Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Mysterious Death of Honeybees Magnifies Fragility of Interdependence

A lot of honeybees are dying in America and nobody knows why. Some researchers speculate that AIDS-like immune suppression is at fault. Whether consumers will notice a price difference in the condiment aisle is one issue, but the real problem is the broader impact on agriculture: Bees provide natural, local biotech through pollination. Many crops depend on it.

Interdependence is the essence of globalization. This seems to apply as much between countries as across species lines. According to the New York Times, "imported honey from China and Argentina has depressed honey prices and put more pressure on beekeepers to take to the road in search of pollination contracts." Trucking bee colonies around the country could stress out the hives and make them more vulnerable to infection.

Though pollination is partially commercialized, this crisis raises the larger question of how we account for the irreplaceable economic services of our environment, which are often priceless and free.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Whose Carbon Is It?

Recognition that global warming is anthropogenic grows daily, but sweeping solutions to clean up pollution mature at a different rate. This is not surprising. We're dealing with invisible gases. When determining moral responsibility and economic motivation (or vice versa), we must ask an important question: Whose molecules are they? When the factory is in Bangalore and the corporate HQ in London, who accounts for the emissions? Christian Aid senior climate change analyst Andrew Pendleton writes that the UK has been massively underestimating its contribution to the problem. He calls for standardized and more accurate corporate reporting on emissions, reinforced by legislation.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Drayton’s Ethical Fabric Test

Attended Bill Drayton’s talk at SAIS this afternoon. Francis Fukuyama sat in the front row. Drayton said we are at a historical moment: Entrepreneurship is entering the social realm. Since this phenomenon is just starting to be seen, supply of people in this field exceeds demand. After the era of solo-led entrepreneurship, we will see group competitive, messy, and even more productive entrepreneurship.

The power of entrepreneurs is to get yeses. Rodrigo’s story is an example of this power. It’s a function of the primal brain at work. The perceiver can sense something about whether a person has a passion. He calls this the magic of belief and trustworthiness.

A lot of talk about the importance of one’s ethical fabric. Drayton has five criteria for granting fellowships to entrepreneurs. First, they must have a new system-changing idea (a.k.a. an innovation). Second, they must be creative. Third, they must be entrepreneurs, meaning they won’t be satisfied until their vision is implemented. They are always focusing on how to apply their vision. Finally, they must have ethical fiber.

Ethical fiber is something that elite schools like SAIS shouldn’t shy away from instilling in their students, Drayton said. People’s judgment gets confused when they try hard to be impartial rather than relying on a deeper feeling of whether they can trust someone.

Drayton continued that people cannot build social capital, which is so critical to an entrepreneur’s success, without ethical fiber. We need to move to empathy-based ethics. While society is in transition toward this sense of ethics, people who cannot grasp it will be lost. Empathy allows teamwork, which allows leadership. The world is working hard on understanding otherness.

We make decisions everyday on whether we believe or trust people. Does this person make me feel nervous? Drayton offered his ethical fabric test. After a fellowship or job candidate has interviewed with him he does the following thought experiment: Take your biggest fear, in his case it was heights. Close your eyes and pretend you are on the edge of a cliff. Do you grip your seat or do you believe this person will prevent you from falling? Trust your instincts.

My friend and filmmaker Steve Dorst agreed that a good narrative goes beyond words. In making a film, you need to empathize with the characters for it to be a compelling story.

Check out Drayton's piece in Policy Innovations today here.

Backscratchers of the world, unite!

The social entrepreneurship meme is spreading, and the kids have caught the bug. Elevator version: Social entrepreneurship consists of citizen sector projects, for profit or not, that deliver community benefit.

Wednesday night I attended a mini-summit on the topic in a swank, 10th-floor ballroom at New York University. The event was hosted by Seth Green of Americans for Informed Democracy and drew about 150 people, overwhelmingly students, their creative sparks mirrored in the Manhattan skyline. This kind of attendance is a good sign. Ashoka founder Bill Drayton sees youth education as the best way to create a healthy society of "humans who know that they can cause change"—changemakers.

