CEO Consulus, Business Design Strategist
Lawrence Chong responds to the address by Pope Francis on ethical problems in the global economy at a large meeting of the Economy of Communion network in February 2017.
At a time of failing governments, unravelling of the global order, rising populism, and a technological wave which might replace half the global workforce in the coming decade, further shrinking an anxious middle class, the current design of the global economic system is in an existential crisis.
Through a thought-provoking talk about the economy on 4 February 2017, Pope Francis invited us to rethink the purpose of money, to reconsider the purpose of helping economic victims when we should prevent victims in the first place, and how our relationships with each other should be a gift.
Rethinking the role of money, the roles of technology and human dignity lie at the heart of why capitalism, as of now, is failing humanity. These issues should have been seriously debated at the January World Economic Forum in Davos, which focused on Responsive & Responsible Leadership. If nothing changes in the coming years, we might be seeding a global economic apocalypse.
I was fortunate to be among the 1100 entrepreneurs, professionals, and academics from the Economy of Communion Network who listened as Pope Francis landed his intellectual punches to encourage us to rethink these three issues. Here are my reflections, and some suggestions on how we can respond as a business community.
The purpose of money
Money is important, especially when there is none, and food, school, and the children’s future depend on it. But it becomes an idol when it becomes the aim. Pope Francis.
If you think about it, the last two global financial crises happened because of the insatiable greed for money. Money is essential, for sure, but, because it has now become the aim, it is normal to ‘game the system’, create sophisticated instruments which can suck in huge pools of money while bankrupting many. If you think deeply, this is not sustainable in the long run, because, as the methods of gaming the system become increasingly sophisticated,, and governments no longer have the means or the skills to keep up, sooner or later there will come a time when we can no longer fix the problem.
What happens if, one day, a new scheme becomes so toxic that it ends up bringing down the entire financial system?
So we need to start changing mindsets about the role of money. There is a climate change campaign to save the earth. We need to start another global campaign towards ensuring a sustainable financial climate for long-term growth by changing mindsets and the management of money. We need to move away from growth at all costs to growth with purpose and inclusiveness. This will require innovation, purpose-driven leadership, and participation at all levels. Money should serve, and not rule.
Preventing economic victims
Capitalism continues to produce discarded people for whom it would then like to care. The principal ethical dilemma of this capitalism is the creation of discarded people, then trying to hide them or make sure they are no longer seen. A serious form of poverty in a civilisation is when it is no longer able to see its poor, who are first discarded and then hidden.
The Economy of Communion, if it wants to be faithful to its charism, must not only care for the victims, but also build a system in which there are ever fewer victims, in which, possibly, there may no longer be any. As long as the economy still produces one victim and there is still a single discarded person, communion has not yet been realised; the celebration of universal fraternity is not full. Pope Francis.
On this point, the Pope is not alone, and will find a rising consensus in the business world about how it is no longer just about caring for victims, but also about how to prevent additional victims. The Economy of Communion Network (EoC) was founded by Chiara Lubich in 1991 to encourage businesses to put aside a portion of their profits for the poor.
Our network has made some contribution to alleviating poverty in different parts of the world. But we have realised that this is not enough. It is increasingly important to shape mindsets and create business models or ecosystems which can help to lift people out of the cycle of poverty.
Bill and Melinda Gates, who have both pledged to give away all their fortune, are a great example that helping alone is not enough; they are at the forefront of creating solutions to solve problems using entrepreneurial skills and innovation. Increasing numbers of businesses are creating business models to empower entire communities to overcome extreme poverty. Progress is indeed being made, but I agree with Mr Gates that few people are aware of this progress, and we need to make it known.
But we do need to ask ourselves why, even though progress has been made, people still do not feel it. It probably has to do with the conversation about the future. With all the vogue about artificial intelligence and smart cities, there seems to be zero conversation about the role and purpose of humans and relationships. As current trends go, there seems to be this intent to design the human contribution out of the way. The innovations that are appearing swiftly are removing managers, cashiers, drivers, waiters; yet we want customers, too. The problem is, if our customers of the future have no money, then who is going to pay for amazing technology?
