Down with growth strategy

Rob Adams of the innovation agency Six Fingers will be looking at new theories and ideas emerging in the world that are contributing towards change in society, life and our ways of working

Text: Rob Adams 
Image: Saskia Kropff

It is clear that the prevailing logic in our society is determined by a focus on growth. For nations in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and for businesses, Return on Investment (ROI). This logic is like a magnet that nothing escapes from. It is the black hole of society. And just like black holes in space, it swallows up any alternative notion. The need to grow is the dominant ideology upon which our society rests.

How many times have you been asked what your business growth plans are in your lifetime? Or by how many staff you want to expand? Businesses that capitalise on the market demand are admired. And the winners in this race rewarded with significant profits. What’s more, they are hailed as exemplary to other entrepreneurs.

The constant drive for growth has become a reality instead of merely an idea

Disciplines such as strategy, marketing and design are painting an ever more accurate picture of the consumer for us. Human-centred design is at the root of this. In other words: designing and creating products and services that people are showing a genuine need for, consciously or not. The marketing philosophy is embraced: fulfilling a need, whatever that may be. This results in products that make our lives better. But also in unnecessary products that harm the future. The assumption that the market will correct itself puts the onus on the consumer. And in doing so, indemnifies manufacturers.

When you combine human-centred design with a focus on maximising ROI, what you get are companies aimed at fostering further consumption. They negotiate hard with suppliers and see harming the planet as par for the course. They are the ‘heroes’ of capitalist thinking. They keep their contribution to society, in the form of taxes, as low as possible in order to maximise ROI. This keeps their contribution to the world and society to a minimum. In the meantime, they continue to foster a need through strategy and advertising. Sustainable commerce has been reduced to an image campaign without substance.

‘The constant drive for growth has become a reality instead of just a bad idea’

Protect me from what I want (Placebo)

As a result, we are living in a consumer society. Addicted to the pursuit of instant gratification. And it never works, of course. Because we always want more. But unbridled growth is impossible, as nature has made blatantly clear to us. In his book, A Life on Our Planet, David Attenborough describes an experiment done by microbiologists. They put bacteria in a breeding ground in a sterile, sealed petri dish: The ideal conditions for growth, with little competition and adequate food. What happened?

The bacteria had to get used to the situation. Once the acclimatisation phase was over, things changed quickly. The bacteria learned how to make optimal use of those living conditions. They divided every 20 minutes during this logarithmic phase, characterised by exponential growth. The traditional J-shaped curve of rapid growth was evident. Each bacteria took what they needed and took up its own space in the petri dish. The race is real – it’s each for themselves.

At the point when there is no more space and the bacteria reach the sides of the petri dish, they begin to hinder one another. The food runs out and the environment gets poisoned with gases, heat and waste. The rate of growth declines, and cells die off faster – eventually, exponentially. Birth and death are in equilibrium. The population will no longer grow due to lack of food. Meanwhile, quantities of waste and gases increase and the temperature also rises. The colony collapses. Do things go back to where they started from? Not by any means. Whereas at one time, the petri dish offered the ideal feeding ground for life, now, it is a place without food. With a hot, acidic and noxious environment. None of the bacteria were busy thinking about tomorrow. They were absorbed by making optimal use of the situation and growing as fast as possible. The result: an environment no longer able to function or facilitate. The bacteria behaved no differently to consumers and companies.

Growing for the sake of growth is the ideology of a cancer cell

Year-on-year economic growth and as such, wealth. That is the defining mantra of our age. All around the world. A mantra that in 1,000 years’ time will no doubt be looked back on with scrutiny. Anyway… Here we are, in the thick of it. It is not unreasonable to ask whether growth is jeopardising life now and in the future. There’s good reason why Robert Kennedy criticised GDP in 1968:

“Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armoured cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.“

The same criticism could be levelled at ROI. This figure shows how high returns were for a specific company in a given year, regardless of pollution to the environment, depletion of materials or poor conditions for workers. The vast majority of shareholders are only interested in the money they will earn from their investment. How that money is earned is unclear. Or by the by. Money is the priority.

Will the children of our children be proud of us? Or will what we did to them make them angry?

We have reached a point in our history where we need to make choices. We can’t have everything. And we are realising that more and more. Consciously. But subconsciously, we feel that thinking only in terms of economic growth is no longer the way forward. Wealth is at odds with well-being. And economy with climate. Freedom with privacy. And population growth with scarcity of resources.

In a whole host of areas, we need to be asking ourselves, as the current generation, what role we want to play in the future of our planet. And how do we want future generations to think of us. Will the children of our children be proud of us? Or will what we did to them make them angry?

We do not own the world. We have it on loan from future generations. Until we realise this, we believe we have the right to use everything we find. But the world is not a fridge you can refill. It can take anything from dozens to millions of years for it to recover, depending on the resource. We all are responsible for future generations. As individuals, companies, through our politics and science. Thankfully, we are recognising this responsibility slowly but surely. But sadly, we are not taking it on, or not taking it seriously. The addiction to the existing system is too powerful for us to.

Everything we consume or design should have future generations at its heart. And that is: not the economy of the future, but the well-being of future generations. How do we ensure that businesses and governments also embrace the future? That future generations are considered in the development of new products and services? And that governments develop their countries and cities for the next generation/s?

From human-centred to humanity-centred design

It is important that we stop designing from a human-centred perspective. That marketeers stop jumping on the every need of consumers, developing products that will harm future generations. Instead of human-centred, we need to shift to humanity-centred design. As things stand, the invention and design of new products and services revolves around mankind and its need; with humanity-centred design, the future has to come first and foremost in the design process: the children of our children are the target group, not the people of today. Can the want or need that exists now be met without negatively impacting on the future? Or better still: can it be designed in such a way that it creates a positive impact? And if not, how do we correct this design fault? Through pricing? Or alternative investments?

This is the leading question we need to be asking ourselves time and again. And I am optimistic that it will be embraced. The bigger the group gets, the greater the impact. As John Lennon sang exactly 50 years ago: “You may say I’m a dreamer; but I’m not the only one.”

Druk op enter om te zoeken of ESC om te sluiten
Press enter to search or ESC to close