On the Criterion Institute’s Leaders Shaping Markets initiative

The Criterion Institute’s Leaders Shaping Markets initiative is an encouraging development in large part because of its focus on systems level change. As the Institute recognizes, the questions being raised and the resources being invested are essential to overcoming recurrent problems of fragmentation and marginalization in efforts being made in more piecemeal fashion across a number of other arenas.

Of particular interest from the Institute’s second roundtable session is Joy Anderson’s list of Strategies for Shaping Market Systems. Anderson presents five strategies:

  1. reframing the issues, problems, and boundaries of the system;
  2. engaging systems of power, elegantly;
  3. continuously identifying leverage points in the system;
  4. building structures and leadership for sustained systems-level disruption; and
  5. attending to change over time and across context.

Reframing is the right place to start. As I’ve said elsewhere in this blog, the problem is the problem. At this level of complexity, problems cannot be solved from within the same paradigm they were born from. Conceiving ways of redefining problems that truly reframe the issues and boundaries of a system is hard enough, but implementing them is even harder.

From my point of view, philosophically, the central problem that makes everything so difficult has to do with our deeply ingrained Western habits of thought around not viewing problems and solutions as of a piece, as wholes in which each implies the other. As long as we keep defining problems and solutions in ways that separate them, as though the solution is in no way involved in perpetuating the problem, we are hopelessly stuck.

So we restrict our options for solving problems by the way we frame the issues. And when we misidentify the problem, as when we fail to properly frame it, then we will likely not only not solve it, we will make it worse. That seems to be exactly what’s been going on in the struggle for economic and social justice for decades and centuries.

So if we reframe the problem of shaping markets around the mutual implication of problems and solutions, how do we move to the next step, to engaging systems of power, elegantly? There are a lot of deep and complex philosophical concepts involved here, but we can cut to the chase and note that our language and tools embody problem-solution unities. Social ecologies of relationships define the meanings and uses of things and ideas.

One way of engaging systems of power elegantly to shape markets might then be to harness the power driving those markets in new, more efficient and meaningful ways. The question that then immediately arises concerns the next of Anderson’s five points: where do we find the leverage in the system that would enable the harnessing of its power?

There is likely no greater concentration of power in markets than the profit motive. How might it become the primary lever for engaging the power of the market? We might, for instance, deploy tools and ideas that co-opt the interests of the systems of power by enhancing the predictability of market forces and sustainability of profits. Concentrating now on dwelling within the problem-solution unity of how to shape markets, we can tap into a key factor that makes markets efficient: we manage what we measure, and management is facilitated when we can measure quality and quantity cheaply and easily.

Common currencies for the exchange of value are essential not just to trade and commerce, but also take shape as the standard metrics employed in science, engineering, music, and as the signs and symbols of basic communication. Money is such an easy to manage measure of value that the problems we are addressing here stem in large part from using it too exclusively as a proxy for the authentic wealth we really want. Engaging with systems of power elegantly also then requires us to think in terms of extending the power of standard units of measurement into the new domains of intangible assets: human, social, and natural capital.

This is where we arrive at the structures for sustained system-level disruption. Current economic models and financial spreadsheets focus on the three classic forms of capital: land, labor, and manufactured tools/commodities. (Money, as liquid capital, is fungible relative to all three.) Of these three, we have a metric system for measuring and managing only property and manufactured tools/commodities.

Green economics offers an alternative four-capitals model that adds social capital and reframes land as natural capital and labor as human capital. Both of the latter are found to be far more complex and valuable than their usual reductions to a piece of ground or “hands” would suggest. Human capital involves health, abilities, and motivations; natural capital includes the earth’s air and water purification systems, and food supplies. The addition of social capital is justified on the grounds that, without it, markets are impossible.

What we do not have is a metric system for three of the four forms of capital. Nor do we have the legal and financial systems needed to bring these forms of capital to life in efficient markets, to make them recognized and accepted in banks and courts of law. We further also do not have leaders aware of the need for these structures, and of the established basis in scientific research that makes them viable.

The science is complex and technical, but it brings to bear practical capacities for meaningful, individual level, qualitatively informative and quantitatively rigorous measurement. There is considerable elegance in this method of approaching engagement with the systems of power. There is mathematical beauty in the symmetry and harmony of instruments tuned to the same scales. There is exquisite grace in the way the program for shaping markets grows organically from the seeds of existing markets. The human value of enabling the realization of heretofore unreachable degrees of individual potentials would be enormous, as would be the social value of being able to make returns on investments in education, health care, social services, and the environment accountable.

Successful new markets harnessing the profit motive in the name of socially responsible and sustainable economies well ought to provoke a new cultural renaissance as the proven relationships between higher rates of educational attainment and health, community relations, and environmental quality are born out. The challenges are huge, but properly framing the problems and their solutions will unify our energies in common purpose like never before, bringing joy to the effort.

For further reading along these lines, see:

Fisher, W. P., Jr., & Stenner, A. J. (2011, August 31 to September 2). A technology roadmap for intangible assets metrology. In Fundamentals of measurement science. International Measurement Confederation (IMEKO) TC1-TC7-TC13 Joint Symposium, http://www.db-thueringen.de/servlets/DerivateServlet/Derivate-24493/ilm1-2011imeko-018.pdf, Jena, Germany.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2009). NIST Critical national need idea White Paper: metrological infrastructure for human, social, and natural capital. Washington, DC: National Institute for Standards and Technology, http://www.nist.gov/tip/wp/pswp/upload/202_metrological_infrastructure_for_human_social_natural.pdf

Fisher, W. P., Jr., & Stenner, A. J. (2011, January). Metrology for the social, behavioral, and economic sciences (Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences White Paper Series). Washington, DC: National Science Foundation, http://www.nsf.gov/sbe/sbe_2020/submission_detail.cfm?upld_id=36

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2012, May/June). What the world needs now: A bold plan for new standards [Third place, 2011 NIST/SES World Standards Day paper competition]. Standards Engineering, 64(3), 1 & 3-5, http://ses-standards.org/associations/3698/files/2011WSDthirdplacepaper.pdf or http://ssrn.com/abstract=2083975

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2009, November). Invariance and traceability for measures of human, social, and natural capital: Theory and application. Measurement, 42(9), 1278-1287, http://doi:10.1016/j.measurement.2009.03.014

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2011). Bringing human, social, and natural capital to life: Practical consequences and opportunities. Journal of Applied Measurement, 12(1), 49-66, http://ssrn.com/abstract=1698867

Fisher, W. P. J. (2010). Measurement, reduced transaction costs, and the ethics of efficient markets for human, social, and natural capital. Qualifying Paper, Bridge to Business Postdoctoral Certification, Freeman School of Business, Tulane University, http://ssrn.com/abstract=2340674



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3 Responses to “On the Criterion Institute’s Leaders Shaping Markets initiative”

  1. Ken Royal Says:

    As always, great thought-provoking post, William.

    • livingcapitalmetrics Says:

      Thanks, Ken. I just registered for the Criterion Institute’s conference in March on shaping markets. I really like the alternative structure for the interactions. We might have to figure out how to do that kind of thing for some of our meetings…

  2. Metrology, the Advancement of Science and New Horizons in Psychological Measurement | Livingcapitalmetrics's Blog Says:

    […] new variations tend to simply dig more deeply into existing positions without realizing that the problem is the problem, which is to say that the way we frame the situation determines to a large extent the applicable […]

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