This originally appeared on The Guardian’s Social Enterprise Network under the title, “The system is failing, hack the system: Social entrepreneurs aren’t going far enough to create systemic change, what we need are social hackers.”
We live in an unsustainable world. Our climate is warming. Our food system is failing. Our clean water sources are drying up. But fear not, social entrepreneurs are here to the rescue! They are our socially-minded heroes using the market, building businesses and offering us products and services that will save the world.
But wait …
Carbon emissions rose at a slower rate in 2012, but they are still rising. Our food system still fails to feed one billion people and is making one billion people obese. And the world’s greatest rivers – Amu Darya, Colorado Rivers, Ganges, Murray, Indus, Nile, Rio Grande, Syr Darya, Teesta, and Yellow – are all running dry at some point in the year before they reach the sea. We don’t have centuries to solve these problems. We have a couple of decades or our children will live in a world we have never known.
The reality is that our global economy and society are unsustainable at their core. No amount of tweaking or fixing will make them sustainable. Sure, we can create social enterprises that patch up the ills created by our current systems, but that comes with the silent resignation that all we can do it make life a little bit better as we slip into the unknown abyss of an unsustainable world.
Many social entrepreneurs have their hearts in the right place but are not going far enough to create systemic change. Others are not social entrepreneurs at all, but social opportunists who “social-good wash” a market opportunity and profit from it. Neither are creating the structural changes to our society and economy that we need to survive as a species.
What we need are social entrepreneurs who hack the hell out of the current system, destroy it and create new systems where the externalities are regenerative, sustainable, just and happy. Neoliberals and Marxists both believe in “creative destruction”, so let’s get to it.
So what is social hacking? It is creating enterprises that don’t respond to the problems that our current system creates, but change the way we do things so those problems do not occur in the first place. It is rethinking scale and revisiting replication. Systems that put a premium on scale value control so the maximum amount of power and wealth flow to the few at the centre. Replication values solutions that others can copy and adapt so power and wealth are distributed more evenly to many. Just as our financial portfolios need diversification to mitigate risk and thrive, our social, economic and cultural systems need diversity to thrive and maintain a healthy planet.
Two of my favorite social hackers are Ela Bhatt and Reema Nanavaty of the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA). In 1972, Bhatt saw poor women street vendors being illegally removed from the streets because they were “disrupting” the business of wealthier shop owners. She organised the women and took their case to India’s high courts and won – giving these women a voice for the first time. She then formed Sewa, which Bhatt and Nanavaty have built into a movement of more than 1.2 million women members that we all considered “poorest of the poor”. Seaw is building a more just and sustainable system that empowers women to live more self-reliant and secure lives. Members operate more than 100 co-ops including ones focused on on food, clothing, and construction, and provide financial products such as loans, health insurance, and retirements accounts. Bhatt and Sewa are not just empowering women, but building more sustainable market and financing systems that alleviate poverty while nurturing people, society and the planet.
Social hackers like Bhatt are not afraid of the dirty secret that no one wants to admit – that we have over-developed. Economic development has historically been coupled with increasing happiness, but we have reached a point where more development is making us less happy and destroying the planet. It is time for social innovators and entrepreneurs to stop operating at the fringes and to figure out how to reconstruct social and economic systems to maximise our happiness and regenerate the planet so we can continue to live on it for the millennia to come.
Who is your favourite social hacker? Tell us in the comments below.