THE BLOG
17/03/2015 05:43 GMT | Updated 16/05/2015 06:59 BST

We Need More Than Products If We Want Systemic Social Change

In his HuffPost response to my Forbes piece about the shortcomings of products and services as vehicles for systemic social change, Nick Stanhope makes the point that not all mission-driven consumer products are created equal -- that well-conceived, human-centered products can provide value in everything from public health to financial health.

Nick is right, though he misses my central argument. I don't dispute that smart products exist, or that design matters. Rather, what I'm saying is that for the most part, products treat symptoms rather than address root causes. They help us navigate our current realities but rarely change what those realities are. And we've become so fixated on them that we've lost sight of this important distinction.

Take financial services, for example. Applications like Digit are beautiful in their simple designs and creative in their gentle nudges to help us make smarter financial decisions. But when we frame the problem of people's financial health and stability as primarily a problem of savings behavior, we overlook major systemic factors in our economy and politics. Indeed, the fact that three quarters of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck is more a result of a generation of stagnating wages accompanied by rising costs of everything from education to healthcare to home ownership. Yes, Americans can and should save more, and Digit can help them do so. But there's just not enough money to save. On such systemic questions Digit is largely irrelevant.

Nick ends his piece with an endorsement of Michael Porter's 'shared value' theory of business which posits that business is our best hope for solving big social problems, in large part because profits allow it to target social problems sustainably at scale. This is a much longer conversation which I'm happy to have, but I'm glad Nick includes it because I think it unearths a fundamental philosophical difference about the role business will play in social change.

Porter believes we can have our cake and eat it too: make big profits while simultaneously solving the big social challenges we're grappling with. But is it really wise to expect the identical systems that have largely contributed to global problems like climate change or staggering levels of wealth inequality to navigate us to a better place? I don't think so. Porter and his followers are far too quick to dismiss the central role that politics and civil society have played in nearly every major societal advancement in human history. In many cases this involved reigning in business in a big way. I highly recommend Michael Edwards' short bookSmall Change: Why Business Won't Save the World as an insightful counterpoint to the philanthrocapitalism camp.

This doesn't mean that markets aren't an effective means of meeting a wide range of human needs. Especially when it comes to delivering products and services, business is remarkably efficient. But if the conversation we're having is about systemic social change, far more powerful than any business product or service would be asking business to turn inward and re-examine some of the very structures of modern capitalism itself - following, among others, the model of B-corporations and worker-owned companies who alter their legal structures and corporate DNA in service of ecological sustainability, the democratization of wealth, and much more.

Even the best designed products and services must be conceived of as complements to these more ambitious efforts, otherwise it's hard to see how we'll diverge much from the path we're on.