How Social Science and Information Systems, alongside Irregular Warfare veterans, Cultural Competency, and Community Building, can be a multiplier for business and social good worldwide
Former Special Operations NCO and GS-13, DoD
For the time being, this will be split into a series of my older writings, proposal papers and sections of a book I am writing on these topics. Below is taken from a Table of Contents in a previous paper, and each section will be a article, in a follow-up series.
Note to the Reader and Introduction
Two sides of the same COIN
Social Good, Profitable Business, and Human Nature: A new ‘Gentle Way’
An Innovation for Human Well-Being is the next ‘Big Idea’
From our Warzones to Wall Street: Why non-lethal COIN applies more than ever
‘Green’ on both fronts: A social and profitable business platform
Why it maximizes profit and social impact
Note to the Reader
Specifics on the methods and models mentioned in this paper are detained more in a follow-on paper, From our Warzones to Wall Street: Why non-lethal COIN applies more than ever, as well as supported by technical documents. This paper, rather, is a big-picture overview, attempting to make the case for business and philanthropy thinking outside of traditional boundaries and better merging their respective worlds. The ‘convergence’ of the models and approaches in this paper can be used by both worlds to understand livelihood patterns and facilitate business entry, negotiate the ‘cultural terrain’ of an area, even in risky and complex environments.
These models — from across several different skillsets and spheres of expertise — are designed to navigate the human landscape of frontier markets, emerging markets and generally asymmetric, complex or less-than-friendly environments in places business is hesitant to operate in, or does operate in but with significant problems of ‘cultural blowback’ and unintended consequences. A robust and dynamic understanding of the human terrain and sociocultural realities on the ground can be used to mitigate misunderstanding, negotiate a genuine and honest rapport and dialogue between the population and incoming market forces, and enhance a kind of feedback loop of real-time data collection and sentiment mapping across rural and urban landscapes alike. It can facilitate a predictive analysis of 2nd and 3rd-order effects, akin to the rippling of waves in a pond after a rock is thrown.
The possibilities frontier is vast, and the merits of this idea run deep. Imagine a mining company wants to operate in the Andes Mountains and avoid protests and potential violence, bad press, and deal breakers with the local population. They call the shots from the boardroom and fundamentally fail to understand the situation on the ground. They attempt to re-locate some of the locals to different homes and compensate them well, but they completely miss the ‘hidden layer’ of cultural and social terrain that they just disrupted, with social and family relationships, schemes of reciprocity and respect between neighbors, now at risk.
A CSR project in Africa or West, Central or East Asia tries to dig a well for a village but unintentionally diverts water from the underground stream in the next village over, with newfound social rifts and communal fissures precipitated by the unintended interference with livelihood patterns. Attempting to pay off corrupt local leaders in the Niger Delta can reinforce existing tensions by armed belligerents, while doing a ‘goodwill’ project in the wrong part of Afghanistan can flare up old rivalries or even create new ones. Such missteps can solidify resentment by villages and even entire sub-tribes. Billions have arguably been lost by the failure of multinational business to navigate this human terrain and connect with the population, often leaving locals worse off in every respect. Suffice it to say that no one wins from this arrangement.
My appreciation for the merits of working with local populations arguably began with my first Iraq deployment in 2004 — in part, as an Arabic language and cultural specialist — then with Special Forces training at Camp Mackall, NC, and has lead me on a long and refined journey across four continents and dozens of countries. From Iraq and Afghanistan to South America to Red Hook, Brooklyn, I have seen both the dead-weight loss from not understanding the human and social terrain, as well as the benefits — both social and economic — of understanding and respecting it, of working alongside rather than against it.
While poverty and violence is declining worldwide*, we are still seeing rising inequality in much of the world*, and a growing mismatch between those at the bottom — the populations on the ground — and the way of doing business at the top, from the boardrooms and government offices. In no uncertain terms, this has become costly, unsustainable, and quite dangerous*.
Reversing this vicious cycle back to a virtuous one in which everyone wins, lives and wellbeing are improved, and profitable markets foster a new customer base rather than gunshots and angry protesters, is more lucrative than ever to investors and humanitarians alike, perhaps an unprecedented intersection between nonprofit ‘ goodwill’ and for-profit self-interest. In short, it is becoming the next ‘big idea’ and the next great revolution, one in which cultural understanding, small-team operations, social innovation, and information technology will play a huge part, as digital technology and human terrain work alongside each other even in the most problematic parts of the world.
This can be strongly catalyzed by a mostly untapped but very promising convergence between some of the most skilled and respectable sectors in the professional world, with some of the most under-utilized disciplines. Special Operations doctrine and experience has massive value outside of a warzone, and behavioral science and ethnography has massive use outside of an academic institution.
