I'm a big fan of the HBO parody Silicon Valley. Unsurprisingly set in Silicon Valley, the show charts the rise and fall, and rise and fall again, of a technology startup called Pied Piper.
As someone who spent the last 15 or so years principally working for and with Silicon Valley companies, the show is excruciating. It is utterly realistic and calls into question much of what the technology industry is about. It's hilarious, but in a way that makes a person wince at the same time.
Indeed, part of the reason that I have largely stepped away from the Silicon Valley bubble is my perception of the pointlessness of it all - so many companies purporting to do stuff of importance, while really only focussing on hoodwinking investors and, eventually, acquirers into believing their hype and giving them piles of cash.
In one of the earlier episodes of Silicon Valley, the central characters from Pied Piper are taking part in one of the multitudes of business startup pitch competitions that are de rigueur in the industry. When pitching its wares, one company announced that: "...we're making the world a better place. Through elegant hierarchies for maximum code reuse and extensibility."
It's a perfect vignette to sum up the self-importance and lack of perspective of much of the Silicon Valley (and, by extension, the technology industry) culture.
I've been thinking about the show of late, and all those companies pretending to, but not really doing anything to make the world a better place. It's relevant as one of the organisations I'm involved with, the Ākina Foundation comes to the end of a three years partnership with the Government. Across all of its activities, the Ākina Foundation helps businesses, government agencies, social and community enterprises uncover the best ways to tackle challenges like poverty, inequality, environmental degradation and climate change. Social Enterprises are perhaps the perfect hybrid and solve the inherent problems with both the non-profit sector and the purely commercial sector - they make money, but do so at least in part in an effort to drive social and environmental impacts.
Anyway, the Government partnership was all about investigating how to grow the sector in this country and specifically how Government can both use its strategic levers to increase the positive impact made by Government and make targeted changes that will enable social/community enterprises to increase the impact they make. The recommendations that came out of the final report are interesting reading and paint a picture of what it will take to drive an economic system that is more equitable to people and the planet.
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The five recommendation areas cover a variety of different activities:
• Social procurement - Creating positive/wellbeing outcomes through government buying power and supply chains.
• Impact Measurement and Management - measuring and growing outcomes at an agency level, which will help enterprises deliver against Government priorities
Impact Investment - deliberately investing in funds and initiatives that aim to create positive outcomes.
• Tools and support - providing resources, support and guidance that helps more social enterprises start and grow
• Leadership and connection - giving social/community enterprises a voice, and a home within government.
Most of those recommendations only require Government to think more deeply about where it spends its money and where it gives its attention. The social procurement aspect is one area that is close to my heart. It seems utterly logical to me for Government to take some of the billions of dollars it already spends buying the various things it needs but simply spends that money with organisations that drive social and environmental outcomes. The results would be huge.
I'd also suggest before the naysayers tell me that buying from these organisations is more expensive, that the positive social and environmental benefits of doing so would more than pay off in terms of reduced Government spending on health, housing and environmental mitigation. To use an example I'm well aware of, buying Police uniforms from local suppliers who employ people domestically will save the Government plenty of the downstream costs of unemployment.
We live in a world where social and environmental impacts, once able to be externalised and kept out of sight and out of mind, are now front and centre. As a society we have no option if we want life to continue with some degree of normality, to deal with these issues. The Ākina recommendations are a good step in that direction.
- Ben Kepes is a Christchurch based entrepreneur and investor.