Real Leaders

How To Cure a Cancerous Economy

Cancer is a disease we are all aware of. One in two of us will develop cancer at some point in our lifetime. In response, tremendous efforts are being plowed into raising public awareness, fundraising, research and treatments.

The UK’s biggest charity, for example, is Cancer Research UK, with an income of £680 million, which dwarfs the second-place organization by more than £350 million.

Cancer-like behaviors occur not only in our bodies though. Our economy has become increasingly cancerous, and this affects not just one in two, but every one of us. And yet the story of this economic disease and how we might tackle it is not told enough. I am aware that for many of us, this story has painfully personal resonances, but I believe it is worth mentioning nevertheless.

Join me for a thought-experiment: Imagine your body was an economy. The cells in your body are the organizations producing services and products that the body needs to be healthy. Your blood flow pumps raw materials, information, and money to and from these organizations in the forms of proteins, sugars, fats and hormones. And, like the real economy, your body is powered by food, water and sunlight that nature provides.

When healthy, every cell contributes to the overall wellbeing of the body. Every cell contains the blueprint, roughly 20,000 genes, for the entire body, i.e., the whole system. Cell activity, and especially growth, is regulated by a complex exchange of chemicals between cells and with the environment – essentially an intricate web of feedback loops.

Cancer can develop if changes to our genes happen to disrupt this delicate set of feedback loops and uncouple a cell from its regulatory constraints. The cell’s purpose changes from contributing to the health of the overall body to growing itself as fast as possible. Further mutations can turn this growing and dividing cell from a benign to a malignant tumor, one that infects neighboring healthy cells. The tumor sucks in disproportionate resources to fuel its growth, literally starving other parts of the body, and many tumors will spread throughout the body. If this process continues for too long, the disease becomes irreversible.

The analogies to our economy are obvious: organizations that grow for growth’s sake; the sucking in of resources by ever more prominent organizations and wealthier individuals; the spreading of the underlying values to all parts of our economic, public and private lives. The outcomes of these cancerous behaviors are serious: inequality, disempowerment and the destruction of the planet upon which we all depend, to name just a few. And as the root cause of human cancer is gene mutation, so it is the mutation of our shared societal values over centuries that has brought forth today’s economy.

There is, however, also good news. We can learn from new scientific approaches that are helping to tackle complex problems like cancer. And amongst these is systems thinking, first developed in the middle of the 20th Century. Systems thinking is used across all kinds of disciplines, from engineering to ethnography. As the field has evolved, we have learned that there are specific universal characteristics of healthy systems. This is hugely important as systems, both man-made and natural, are all around us. Our bodies and the bacteria within them are systems. So are our laptops and the internet. Importantly, the organizations that make up our economy and the economy itself are also prime examples of complex systems.

What then are these universal characteristics of healthy systems? Unsurprisingly, they make common sense: For example, healthy systems circulate resources to all parts of themselves – your body connects every last cell with its own blood supply. Healthy systems re-use their resources multiple times – the circular economy movement has already understood this one. And healthy systems balance efficiency with resilience – systems with more diverse, smaller actors are more resilient than systems with fewer, larger ones, which are more efficient.

These characteristics provide us with a goal for what the systems that we live and work in – organizations, communities, the economy – should look like. They don’t tell us though, how to get there.

And this is where we can return to what we learned about cancer. Cancer develops because the body’s blueprint, the genes that encode how we work are mutated. The disruption of feedback loops enables it to take hold, and as cells become cancerous, their purpose is shifted from being in service to a healthy body to growing for their own sake.

I believe that if we want to bring about a healthy economy, one in which everyone can live a dignified and fulfilling life within the limits of our planet, we need to learn three things:
The purpose of any organization is to contribute to the health of the systems it is part of, be that the industry it operates in, the economy and society in which it is embedded or nature from which it ultimately derives the value it creates.

Feedback loops are critical, and we need dramatically to increase our awareness, understanding and ability to influence them. Some loops need reinstating, others need breaking, and some new ones need to be evolved.

Most importantly though: The economy we need will only emerge if we evolve some of the most fundamental values on which our society is built.

We don’t know what feedback loops we need, what values are necessary and what organizations will be present in an economy that genuinely works for all. But happily millions of experiments are going on around the world at this very moment that can help us figure this out. Feedback loops are being short-circuited, organizations that conform to different values are being built, and debates on what our economy is all about are breaking into the mainstream.

Our task collectively is to recognize these efforts for what they are: the emerging story for a better future. Your job is to tell this story to as many people as you can.


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