The Paradox of Flux

The fun of the Russian steam bath, or ‘banya’, supposedly comes from the invigorating contrast between the heat of the sauna followed by a bracing roll in the snow. There was an echo of such dubious pleasure at this year’s Skoll World Forum held in Oxford last week, as the mood swung between optimism and pessimism. Contrast, for example, the brilliant Hans Rosling’s opening plenary presentation, which showed that the world has already solved what many think is an ongoing population crisis, and Friday’s panel on global threats where Ian Goldin, the man who heads a crystal-ball gazing institute in Oxford frankly scared the pants off everyone with his warning that “countries have never been more divided and more unable to solve global problems”.  Invigorating, certainly, but what does it tell us about the state of the world?

The contrasting moods actually reflect a paradox rather than a contradiction. Take Prof Rosling’s cheerful presentation. Hidden behind the good news is a new global problem – ageing. Japan and Europe are already struggling with the consequences of a declining number of workers to support each retiree and the burgeoning cost of healthcare as medical technology improves. Within 50 years, China and most of the rest of the world, bar Africa, will be in the same boat. Ageing is shaping up to be the next global crisis (or opportunity, if some social entrepreneur can discover the secret of eternal youth). In a similar vein, Dr Goldin’s risks are largely the product of positive changes in the world, such as rising incomes and global communications.

The lesson here is that the world is constantly in flux (which was the theme of this year’s forum) and changing faster than at any time in history. Managing the world’s problems demands constant horizon-scannning and actors who are able to be fleet of foot. Such long-term perspective and short-term responsiveness are not characteristics of government. It seems clear that the solutions to the problems the world faces in the 21st century are not going to come through the laborious, lowest-common-denominator processes of governmental conferences convened by the UN.

This why we we believe that philanthrocapitalists have a crucial role to play in the new model for global problem-solving, the posse. Philanthropists and social entrepreneurs can take risks to tackle problems long before they have reached the top of the policy or political agenda. Private companies, which are under ever greater scrutiny from consumers, will have to be leaders rather than followers, setting the agenda rather than being pushed into action unwillingly by government regulation. National governments and multilateral agencies will still have a crucial role to play, but as partners with innovative private actors.

In this context, old assumptions are perhaps our greatest risk. We were delighted that Guardian journalist Zoe Williams pronounced philanthrocapitalism as ‘the future’ after her visit to the Skoll Forum, albeit reluctantly because “it conjures up an image of hedgefunders and CEOs who could never have got that rich in the first place other than by fostering iniquity then having the brass neck to recast themselves as the healers of that iniquity by sprinkling down the surfeit of their superflux.”

Figuring out how capitalism can best serve people and planet is the great challenge of our age. For those that think capitalism is the problem, this is a contradiction in terms. And yet – in a powerful Easter message in the Financial Times, Archbishop Desmond Tutu writes: “Everyone can help to make the world a better and fairer place. Indeed, every human is made for goodness – yes, even bankers.” Take note, Ms Williams. Such is the paradox of philanthrocapitalism in this age of flux.