints of our urban infrastructure—a blink of an eye in planning timelines, and well within the timelines of plans being made today.
It seems like there’s a paradox, or a double bind in the way of systemic change:
- The most obvious choices with market appeal are myopic, and at the highest risk of preserving an unsatisfactory status quo.
- The most desirable choices rely on engaging customers/voters with personal, information-heavy educating campaigns to ‘not obvious’ choices—and I tend to agree with Ruben Anderson’s view that system change plans that rely so heavily on the finite resource of human attention will fail.
So what should social entrepreneurs do to drive ‘the change they seek?’
In the quest for “game changing” solutions, entrepreneurs and investors often pay too much attention to the particulars of their solution, relying too much on familiar tools like the Business Model Canvas, Value Proposition Canvas, message matrix, etc. Their approaches tend to create new obvious choices in the market based on (more often than not) a new technology that makes some part of the current system go faster, or be more convenient for consumers. If it also uses less energy, emits less carbon, or improves equitable access to products or services that’s a bonus, but it can still be a net loss for society in terms of the opportunity cost of an effort that doesn’t challenge systemic inertia.
Look beyond your offering to its context.
However, if your goal as a social entrepreneur is system change, with business success a qualifying goal on the way, it’s self-defeating to focus only on your offering, when it is the context around it that makes it attractive. I have toted around with me for 25 years the More-with-Less cookbook. (Printed in Kitchener!) It opens with a Creole proverb: “A full stomach says: a ripe guava has worms. An empty stomach says: let me see.” Changes in context can totally change perceptions of our product or service, for better or worse. The ‘More-with-less’ cooking philosophy is also an example of obvious choices we can make about our food… a topic for another post!
It’s a qualitatively different kind of work from entrepreneurial product or service development to understand how the broader market, social systems, and economic systems are changing—or might be changed. Different skills are required, because those systems are so big and complex, and change is emergent—not linear.
Taking the time to more deeply understand the market, regulatory, social, political, and economic context is the path to “timing the market” and anticipating what changes are likely to (suddenly, as likely as not) make something be the obvious choice that was not previously so.
Few entrepreneurs have the capacity to do such broad context research and policy analysis on their own, and few researchers have the entrepreneurial mindset and training of the ‘MBA crowd,’ though there are some that do both parts well. Bringing together people with complementary skills and points of view in relatively unstructured collaborative spaces where ideas can collide— as happens at emerging research and innovation hubs hosted by universities and colleges—is immensely valuable.
That’s the meaning of consilience— that evidence from independent, unrelated sources can converge on strong conclusions. Consilience is a feature of Junxion’s approach to strategic planning.
Junxion’s TurningPoint planning approach is grounded in three fundamental principles:
- Collaboration, which we define as cooperation across departments or organizations.
- Consilience, which is the purposeful collision of distinct ideas from different schools of thought.
- Connectedness—the friendships and collegiality so essential to productive work and creative thinking.
Strategic planning adds distinct value from investing in product or service development. A good strategy can reveal approaches to systems-change goals that may turn out to be “obvious choices,” but not what consumers say they want when asked directly. Even though Ford (Henry, not Doug) likely never actually said “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses,” I think there is value in looking for market opportunities that are precursors to low-carbon, walkable neighbourhoods—what about pop-up neighbourhood markets? Community-centre-like programming in schools or other publicly-owned spaces that are under-utilized in the evenings? Home-based arts and culture performances? More backyard ice rinks? These are just examples of initiatives (some of which I’ve seen delivered as successful social enterprises) that could really support and sustain reduced automobile driving as an obvious choice if/when conditions change in the market.
If there is a takeaway here for anyone—entrepreneur, investor, or consumer—it is that we should always be optimistic that market conditions that seem oppressively static today may change sooner, and faster, than we expect, and that it behooves us to put in the effort and lay the groundwork for these changes so that they turn into wins for sustainable communities.
Garth Yule is a Managing Director at Junxion. He brings insights from his work in the private and social sectors to bear on the complex challenges faced by organizations in both. You can reach him via [email protected]