Human behaviors are universal, but are widely misunderstood by the very people who need to understand them the most. The ‘behavioral and social terrain’ of the human landscape is extremely relevant, and it applies across the range of development and conflict around the world, from giving aid to a Peruvian village to negotiating with a Taliban warlord.
As a speaker (or partial speaker, depending on the language) of Arabic, Farsi, Pashto, Urdu / Hindi, Russian, German, Spanish and Swahili, I have been fortunate enough to amass a range of experience working alongside and through local cultures and the many socioeconomic and tribal-dynamic realities on the ground in many places, in both official and unofficial capacities alike. Most of these realities are ‘hidden’ and un-mapped by governments and businesses working from the ‘top down’, often misunderstood or not grasped at all — and yet remain waiting to be discovered as a goldmine of human capital. This reality of a ‘human and behavioral terrain’ is something that unavoidably intersects with the academic, business, philanthropic and defense communities alike, sometimes as overlapping spheres of interest.
Through professional collaboration, writings, and projects on the ground, I am working to combine some of the best from each into a ‘convergence platform’, to serve an arguably unprecedented model. A model combining important, specific aspects of applied social science, Special Operations, ethnography, information network analytics, and humane social enterprise.
Additional Notes to the reader
My purpose in transferring these writings into online article form is to help further these conversations and discussions in and out of specialized circles, and among more in the general public. Working across these spheres to build a more accessible lexicon will be key. This is an emerging “translation project”: translating this from the academic tower to the boardroom, or from the warzone to our academic institutions. Such a project — a nonlethal ‘arms race’ of mutual understanding across these spheres — will become more and more in demand in an increasingly interconnected world, where a robust understanding of the human layer is more relevant than ever, both for responsible multinational business enterprise as well as humanitarian and social innovation sectors.
Building these bridges of translation, be it from the warzone to the boardroom, from warzone to academic circles, or from our academic circles to our businesses and policy machines, can perhaps be sufficiently motivated by an ever-worthy aim: to resonate in humane and practical ways back into the village, jungle, desert or mountainside. To help people on the ground. The phrase “De Oppresso Liber” — which comprises the Special Forces motto — means to liberate from oppression. While many of our best warriors and minds have fought hard to do this amidst staggering frustrations in the warzone, there may be far more fruitful frontiers for them to live out this motto among local peoples all over the world. Not from the mechanism of top-down bureaucracy or in ways hijacked by the entrapping of our foreign policy shortcomings, but done from the bottom up. From the self-organizing power of free enterprise, innovation and social entrepreneurship.
We truly help people when we spend time on the ground and listen, breath in the air, hear the cries and the laughter, the suffering and the fears, aspirations and ides of those with the lest amount of voice. And to help give more of a voice to even the most marginalized within these communities. We can help people, but it mist be from the bottom up, not the top down.
This must become a living conversation, across spheres of expertise and knowledge. We have a sufficient abundance of tools and understanding — and the intellectual and material resources, in rich supply— to render a failure of such a convergence inexcusable.
Let’s aspire to move to new horizons in how we do business. The Old Way of Zero Sum games between elite interests and local populations is reaching a critical mass of human suffering, poplar unrest and unintended blowback, from our American neighborhoods to our warzones. From impoverished and marginalized indigenous communities, ethno-sectarian conflicts, proxy wars, foreign aid failures and top-down style of multinational business incursions around the world — and violence, dislocation, protest and revolutionary and resistance movements often emerge in the vacuum created by these failures of understanding and conversation.
This is the Old Way of doing business, be it from our Exxon Mobile board rooms, our top-down development bureaucracies, or our government interventions. This Old Way has to be boldly addressed, head on, from a thousand directions. Across political and ideological fault lines. From a multitude of sectors. And from some of our most respected communities, including the scientific community, our innovation and entrepreneurship circles, and our veterans community.
In the unavoidable collision of historic forces in the battle to coexist on this planet — and the upward-bending arc of scientific, moral and innovative progress that follows this trajectory - the Old Way of doing business needs to eventually move aside. In its place should emerge the more socially and economically viable idea of a Nonzero, where every actor in this game is better off, and populations and even entire societies are more secure and prosperous in the long run. This is how evolutions works, it can arguably find its most beautiful expressions in our human ecosystems. This is true adaptation. This is our better natures — including our scientific and entrepreneurial aspirations — striving to overcome our selfish and short-sighted blind spots, as we find ways to better flourish as a social primate species.
Science, innovation, and social entrepreneurship can build us a roadmap, from the CEO to the village farmer. And our skilled war veterans can help, long after their service in harms way.