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Preventing a dystopian future: how can business and society work together?

I knew we'd be okay in the end

Last week I had the very good fortune of joining a panel that discussed how business and society can work together to prevent a dystopian future. There were leading voices from the Cabinet Office (Mary Kunnenkeril from the Inclusive Economy Partnership) and business (Co-op’s Director Community & Shared Value, Rebecca Birkbeck), as well as a healthy level of forward-thinking challenge from applied futurist Tom Cheesewright – all thoughtfully facilitated and succinctly drawn together by Stefan Stern (Columnist for the FT, Guardian and Visiting Professor at Cass Business School).

If you’ve met me you’ll have heard our corporate team’s mantra of ‘bigger impact through bolder thinking’ – the idea that, to really make an impact on the biggest challenges of our time, we are all going to have to think more boldly. And that’s the ethos of what I wanted to convey in my presentation, which posed three questions: how close are we really to dystopia; how can community save us; and what are you going to do about it?

[It's about a 10 minute read]

1.  How close are we really to dystopia?

To start with it’s worth defining ‘dystopia’:

“An imagined state or society in which there is great suffering or injustice, typically one that is totalitarian or apocalyptic”

First off, to reflect on the clause about ‘great suffering or injustice’, I found this prediction by Yuval Noah Harari ('21 Lessons for the 21st Century') a helpful place to start: 

Globalisation will literally save the world

What this warns is the development of a two-tier global society. Is that actually the case? And would it lead to great suffering or injustice?

Looking at the global picture:

  • Roughly 1% of the global population controls 44.8% percent of the world’s wealth
  • Conversely, the bottom half of global income earners almost certainly have less than 1% of the world’s wealth
  • And the gap between the two is only getting bigger, with an estimate that in 2018 2,200 billionaires worldwide saw their wealth grow by 12% (sources at the bottom of the post)

And how does this play out in the UK?

  • The top 10% of UK households had 45% of national wealth in 2018, while the poorest 10th had just 2%
  • And, in terms of the growing gap, the wealth among the richest 10% increased almost four times faster than those of the poorest 10%.

So, there is a gap, but does it equate to great suffering or injustice? Let’s take a quick look at day-to-day suffering, poverty; financial suffering and the associated mental health implications in debt; and long-term physical suffering through obesity:

  • Poverty: an estimated 14.3 million people are in poverty in the UK – 22% of the population
  • Debt: the poorest 10% of households had debts three times greater than their assets vs with the richest 10% whose wealth is 35 times larger their total debts
  • Obesity: childhood obesity is twice as prevalent in the most deprived areas in the UK compared to the least deprived areas, which is as high as 26.7% at ages 10-11, and the gap has only increased over the last 10 years

Now let’s address the clause on ‘totalitarian or apocalyptic’. The antithesis of a totalitarian society is a strong civil society. CAF’s research with LSE examining the role of business in preserving the civil society space states 3 hallmarks of a strong civil society: freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly, and freedom of association. One thing we do know is that a weak civil society leads to suffering.

An organisation called CIVICUS monitors National Civic Space Ratings and their analysis (at the time of writing) shows the following split:

  • Open – 22%
  • Narrowed – 21%
  • Obstructed – 25%
  • Repressed – 19%
  • Closed – 12%

The UK is classified as ‘narrowed’, in case you’re wondering (explanation of ratings at the bottom of the post). This suggests that just 22% of nations globally enjoy a strong civil society. And a quick word on ‘apocalyptic’… That’s exactly how my cousin in Australia described the feeling there throughout the bush fires (and subsequent floods and hail storms).

Where a two-tiered split really comes into play is that, globally, lower income earners are disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis than higher earners, who can mitigate their exposure. Or, with developments in projects like SpaceX, the wealthiest on the planet could potentially just relocate to a new planet (sources below).

So, regarding the clause on ‘an imagined state or society’ – is this the stuff of imagination? That’s up to you to decide.

2.  How can community save us?

Firstly, what do we mean by community? My personal understanding is that it’s the antithesis of individualism; or its any group you identify with whose collective interests you consider in addition to your own individual interests.

