Tape Measure,” William Warby

April 24, 2019; strategy+business

At times like these, it’s important to pay attention to thinkers and doers who understand that solving big social challenges is about telling new, compelling stories that challenge prevailing narratives. Like economist Mariana Mazzucato, who in her latest book, The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy, gets right to the core narrative not just of economy but of society.

In an interview with S+B’s Deborah Unger, she says,

For me, what was important in my book…was to reveal the dysfunctions that occur when we don’t debate value—when [value is] just presented as “this is how the economy works.” So it becomes very easy for some actors in the economy to present themselves as value creators, and in the process extract value, because the difference—what’s value creation, what’s value extraction—is no longer part of the way we think about the economy.

In addition to debating value, Mazzucato proposes a mission approach to solving large scale social challenges. She says:

We should begin with the great challenges of our time, from climate change to fixing health systems. But these need to be made into concrete missions as bold and targeted as getting to the moon was. So instead of just saying “clean the ocean,” let’s collaborate to really get the plastic out. This will require a lot of public and private investment in very different areas, from what goes into [new materials] to how to get [the plastic] stuff out.

Missions require business, government, and civil society organizations to get their act together in concrete ways. How the mission is framed, I think, requires lots of civil society input. It can’t just be completely top-down. The mission to put a man on the moon involved many different sectors, including textiles, nutrition, and of course aeronautics. And government used its power of procurement to combine many different bottom-up solutions—risk taking through experimentation—aimed at a social goal.

The missions are supported by a policy framework based on a collective creation of value, a framework with three aspects:

1. Identify the different value creators in a system.

2. Establish what is actually being created.

The direction of change is just as important as the rate.

Is it becoming greener, more sustainable, more inclusive, or not?

3. Understand how the rewards from value creation are distributed.

Are they distributed as collectively as the value itself is created?

Or are some getting much more than they actually put in?

She concludes, “Companies have been allowed to operate in a particular way that is not good for economies, innovation, or society. You can change those conditions.”

But what about nonprofits? What would it look like if we debated value? Or had sector-wide missions?—Cyndi Suarez