Over the years that I’ve been writing a column for Sublime, I have been quietly beavering away in the background on a social venture called Ecoinomy. (Not so quietly now; there is an article elsewhere in this issue that explains how Ecoinomy aims to make the most of using less). Basically, we have built a workplace scheme which specifies and tracks eco-savings made by employees by reducing travel, waste and energy, and allocates a share of the money saved to community causes chosen by self-organising groups of employees. Which is, of course, why they are motivated to make the savings in the first place. As one client put it, it’s a ‘win, win, win, win, win situation’ – benefiting the environment, local community, company profits, internal engagement and external reputation.
The core principle behind the scheme is as old as humanity. You could call it goodwill, altruism, cooperation, potlach and many other names. The thinking is that there is a revolutionary potential in human beings and their societies whereby people could deal with each other out of some primary love and generosity of spirit, not just for family, friends and communities, but even for enemies.
The idea took root, for instance, in a sect called Christianity that emerged in the free-fall collapse that was the third-century crisis of the Roman Empire. At that point in time, Christian welfarism became a kind of safety net that helped society catch itself amid economic failure, invasion, civil war, plague and famine. That might be its relevance today – its potential to help us catch ourselves, in the decades ahead.
We could have, you might argue, abundant resources already, even for the billions alive today, if only we were able to avoid the colossal waste inherent in individualistic societies based on the security, recognition and status that derives from hoarding.
If we could design an economy based on truly maximising human well-being, it would likely be powered by just such a transformational increase in goodwill and social participation. It would not be about settling for less, but rather the potential to become so much more, in human terms, as a society. This, many of us feel, is what society hungers for, even if it currently expresses its frustrated desires in far more selfish and destructive forms. The spontaneous generosity of the clean-up after the UK riots was a natural counterpart to these negative expressions. Both sides point to the untenability of a society based on anything but generosity. The idea is also expressed in the recent bestseller The Power of Half, written by a family in Atlanta, Georgia, who were persuaded by their teenage daughter to sell their house and buy a smaller one, giving half of the original value to The Hunger Project, who work in developing countries on bottom-up ways to end hunger through self-reliance.
What is new in Ecoinomy, and what connects to a much broader and more topical trend, is the social network. We explicitly set out to find a way of using social networks to create a step change in sustainability. We explored various ways you could do this such as sharing, pooling and peer-to-peer rental libraries. The system we hit upon with Ecoinomy first of all made basic economic sense; each party involved experiences a positive gain (including us, as we met organisations willing to pay for such a service). But what convinced us more was that it made emotional sense. As our chairman and investor Deborah Meaden said when she first saw the system: ‘You can see employees doing that.’ And it’s no longer just an idea. As we have started to deploy the system in workplace tests, and have been holding workshops with employees, we have come to realise that the scheme is 90% goodwill and 10% technology. But still, the precise social-network nature of the technology is important. Not just because it makes all this convenient, or visible.
There is something deeply social in social networks – one that seems to favour a kind of systemic altruism that exceeds its previous framing as a personal moral choice.
The key feature of working with such systems being how you structure the goodwill and participation element, to make it catching.
Recent research by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler (authors of seminal research on the role of networks in obesity, optimism, loneliness and giving up smoking) found that generosity is contagious. Specifically what their ‘public goods game’ experiment showed was that one participant’s experience of kindness created a cascade of onward acts of kindness that exceeded any effect that could be explained by self-interest (for instance, by reciprocal kindness with known people; expecting some return from mutual obligation or reputation). The effect of one individual act of kindness was, on average, tripled by the onward imitation or ‘paying it forward’ by a network of strangers. The researchers described the network as acting as a ‘matching grant’.
They came to quite a radical conclusion about what this simple result means when writ large across the current global social networks, and indeed their evolutionary precedents. ‘Our work over the past few years, examining the function of human social networks and their genetic origins, has led us to conclude that there is a deep and fundamental connection between social networks and goodness. The flow of good and desirable properties such as ideas, love and kindness is required for human social networks to endure and, in turn, networks are required for such properties to spread. Humans form social networks because the benefits of a connected life outweigh the costs.’
The implications of this research, if we take it to heart, are profound. It offers the potential for a new kind of culture to spring up rapidly. It has everything to do with gaining maximum well-being from the least resources. It also hints at a new sort of economy, and newer, free-form kinds of charity, where the social nature of generosity is reinstituted. We are aware that our own scheme is one small manifestation of this potential, and indeed that it may still turn out to be flawed in its current design. But it’s a fascinating, sweeping, wholly heartening trend to be part of.