So, while some of us are trying to help the poor, are our businesses in the process of creating a new class of poverty by destroying the jobs of the middle class? Of course, we can console ourselves by saying that, in every industrial revolution, new jobs have been created.
But, then again, what if we have ten times the number of people available for work, but technology becomes so advanced that we will only need a tiny fraction of the workforce? No wonder Elon Musk proposed the wild idea that one day governments will pay us.
“There is a pretty good chance we end up with a universal basic income, or something like that, due to automation”, says Musk to CNBC.
In my opinion, this is a horrifying idea, because, once you remove human motivation or purpose to work, whose only purpose is to be served by automation, then you arrive at a consuming society which will consume itself to death. One reason humanity continues to make economic progress is our ability to create and reimagine new ways of value and purpose. However, with current thoughts and trends, we are entering into uncharted waters of a humanity without a role.
I believe all of us in the business community need to think seriously about what kind of future we want, and how our business models are shaping that future. With so many people out of work, we will need to start figuring out what will work become in twenty years time. This has huge implications regarding supply and demand in the economy. Can we afford a global economy with a growing population which will have little work to do? How will democracies function? How will this shape our thinking in education? Is it even relevant?
Above all, we need to put back heart into the purpose of our economic activity, and not be driven by numbers alone. Our current economic system looks great in terms of numbers, but people feel terrible. This has created fertile ground for discontent, because people are disoriented about their future purpose.
Being a gift for each other
To have life in abundance, one must learn to give, not only the profits of businesses, but of yourselves. The first gift of the entrepreneur is of his or her own person: your money, although important, is too little. Money does not save if it is not accompanied by the gift of the person. Today’s economy, the poor, the young, need first of all your spirit, your respectful and humble fraternity, your will to live and, only then, your money. Pope Francis.
Many times, we give such a premium to the idea of resources that we forget about ourselves. This is something each one of us needs to do in our companies. We cannot just be focused on producing, but also on remembering to be the gift for the other in every moment.
When we are in a meeting with a colleague, it is important to focus not just on the task, but also on the relationship. We all know meaningful relationships enable creativity and high performance.
When we are in a meeting with a client, it is important to focus not just on the deal or on benefits for ourselves, but, again, on the person. This requires practice, however, and a change of mindset. I am sure many of us have experienced the way that, when a relationship with a client is built on care and trust, both sides will want to strike a win:win.
During this trip to the EoC conference in Rome, we brought along some business partners and clients. We could do so, because we do not see them just as clients, but also as brothers and sisters on the same journey as us towards shaping a better world.
And when we are with the poor, do we treat them as subsidiary, beneath us? No, that would not be right. Truly to be a gift, we need to appreciate them as gifts, too, who offer something, and from whom we can also learn something.
Pope Francis is challenging us to remember that the economy must be at the service of humanity, and not become the dictator of our values and actions. Our values must shape the economy in which we believe. That requires us to see the gift in everyone, and to see the possibility that every person has the right and the possibility of making a contribution.
In this way, a sustainable form of economy will emerge, a fraternal and caring form of economic system which enriches the mind and enables a wide class of people to be self-sufficient, with the dignity of pursuing their dreams and having the means to do so. That is an economic system worth fighting for.
Lawrence Chong is the Co-founder and CEO of Consulus, an innovation consultancy with business management and multi-disciplinary design capabilities. He served as the Immediate Past President of Design Business Chamber Singapore. His thoughts on innovation and creativity appear in regional media such as Nikkei Asian Review, Business Insider, Business Times, Marketing Magazine, Newsbase, TheEdge , Prestige Magazine, VTC10. In his personal capacity, he is a member of the Focolare, a movement in favour of building a united world through dialogue, economics, and politics.
Consulus is a global innovation consultancy with multidisciplinary business and design capabilities. Since 2004, it has transformed companies, from multinationals to start-ups, in more than 20 cities around the world. Currently its partnership is present in Singapore (Global HQ), Argentina, Bangladesh, Brunei, Dar es Salaam, Italy, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam. Consulus is a member of the Economy of Communion.