The Power of Babel, the Power of Language

Jelleke Vanooteghem
Social Finance

Do you know the story about the Tower of Babel? According to this legend, all humans used to speak the same language. They wanted to build a tower to reach heaven. God, however, had other plans: He confounded their language and speech, so that they were unable to finish the tower. For author and advisor John Elkington, language still plays an important role for social change.

Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian sociologist and media guru, changed my mind. The medium’s the message man. As I switched from economics to sociology in 1968, his vision of a “global village” was a North Star.

John Elkington Author

John Elkington

is co-founder and executive chairman of . He also co-founded and . He is a much sought-after advisor, speaker, and author and has taught at universities across the UK. In November, Elkington attended a about transforming the financial system. He is a member of the .

好用的足球竞彩app,亚博吧I’m not sure I fully understand McLuhan, even now, but he shone light into dark corners of an increasingly tech-driven future.

好用的足球竞彩app,亚博吧“One of the effects of living with electric information,” he insisted, “is that we live habitually in a state of information overload.”

好用的足球竞彩app,亚博吧And that was decades before the Internet and social media.

Here’s another McLuhanism I liked: “I think of art, at its most significant, as a , a Distant Early Warning system that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it.”

I love art, but when it comes to social change I focus on language. And in a world once again plunged into uncertainty, one thing now seems slam-dunk certain. Tomorrow’s capitalists will think and communicate in very different terms about the future and their evolving place in it.

好用的足球竞彩app,亚博吧Meanwhile, in pursuit of multiple conceptions of a better future, we build multiple towers of Babel. As a result, we talk collaboration, yet compete. We talk unity, yet fragment. We try to inform, yet often bewilder.

"A person hears only what they understand."
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Too often, our beliefs impede collective progress.

好用的足球竞彩app,亚博吧McLuhan again: “I wouldn't have seen it if I hadn't believed it.” Or here’s how Johann Wolfgang von Goethe expressed a related idea: “A person hears only what they understand.”

I only know the Goethe quote because it popped up, in English, on a slip of paper circulated at a recent four-day event in Paretz near Berlin, Germany. The aim: to cross-pollinate between two key networks in the burgeoning world of impact.

好用的足球竞彩app,亚博吧These were at a retreat organized by the BMW Foundation and , the global action community for impact investors. The modest aim: to ensure the global financial system meets the long-term needs of people and planet.

好用的足球竞彩app,亚博吧Thirty or so of us came together from around the world, but initially struggled to find common wavelengths. I quipped that it was like the aliens and humans trying to align frequencies atop Devils Tower in Spielberg’s 1977 movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. 

Before long, we cracked the code in the extraordinary, once royal, village of Paretz. Occupied by the Soviets until 1989, the place is like a time machine. I imagined myself back in 1977—trying to sell East Germans on the idea that, just over a decade later, capitalism would upend their world.

How do you say, “Pull the other one” in German?

好用的足球竞彩app,亚博吧Now imagine trying the same thing today, though this time focusing on sustainability-directed system change.

好用的足球竞彩app,亚博吧Once again, the political and economic rules of the game must change. Speaker after speaker described this as “hard,” “tough,” “painful.” One described the challenge this way: “If you want to change the system, you have to fight with reality.”

Impact Investing
Participants discussed in small groups how the financial system can be transformed. Marc Beckmann
Impact Investing
Retreat participants met at a variety of locations to exchange ideas. Marc Beckmann

好用的足球竞彩app,亚博吧But the language of business shows that reality is already shifting. Think of the repurposing of words and phrases like ‘capital’ (with six or even eight forms now in play), ‘bottom line’ (think double, triple, quadruple), ‘materiality’ (the focus of a growing service industry), or ‘productivity’ (as in the agenda).

好用的足球竞彩app,亚博吧Still, I approach the further rebooting of business language with trepidation, given Anand Giridharadas’ head-on attack on the repurposing of business terms in his book, , subtitled  “The Elite Charade of Changing the World.”

