Generating Systemic Wealth — Part 9: The Fifth Wealth-Generating Source, Thinking Processes

Photo by Roman Mager on Unsplash

Since the renaissance at least, city plans have included places for education. Community founders have known that an educated population was the key to generating wealth — for themselves and the community as a whole. Aristocrats have always educated their young as the means to maintain and extend wealth. William Colgate, when he co-founded Madison University (later renamed Colgate University), specifically observed that the businesses he wanted to build and the communities he wanted to grow depended on people’s ability to think and develop new ideas if they were to create wealth.

Newness is intricately woven into the process of wealth generation, since merely continuing to do what has always been done is unlikely to compound the value generated. In the craftsman era, programs to develop apprentices into journeymen, and then into masters, were designed to maintain and evolve the value and contribution of a craft and its position in society. Education lifts the apprentice, who understands how others have generated wealth, to the level of journeyman, who can experiment and extend the craft, to the level of master, who can develop others in the creation of value.

Best Buy, in its attempt to cut costs, lost most of its technically knowledgeable sales force and became dependent on consumers being educated elsewhere. The same has happened in manufacturing organizations around the world, who have laid off their more expensive master craftsmen and have become totally dependent on outsourcing, even for small daily maintenance tasks. Without the capacity to think and discern, a business or a community becomes poorer — it loses the foundation of its wealth-generating ableness.

Tapping this source requires building an infrastructure that makes it possible to develop new processes and new ideas. Typically this takes the form of educational institutions — schools, universities, business incubators, business colleges. However, many of these institutions have become so narrowly focused on subject matter (the delivery of ideas) that they have neglected to actually build the capacity for ideation. This is unfortunate (and with regard to wealth-generating capacity, potentially disastrous) since the root meaning of the word education is to draw out and develop an innate capacity in the student.

The closed system perspective in this arena can be seen in academic disciplines, “schools of thought,” and the peer review journals that they spawn. These are often connected to particular universities — the University of Chicago is known for a conservative approach to public policy, while the Kennedy School at Harvard is more progressive. Isolated subjects or disciplines (e.g. public policy) become entrenched and sub-categorized into niches (e.g. specialists in nation building, or local government.) Each develops its own language and publications. They become, in other words, closed systems.

The very potential for wealth generation may be limited from the outset if ideation is shaped by this closed system model. The process can become insidiously self-perpetuating. “Academic rigor” generally means that a group of peers can all agree. Research, and the best-selling books it produces, is limited by academic consensus. Senior faculty maintain a tight hold over what can be published and even what can be considered true, limiting both innovation and dialog.

Most business incubators are also established with a closed system view of ideation. They emphasize transfer of knowledge, and adoption of “tried and true” ways of thinking, rather than encouraging reflection on how thinking is being done. Thus, the very intention of an incubator as a process generator collapses before it begins. Most incubators, whether they are housed in traditional education settings or business development centers, have settled into being purveyors of ideas.

Given that educational institutions, and especially universities, are expected to be the primary developers of thinking as a source of wealth-generation for society as a whole, this closed, fragmented and compartmentalized approach to learning is actually destructive. A more open system does not require publishing everyone or considering all ideas no matter how far out. But it does require a mechanism that allows ways of thinking to be dialogically examined and engaged. Only by this approach can ideation improve and achieve its full contribution to wealth generation.

An open systems approach focuses more on helping people learn to think, rather than on acquiring a certified body of knowledge. The Antioch system of campuses around the U.S., as well as St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD and Santa Fe, NM, are leaders in an approach where students work in cohorts and learn through a dialogic process with a faculty member. This has attracted a whole new class of students who want to be more active in their own learning and the examination and development of their thinking.

Instead of transferring knowledge, faculty members stimulate deep and far ranging conversations that build the capacity of students to test and build their own ideas. Reciprocity (between student and teacher, and among students) is cultivated in this form of education, and can be extended into life after graduation. The resulting creativity and rigor of thinking generates far greater value for society and business than the commodity thinking produced by closed systems.