The values of teamwork, leadership, and "applied empathy" are the backbone of Drayton's vision and his new project is Youth Venture. At the summit I met Sabeen Pirani, a young woman who works on the initiative. She explained how YV helps kids ages 12-20 start organizations for the betterment of their communities.

Wow. University students helping high schoolers unleash their potential energy for social awareness and change. Talk about the future.

Social activism at SAIS

At Hopkins SAIS waiting for my next meeting. On the TV, News Channel 8 reports that the President will check out clean energy cars at the White House. All over the SAIS lobby, pictures hang of Haiti, Mali, and Congo. Announcements about micro finance on the bulletin board. The students around me are talking about how clean energy is great and how working at for the US government is the worst. Everyone is using Macs--everyone. Last night I spoke with SAIS's Socially Responsible Business Club. Met a student that had started a peace corps in Thailand. Their career center is now setting up for a career event with NGOs. This afternoon, Bill Drayton will speak at one of the SAIS buildings.

This is not the wannabe business school SAIS I attended. It has the same intellectual and communal atmosphere that attracted me, but the student community seems to be more in line with the inspiring stories I have encountered from graduates. That's probably a good thing. I would go so far as to say SAIS reflects a general mood in the US--what we sometimes call "an ethical moment" at the Carnegie Council.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

U.S. and Japan as economic exemplars

Attended the U.S.-Japan economic relationship conference at the Carnegie Endowment today in Washington. The discussion was so lively that it went straight through ending nearly an hour overtime. Some highlights:

On the first panel Tadakatsu Sano, former METI vice minister, noted this paradox: Japan's declining population will require greater innovation to maintain economic growth, but innovation becomes more difficult in a backdrop of declining population and growth.

Sano also noted that while the glue that holds together the United States and Japan is shared values, the private sector is driving the formation of values and norms through supply chain management. He continued that governments usually follow industry in this area. European companies create standards with letters of inquiry to suppliers.

Oakley Johnson of AIG said that the United States and Japan, as the world's two largest economies, are the only countries that can lead the way on global issues and make a difference. He continued that a US-Japan economic partnership could remove economic nationalism in the relationship.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Innovations and Ethics in HBR Ideas List

Innovations was the buzzword for 2006, and ethics is on the horizon. I am on the train from NYC to DC, and finished reading the Harvard Business Review's Breakthrough Ideas List for 2007.

Innovations or ideas on new ideas was the topic of several the 20 ideas on the list. Duncan Watts argues that for ideas to spread, they need to be sold to ordinary people rather than to influentials (highly influential, connected types). Conducting thousands of computer simulations, Watts and his colleague Peter Dobbs found that global cascades (the propagation of influence through networks) are in the hands of a critical mass of easily influenced people. More theorizing on how to create buzz. Want to create buzz about something? Talk to people—everyone you meet. And I would add, get them involved in that thing.

Next, Yoshihito Hori identifies an "entrepreneurial Japan." Economic revitalization, the destruction of lifetime employment, the veneration of creativity, and the technologically networked aspect of Japanese society make entrepreneurship likely. The idea that Japan is and can be entrepreneurial pops up every few years. Innovation springs from many environments. Necessity can help innovation too. The question in my mind is whether this entrepreneurial spirit can overcome Japan’s declining population and fear of immigration.

Third, Eric von Hippel tells us that the Danish government is the first to place strengthening "user-centered innovation" as a national priority. It sounds a bit like the idea of prosumer—the producer and consumer have merged, and with the Internet have created a global marketplace of goods, ideas, and knowledge.

Fourth, Geoffrey West found that innovations benefit super-linearly from scale. People in larger cities and organizations are more innovative. That's why no organization ever matched "the creativity of Bell Labs in its heyday." Just comparing NYC and DC, this idea seems to make intuitive sense. Innovative ideas seem likelier in NYC not only because of the constant mixing and mingling between people but because of the breadth of industry. West should tell Hori about the need for Japan to maintain its population.