好用的足球竞彩app,亚博吧As he says, in “an era where capitalism has no ideological opponent of similar stature and influence,” it is “hard to escape the market’s vocabulary, values, and assumptions, even when pondering a topic such as social change.” He energetically critiques a world where young people are “relentlessly” told that they can ”do well by doing good.”

好用的足球竞彩app,亚博吧He claims that one key reason why business language has been clicked-on-and-dragged into the world of social change is to help defend the yawning inequities that characterize modern—and increasingly digital—forms of capitalism.

好用的足球竞彩app,亚博吧Billionaires want change at scale, he says, just so long as it doesn’t impact their own wealth and status.

"We start out shaping words, then they shape us. For good and ill."
John Elkington

Language has always been a battlefield, casualties guaranteed. As with our tools and buildings, to channel Churchill and McLuhan, we start out shaping words, then they shape us. For good and ill.

As a result, we begin to hear things we hadn’t previously heard—or understood.

The case for “radical action,” a term attracting more support than any other during the Paretz event, is increasingly clear.

Paretz, Germany Impact Investing

BMW Foundation & Toniic Retreat

好用的足球竞彩app,亚博吧From November 5-8, 2018, the took place in Paretz, Germany. Both the BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt and Toniic consider responsible leadership and positive social change to be of central importance. And both organizations see the need to make the existing financial system fit for the global challenges of the future. The key question is: What helps people and our planet most? How could such a transformation succeed? This is what the BMW Foundation & Toniic Retreat in Paretz was about. John Elkington was one of the participants.

Indeed, the day I flew back to London I attended the WWF launch event of their latest , alongside a preview of 2019’s Netflix series, . The latest Index reveals that a subset of 16,704 populations of 4,005 species declined by 60% between 1970 and 2014. Beyond shocking.

好用的足球竞彩app,亚博吧Yes, Johan Rockström mixed in upbeat commentary on exponential solutions in his speech, but the and work he spotlighted shows our species moving ever-deeper into the Anthropocene—but as yet without the political and economic mindsets and institutions long-term success would require.

Developing the new economics, the new politics, is a multi-generational task. But progress is under way. Two weeks before Paretz, I was in Basel with Novartis, the Swiss healthcare giant. As chair of their Impact Valuation Advisory Council, I helped coax a high-energy group of internal and external experts towards consensus on how different forms of impact, negative and positive, are best tracked and valued.

好用的足球竞彩app,亚博吧The central question for Novartis, as CEO Vas Narasimhan explains, is: “How do we impact the world through innovation and medicines, and how do we find technology that you could then disseminate to large populations?”

好用的足球竞彩app,亚博吧Swap out the word ‘medicines’ for a relevant focal area and this could now apply to any suitably ambitious company or business organization.

As we push back the frontiers of impact assessment and valuation, with the pioneers increasingly sharing key lessons learned, a more universal language of impact is evolving. It will powerfully inform the evolution of tomorrow’s capitalism.

Indeed, I see today’s towers of Babel as necessary stepping-stones. But where sci-fi author Douglas Adams spoke of the “Babel Fish,” able to instantaneously translate human, animal, and alien languages, my bets are on machine learning and artificial intelligence to achieve the same ends.

好用的足球竞彩app,亚博吧Ultimately, though, we must change hearts and minds, including our own.

One impressive voice in Paretz was that of Christian Felber, founder of .

好用的足球竞彩app,亚博吧He gave a mind-boggling lecture on the common good while executing a highly gymnastic dance—and periodically standing on his head.

"Ultimately, though, we must change hearts and minds, including our own."
John Elkington

好用的足球竞彩app,亚博吧God, we are told, turned Babel on its head, whatever his reasons. In more recent times, popular frustration turned Soviet-style communism on its collective head.

好用的足球竞彩app,亚博吧Now, as Generation Investment Management concludes: “We are in the early stages of a global ‘Sustainability Revolution’ that has the magnitude of the Industrial Revolution and the speed of the Digital Revolution.”

Our global village is increasingly frustrated and fractious, as old macroeconomic and geopolitical orders dissolve.

好用的足球竞彩app,亚博吧But, at least to my optimistic eye, and on a good day, the DEW Line of mutating business language suggests exponential progress in the 2020s.

This article was originally published on .

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