On August 27, I attended “Designing a Better World: The Journey of Entrepreneurs” Fireside Chat at the Michael Neumann Architecture Studio (MNA). I was driven to attend this lecture by my personal interest in finding proactive, effective, and sustainable ways of helping the world while still making a living as a designer in a capitalist society. As entrepreneurs take it upon themselves to “design a better world,” I thought of this symbiotic relationship—of design and business—as the perfect balance to “Designing a Better World” but maybe we need to redefine what “a better world” means, and to whom.
The lecture was interesting in that the panelists, Karl Heine, Yvonne Lin, Neil Brown, and Brian Birsic, shared some of their success stories—the “yes, you can!” stories—of how they emancipated themselves from big corporations that for many years owned their surplus value, and became successful entrepreneurs in a competitive market. However, the conversations kept revolving around “entrepreneurship” as we traditionally know it: as a medium through which ideas are capitalized—period; nothing was said about the ways in which their innovative ideas, ethics, and new business models were transforming the world into a better place. It seemed to me that the theme, beyond helping the world, was finding innovative ways of perpetuating the already pervasive capitalist machine by making it more robust. So I asked: can somebody share an experience where a project helped better the world? To what Neil Brown’s promptly responded that, “by producing capital one is helping the world”—a statement that he later expanded upon, saying, “by producing capital ethically and responsibly one is helping the world”. So, again, a definition of “ethical” and “responsible” needs to be addressed here; for instance, is sending alms to Africa social responsibility?
After three hours of discussing the power of monetizing ideas, and of the entrepreneurs maximizing their surplus value and freeing from the big corporation, we came full circle: the entrepreneurs seem to have become that which they wanted to be emancipated from in the first place—the big corporation. They have, though, new business models, more transparency, ethics, and social responsibility; so we can say that they are a better version of the old corporation but a corporation nonetheless. I’m not implying that being successful and making money is bad, but if Neil is right in his statement, there is no need to brand yourself as “designing for a better world”, just say you are “sharing tips to be successful in a tough economy”, or “be successful in a competitive market”, “compete with the big fish and win”; there are many catchy ways to pitch and sell a conference, just leave the world out of it!
I do agree with Brian in that we have arrived to an interesting time, of crowdsourcing, crowdfunding, information flow, and new media. We are global citizens of the world, and entrepreneurs are the potential visionaries of a new world that no one else could envision—they have the tools, the information, and the network—and, listening to the panelists say that, “this [capitalist/money-making machine] is the way the world works” and “ideas don’t change anything” is underwhelming, and can only perpetuate the status quo.
I would still like to think that one day we will have a better world—and I might not see it—but that we have now the opportunity to build the foundations for a better world that my daughter will be able to live in. Purpose: 21st Century Movements (http://www.purpose.com/about-purpose/who-we-are/), is an example of an effort to build such foundations by the power of ideas; by changing our product-centered, consumerist society into a people-centered society that thrives to help itself by helping others.
Information about panelists:
Yvonne Lin, Femme Den: http://www.fastcompany.com/1353548/forget-shrink-it-and-pink-it-femme-den-unleashed
Karl Heine, TalentED: http://www.creativeplacement.com/about.html
Bryan Birsic, Simple Reach: http://simplereach.com/blog/author/bryan/