In late 2009, Seventh Generation formed a partnership with Kaplan, a division of The Washington Post, to improve creative thinking around sustainability and corporate responsibility. Through the program, the company seeks to share what it has learned, and to upgrade ideation for other businesses and sustainability professionals. The Bainbridge Institute in Seattle also offers graduate degrees with an emphasis on improving how to think about sustainability for the business practitioner. A number of public universities have created successful degree programs or specialty tracks for organizations and individuals wanting to improve their own ideation.

Learning and Living Systems in Curitiba, Brazil

When education is seen from a living systems perspective, the focus shifts to whole systems. Learning and creating are no longer limited to the bound knowledge of the closed system or the reciprocal agreement between student and faculty found in an open system. Learning becomes a window into life. The best example I know of (and there are very few to be found) is the Free University of the Environment in Curitiba, a city near Brazil’s southern coast. In the last five decades, Curitiba has gone from extreme poverty to having one of the country’s strongest middle classes, using thinking processes that are both highly sophisticated and commonsensical.

To ensure that these processes were handed down within city staff, and promulgated throughout the community, Curitiba established a university for ecological thinking. Over the years, an extraordinary percentage of the population, including all the city’s staff and most of its businesses, have experienced the program — wealth generation by design. The long term transformation has been so successful that leaders and planners from around the world travel there to learn the most advanced planning ideas available — the city has extended its educational influence to the world — and Jaime Lerner, the father of this living systems process is a much sought after speaker and thinker internationally.

Curitiba’s success was based on many of the same principles and practices behind the Responsible Corporation. The planning team started with what was unique about the city and how one could build a sense of community and of vocation in the world from that story. Because the city was both poor and smart, it sought ways to make highly leveraged investments, and coined the term “urban acupuncture” to describe interventions designed to get mega-multiplier bangs from its scarce bucks. Every project had to meet rigorous criteria for being “fast, cheap, simple, and systemically effective.” The city had a strong orientation to improving the lives of every one of its citizens (its “customers”) and emphasized building self-determination and self-management throughout the population. Ideas were expected to be obvious enough that people could readily see their relevance.

Just one of the thousands of creative programs the city put in place was designed to address sanitation in the favelas, or slums, that had grown up as rural populations poured into Brazil’s cities in the 1960’s. Favelas would emerge spontaneously, with no central planning and no utilities, built from whatever materials lay at hand. As a result, garbage collection was impossible, and disease, rats, and other problems became acute. The city offered to pay residents to separate their trash and bring it to collection and recycling areas on the periphery of the slums. Residents were paid in tokens that could be used to access the city’s excellent public transit system, or to buy food at local farmer’s markets.

With this simple program, the city was able to clean up the garbage, build acceptance for recycling, provide access to good food and support for local farmers, and improve employment opportunities by enabling very poor people to use public transit. Not coincidentally, the children from these slums were able to use their bus tokens to spread out and clean up the rest of the city, becoming valued and contributing citizens at a time when street children were being shot by vigilante groups in other cities in Brazil.

The creativity and holism that Curitiba’s leadership team brought to everything it did was remarkable, not only because the group was so innovative with such limited means, but because it was able to sustain its quality of thinking over decades and through many changes in political leadership. This required a significantly different way of thinking than that provided by conventional training for city planners or managers. It also required a continuous and ongoing planning process, rather than a single annual planning event.

Every morning for the last forty years, the city’s management team has met at the campus of the Free University of the Environment to “dream forward.” It spends its mornings in the world of ideation and possibility, and its afternoons managing day-to-day operations — and is very clear that it could not afford the costs of doing it any other way. This has nourished the spirit of the leaders, while generating an endless supply of ideas to be tested and implemented. The corporate world would do well to learn from Curitiba’s example.



About Carol Sanford

Carol Sanford is a regenerative business educator, the award winning author of The Regenerative Business: Redesign Work, Cultivate Human Potential, Achieve Extraordinary Outcomes, and executive in residence and senior fellow in social innovation at Babson College. She has worked with fortune 500 executives and rock star entrepreneurs for 40 years, helping them to innovate and grow their businesses by growing their people. Learn more about Carol and her work at her website.