Finally, Yoko Ishikura suggests businesses act globally and think locally, by "harvesting" knowledge from various localities and applying it to a global strategy. Policy Innovations recently ran a special on the applications of positive deviance, the idea that a few people in every sample are outliers but in a positive way. And those practices can be applied more globally.

The common motif of these ideas on ideas is that we organize ourselves more like the way our brains are organized, which happens to be the way the Internet is organizing and hyperlinking. With all of this bleeding between the consumer, producer, influencer, and influenced, we expand the possibilities of a networked humanity. Ethics, our sense of fairness, which is deep in our primate DNA, must act as a guide.

Karen Fraser shows through UK surveys that many consumers are conflicted about the companies that make the products they buy. They worry that these companies are exploiting their workers or damaging the environment. These conflicted consumers buy these companies’ goods because there is no option or little information, and are ready to bolt for more ethical alternatives. "Their desire for an ethical choice represents a huge amount of potential energy in the marketplace." Who says socially responsible business models can’t be profitable? Business guru Michael Porter would seem to agree.

Fire Sale on Grandchildren

How much are our grandchildren worth? This question of economics and intergenerational ethics is fueling a debate over the best way to douse global warming before it's too late. At the heart of the controversy are Sir Nicholas Stern's calculations in the climate change report he prepared for the UK Treasury. Yale economist William Nordhaus believes that Sir Nicholas set his discount rate for future generations too low, thus overstating the urgency with which we should act:
The social discount rate is a parameter that measures the importance of the welfare of future generations relative to the present. It is calculated in percent per year, like an interest rate, but refers to the discount in future "utility" or welfare, not future goods or dollars. A zero social discount rate means that future generations into the indefinite future are treated equally with present generations; a positive social discount rate means that the welfares of future generations are reduced or "discounted" compared to nearer generations.
Nordhaus advocates a more gradual ramping up of climate change policies, while Stern's numbers lead one to conclude that strong, immediate measures such as a carbon tax are appropriate. Whoever is correct, our ancestors will be hot, hot, hot if we sell them short.

Ethical Trading Initiative Too Tight for Levi's

The Ethical Trading Initiative suspended Levi Strauss & Co. because the company has failed to sign ETI's living wage clause. Levi's claims that the concept and its implementation are not properly defined, and that its own code of conduct is "completely actionable."

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Ban the Bulb!

Australia, like the United States, may never ratify the Kyoto Protocol, but its government just announced a bright idea for reducing carbon emissions: mandatory phase-out of incandescent light bulbs. The old bulbs will be replaced by longer-lasting compact fluorescent bulbs that are more energy efficient. The top-down, market-based legislation will "gradually restrict the sale of the old-style bulbs" (AP).

Balancing Innovation and Intellectual Property

"For industries ranging from software to pharmaceuticals and entertainment, there is an intense debate about the appropriate level of protection for intellectual property," write Felix Oberholzer-Gee and Koleman Strumpf in the abstract to their recent paper: "The Effect of File Sharing on Record Sales: An Empirical Analysis" (Journal of Political Economy, 2007, vol. 115, no. 1). Their data and analysis show that file-sharing and downloads from peer-to-peer networks have had an impact on declining record sales "that is statistically indistinguishable from zero." (JPE online requires a password. Here is an earlier version of their paper.)

This information is relevant to governments and businesses in developing countries as they consider how to capitalize on creative and cultural industries as engines for growth. Caribbean economist Keith Nurse believes that developing countries have a comparative advantage and window of opportunity in these fields.

Finding a new balance that encourages innovation, respects intellectual property, and delivers fast results is especially important in the global health sector. Thomas Pogge argued in the first issue of Policy Innovations that new incentive structures could be designed to meet these goals.