I recently organised a series of events at Wayra, Telefonica’s digital accelerator, on what compelling solutions the UK’s entrepreneurial community had developed to solve a number of societal ills. Amply named ‘Digital Mouthpiece’, start-ups from London-based accelerators sent their best and brightest to discuss the big issues and showcase their latest innovations.
In a country where half of all new businesses fail within the first five years, it’s customary for start-ups to enter ‘pitch mode’ and focus on how quickly they’ve been able to scale but refreshingly, those entrepreneurs presenting were completely obsessed on the impact their digital products and services had on customers. That’s maybe because customers provide a pipeline to the valuable product feedback and insight that will help a start-up accelerate faster. The problem is that this can diminish as businesses become larded with more people, capital, and assets.
The same can be said for government.
Adam Lent, a fellow at the RSA, recently published a book titled Small is Powerful: why the era of big business, big government and big culture is over (and why it’s a good thing). In it, he discusses the ‘big consensus’, a political ideology that places faith on big business, big government and big culture.
He challenges the consolidation of wealth and power in the hands of big corporations and big governments by advocating the need to shift to a small politics, economics and culture, which promises to be fairer, stabler and freer.
“Politicians tell us that we must rely either on big business or big government or, more often than not, both. This is a terrible failure of imagination that ends up keeping the very people and organisations in charge that delivered the most serious economic crisis in eighty years.”
Adam believes it’s become harder to sustain the claim that big government and big business have discovered the source of endless efficiency and growth. In his view, the power of small companies to challenge incumbents has grown, while consumers are more demanding and powerful, and small campaigns against corporate practices are growing with astounding rapidity.
Even if our business and political leaders are still in thrall to the ‘big consensus’, a small revolution is already underway. Millions are choosing to set up their own small business rather than work for a giant corporation and political and social change is increasingly delivered by many small initiatives and campaigns rather than big parties.
So, what does revolution look like to the ‘smallist’ movement?
We’re always hearing about the burgeoning civil service and its inability to tame the procurement practises that plague every government department. Delays, overspend and a lack of common sense are usually to blame and nowhere is this more prevalent than in the National Health Service.
The NHS costs the UK taxpayer £2billion every week but let’s drill it down to one area we can all relate too and that’s proven to speed up the recover of patients – food.
More than 80,000 hospital meals are binned every day and 67 per cent of staff admit they would not eat the food they serve to patients. Recent figures also show wild variations between trusts, with meals costing anywhere between £3 to £35. There have been 21 failed attempts at improving the standard of patient meals resulting in an additional £54m loss since 1992.
The problem is that catering managers can only use NHS approved suppliers and these are usually factory supplied, unnutritious readymade meals, which come from hundreds of miles away. The lunacy of this led to some hospitals serving locally sourced, seasonal, nutritious food, which creates less food miles, supports the local economy and local farmers.
One great example is Sussex Trust, which developed a market garden hub in partnership with a local farm that offered fruit and vegetables at 20% lower cost than the existing supplier.
The market garden is now a central hub, collecting produce from other smaller growers in Sussex and supplying other hospitals and schools in the area. A major new contract to supply Sussex and Brighton Universities also generated new jobs and they’re now able to invest in the latest processing and farming equipment.
Other hospitals followed suit and saw a dramatic decrease in their expenditure, with some spending no more than £1800 per meal for both staff and patients. That ran parallel to an increase in patient recovery times and good sentiment between staff and patients.
The notion, then, that big government and big business have a central role to play in owning and controlling all economic resources and activity no longer holds the enormous sway it once did.
Of course it’s easier for a new and emerging business to stay lean, agile and ‘pivot’ when something isn’t working but that doesn’t mean the government shouldn’t open itself up to disruption.
Having seen firsthand how start-ups are creating wealth and positive societal change, there’s a vital role they can play in delivering public services where successive governments and businesses seem to be failing. This seems doubly important at a time of austerity!
So, in a world where everything is big, can a small revolution actually be what’s needed?