There’s another quote from Raghuram Rajan’s ‘The Third Pillar’ which can help us frame our thinking:

What then is the source of todays problem in one word

[I took the liberty of adding 'and planet' because I think it's implied in the context of the book.]

If it’s then a question of balance, let’s reverse the previous problem and see how community can help us prevent a two-tiered society.

In response to closing civil society, we have community movements (like Extinction Rebellion, Fridaysforfuture, Giving Tuesday, The Giving Pledge). I was told by an organisation that specialises in supporting the campaigning community that in the UK, in spite of negative attitudes from certain political figures and media conglomerates, there’s more positive attitudes and awareness from change makers thanks to community movements.

Indeed, charities and community organisations can do much, much more than just delivering services for beneficiaries – they can address and drive systemic change.

And in response to suffering and injustice we have community empowerment. This isn’t just about taking the resources from the very wealthy and giving them to lower earners (which is what we’d now call chequebook philanthropy). It’s about setting the right conditions for the bottom tier to build themselves up and transcend their own problems.

There are a few examples of companies I’ve been really proud to work with on this sense of empowerment:

  • The foundation of a major energy company that is giving people in income stress a chance to reconnect to their energy supply and get back on their feet
  • The foundation of a global insurance company that’s learning how to make their products more accessible to the uninsured
  • And a global science company that is improving access to and the quality of education so that people can create a future for themselves in science.

And a final note on how fulfilling community interests also fulfils your own business interests – those examples bring benefits like insight on vulnerable customers, new customer bases and a new talent pipeline.

3.  What are you going to do about it?

The world is literally on fire

The urgency of this quote by Arwa Mahdawi suggests that we’re sleep-walking closer towards the abyss of a dystopian reality, and it will be business as usual that pushes us over the edge.

In conclusion, there’s good news and bad news.

The bad news is that there’s nothing intrinsically valuable about philanthropic capital. Business as usual philanthropy is not going to save us. You can’t just give – you have to make your giving count.

The good news is that philanthropic capital can be one of the most powerful instruments for change that we have at our disposal. Whether you can unlock it or not is down to you.

As a final reflection, I’m going to leave you with the three fundamental questions we help our clients address so that they can have impact – to which I’ve added a fourth:

  1. Who/what changes through your work?
  2. How do they change?
  3. Are these changes important?
  4. Is this enough?

Sources and further reading

Wealth gap:

Public good or private wealth, Oxfam (and this article challenging its conclusions by Vox)

Global Wealth Report, Credit Suisse

UK Poverty Statistics, Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Obesity Statistics, Parliament UK

Civic Space:

CIVICUS National Civic Space Ratings (abridged classifications below)

Open: The state both enables and safeguards the enjoyment of civic space for all people. Levels of fear are low as citizens are free to form associations, demonstrate in public places and receive and impart information without restrictions in law or practice. The authorities are tolerant of criticism from civil society groups and provide space and platforms for open and robust dialogue with members of the public.

Narrowed: While the state allows individuals and civil society organisations to exercise their rights to freedom of association, peaceful assembly and expression, violations of these rights also take place. People can form associations to pursue a wide range of interests, but full enjoyment of this right is impeded by occasional harassment, arrest or assault of people deemed critical of those in power.

Obstructed: Civic space is heavily contested by power holders, who impose a combination of legal and practical constraints on the full enjoyment of fundamental rights. Although civil society organisations exist, state authorities undermine them, including through the use of illegal surveillance, bureaucratic harassment and demeaning public statements.

Repressed: Civic space is significantly constrained. Active individuals and civil society members who criticise power holders risk surveillance, harassment, intimidation, imprisonment, injury and death. Although some civil society organisations exist, their advocacy work is regularly impeded and they face threats of de-registration and closure by the authorities.

Closed: There is complete closure - in law and in practice - of civic space. An atmosphere of fear and violence prevails, where state and powerful non-state actors are routinely allowed to imprison, seriously injure and kill people with impunity for attempting to exercise their rights to associate, peacefully assemble and express themselves

Climate apartheid’: Rich people to buy their way out of environmental crisis while poor suffer, warns UN, The Independent

Climate Change Threatens the World’s Food Supply, United Nations Warns, The New York Times

SpaceX’s Elon Musk and his plans to send 1 million people to Mars, Teslarati


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