“Understanding disruption is hard, disrupting is even harder”

The next Green Monday event focuses on disruptive consumer-facing business models and calls upon the business community to develop a new way of doing things. But much like when we talk about sustainability, we’re not always clear on what we mean when we talk about disruption. What are we disrupting and for what purpose?

That, to me, should be the first thing that is discussed. The Oxford Dictionary defines disruption as “disturbance or problems which interrupt an event, activity or process”. If we use that definition in the context of this debate, it implies that new business models interrupt business as usual.  In reality, the process is probably not as abrupt as interrupting – but rather a gradual process where the development and successive uptake of a new business model goes on to eventually make old ones redundant.

Clayton Christensen, who coined the term disruptive innovation describes it as one that “allows a whole new population of consumers at the bottom of a market access to a product or service that was historically only accessible to consumers with a lot of money or a lot of skill.”[1] In the context of disrupting for sustainability, this definition isn’t really suitable as our aim is not solely to give market access to certain demographics. Our goal is much more ambitious: to develop new ways of doing business, that will thrive within planetary limits and that will enable humans and other species to exist long into the future. And with added complexities, as our goal must be achieved in light of growing challenges: an ever-increasing strain on resources, more frequent extreme weather events, population growth, poverty and global inequality to name a few.

With that ambition and those challenges in mind, I think we should talk about disruptive business models in a societal context where business disruption leads to (a) significant change(s) in the underlying structure of the capitalist societies that we’ve identified as not working. Disruption beyond just disrupting the business itself, disruption beyond the market the business operates in, disruption that has ripple effects in other parts of society, and changes existing systems. (Though I do feel I need to point out that there are some that would strongly disagree with diverting from Christensen’s original definition of disruption).

In terms of the seven business models proposed ahead of the next GM, and, in the context of how I defined disruption, I’m particularly interested in the model of access over ownership. Because I think consumption is our biggest problem, and a complex one to crack. Solving our consumption addiction doesn’t solely fall into the realm of the business community but it can certainly help. Access over ownership (or collaborative consumption as it’s also called) has the potential to disrupt much more than the simple act of consuming something. It acts on other behavioural aspects too: our trust with others, our sense of belonging within a community, our understanding of what ownership means, what commons are and what we actually need to be happy/to achieve wellbeing.

To assess the potential of all these business models, we need to keep reminding ourselves of these questions: what are we disrupting and for what purpose. And we need to ask if these models are really giving us the changes we need: does it matter if a car is manufactured in a closed loop system if nine billion people want to own one? Or does it really matter that a fast-food restaurant sources its beef locally (i.e.: a shorter supply chain) if people still eat beef every day?

Ultimately, developing a new approach to business is only one part of the many changes we need to make as individuals and as a society to achieve sustainable lifestyles. Looking at disruptive business models without considering the wider repercussions of how they change us and society suggests that businesses exist outside of ourselves, external to the real courage it takes to change something. But this, of course, isn’t true. We need to change, and alongside of it so will “business”.

(This blog was originally posted on the GM Opinion website).


[1] http://www.claytonchristensen.com/key-concepts/
Title from Andy Rachleff http://techcrunch.com/2013/02/16/the-truth-about-disruption/

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