The match was struck by Carlota Perez, the economic historian and development scholar, who painted a tantalising picture of what-could-be. Taking a 250-year view, Perez sees the four previous great technology revolutions – factories and canals, coal and railways, steel and heavy engineering, and cars and plastics – following a strikingly similar pattern. The first phase is enthusastic uptake as entrepreneurs pile into the new technology, leading to a speculation-fuelled bubble (think successive canal, railway and auto manias in past surges). Irrational exuberance is followed by a sharp recession, even depression, as reality kicks in and ambition is scaled back.
This is the point we have reached in the fifth great revolution wrought since the 1970s by IT, telecoms and the internet. The initial internet bubble burst at the millennium, to be followed by the great casino bust of 2008. As the dust settles on the financial crash, the question now is: can we hope for a second phase of stable, sustained, broad-based growth – a new ‘golden age’, as Perez calls it – as has happened at each of the technological surges in the past? Yes, replies Perez. But if – and only if – in the new phase investment in the technology is production- rather than finance-led; there is a guiding ‘direction’ for the innovation effort; and supporting institutions evolve, or are put in place by governments, to underpin and ease the jolting social change such transformations set in motion.
Those are evidently big ‘buts’. Production and manufacturing, such as they are, still dance to the tune of Wall Street and the City. The only guiding direction for Silicon Valley’s new masters of the universe seems to be technology for its (and their) own sake. And most business today, at least in the Anglo-Saxon world, channels Milton Friedman in asserting it has no social obligation except to increase its profits. Its interests have diverged so far from those of the societies in which it is nominally embedded that it cannot be relied on to provide a way forward. Governments meanwhile are supine and timid, having bought hook, line and sinker the neo-liberal line that the market alone can provide, and are in any case way behind the curve. Supply-side education and training (as I keep saying), while valuable in themselves, have limited effect when companies only employ humans as a last resort. The one nod to institution-building is the emerging debate about a universal basic income – which although interesting looks increasingly like Silicon Valley’s attempt to offload what should be its own wealth- and job-creating responsibilities on to those who pay taxes, a category which does not include itself.
Yet the outlines of a new positive-sum game between business and society are tantalisingly clear. Says Perez: ‘The direction for innovation is clear: smart, green growth’ that would work within environmental constraints to bring further areas of the world into a new-look, carbon-free prosperity. For that, governments need to rouse themselves to extend the fiduciary duties of corporate managers and directors to a wider stakeholder group, prodding enterprise to embrace its proper function of innovating, as Peter Drucker put it, ‘to tame the dragon, that is, to turn a social problem into economic opportunity and economic benefit’. Management’s ‘job-to-be-done’ would switch from the paradigm of the last 100 years, efficiency, the foundation for mass-production and consumption, to effectiveness, which redefines prosperity as the availability of solutions to pressing human needs, and growth as the increasing pace with which they can be generated. Imaginative institutional reform would underpin the changes with a new social contract reshaping obligations and entitlements for the new era.
So far so good. Perez's outline was greeted with enthusiasm. But that left one large question outstanding: how would we get from here to there? Above all, who was going to make it happen? Perez couldn’t answer that, and, perhaps predictably, the reaction was a resort to what might be called the great leadership lament: where were the great leaders of old, and who would step up to lead us to the promised land? It seemed for a moment as if an the conference was stumbling to an uncharacteristically downbeat end. But that was to reckon without a second coup de théâtre courtesy of the very last speaker, social philosopher Charles Handy. Handy brought the curtain down and the hall to its feet (literally) by providing a frame for Perez’s ideas that was at the same time more daring historically and a direct call to action. Like the the Catholic Church 500 years ago, Handy said, management was ripe for its own ‘95 theses’, or manifesto for reform, that would take on a corrupted institution and reinstate basic human values at its centre. As to where to start and who should lead – what better than the Drucker Forum to stand in for Wittenberg and Peter Drucker for Luther, or even Luther King, their message spread and amplified by every person in the room? His message received a standing ovation. A defining moment for the Drucker Forum? Judge for yourself: watch here.