09 November 2020

We Make Our Institutions and Then They Make Us: The Popularization of Social Invention and Entrepreneurship

We make our institutions and then they make us.

An American in 2000 was more productive and higher paid than than one in 1900. Not because they worked harder or made bigger sacrifices for their future. It was because their systems - the institutions, culture and technology - they relied on were better.

In 2020, an American in San Francisco is more productive and higher paid than one in Kentucky. Not because they work harder or make bigger sacrifices for their future. It is because they are - themselves - products of better systems, culture and institutions.

When Muslims began to expand out of Saudi Arabia, they largely turned east along the silk road rather than head north to conquer Europe. Why? Europe was a backwater, far less developed economically and culturally than the lands along the Silk Road. There were people then who thought the people along the Silk Road were simply superior to Europeans just as there are people now who believe that Europeans today are superior to people along the former Silk Road in countries like Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan.

W. Edwards Deming said, "A bad system will beat a good person every time."

Within every system there is variation, people who thrive and people who flounder.. Often we get caught up in that but the more we focus on the distribution within the system (am I at the top or bottom?) the more we question our own performance within the current systems rather than raise the more important question: how do we change this system so that more people can thrive?

These systems - that include our institutions and cultural norms as well as our scientific and technical ability - determine whether we live in the squalor of 1700 or the modern comfort of the West in 2020. They obviously create us, giving us very different lives. Less obviously, we create them.

Around 1900, the world was transformed as people begin to break the code of inventing, mass manufacturing and improving products. I still have this vision of people in 2100 looking back on the decades around 2000 as the period when people began to break the code of entrepreneurship and social invention, the ability to more intentionally create the institutions that in turn create us.

People in 1700 largely inherited products and made the best of them. Between the time of Homer and Shakespeare there was little gain in real incomes or productivity. By 1900 communities in the West were continually modifying existing products and inventing new products to make their lives better. They didn't just work harder with the products they inherited; they invented new ones. Today we have this tendency to make the best of the institutions and systems we inherit. I suspect that our grandkids will be more adept at continually modifying existing and inventing new institutions to make their lives better.

For now, one big theme you'll hear is inclusion. How do we in the US get more women and people of color into positions and institutions that give them power and make their lives better? Think of this as the social invention equivalent of mass manufacturing. At one point, the car was invented but only the elite could afford it. Then we began to mass manufacture it so that the masses could afford it. This period in which cars, computers or healthcare options spread from something reserved for the elites to something enjoyed by the crowd is a time in which great fortunes are made and widespread prosperity enjoyed. This matter of inclusion is very similar: access to childcare (something most men had in 1950 in the form of wives who look after the kids), venture capital markets, great education, knowledge about how to choose careers or start a business are all things that need to be made more broadly available. We need to include more people in their benefits. Just like cars were mass manufactured in the early 1900s, these efforts to give wider access to the institutions we currently have will create great prosperity.

Coincident with getting better at social inclusion, we will get better with social invention, creating things like schools and workplaces that make us more able to create value for others and ourselves. One of the more obvious ways we will change work and learning is to borrow from video game designers who know how to create experiences that provide flow and engagement to design and redesign work and learning so that we can couple the engagement of video games with the meaning and social impact of work and learning. 

There is more, of course, but that's enough for a Monday morning. The 2020s started out pretty rough but we still have 110 months left in which to turn the decade into a most excellent adventure.

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