It’s a powerful, evocative image. Iconic researcher and conservationist Jane Goodall, gray and world-worn, smiles adoringly at the girl carrying on her crusade. Pig-tailed Greta Thunberg beams up at the legendary environmental warrior with look that seems to carry a promise. A wizard and her protégé, photographed as the torch is passed. One day when we look back at this miserable moment in our history, that image might symbolize the gleam of hope that carried us through.
What else do you see in that picture? Look closely.
Down through decades as people view this image, the photo credits will likely only mention Goodall and Thunberg, but our minds will register a third participant. This image was taken in Davos at the 2019 Fourth Industrial Revolution Conference. Their meeting wasn’t arranged by a government, political party or a charity, but by one of the events’ sponsors, Salesforce. In return, Salesforce got a branding opportunity for the ages.
Salesforce hosted a panel at the conference with its CEO accompanying Goodall, Thunberg, Bono and several other philanthropic or environmental leaders.
The Goodall/Thunberg photo op was an offshoot of that event. It was worth every penny.
Renaissance artists loved to play with triangles. They often composed their paintings to build a hierarchy, in which the eye was drawn to a figure at the top of a triangular composition, signifying its importance or power.
What place does the corporation occupy in this image of Thunberg and Goodall? It takes the place often occupied by the Madonna or the deity in a Renaissance painting, the benevolent force tying the other elements together.
Yes, this is just a single image, but there can be profound insight in an image. As our liberal democracies descend into dysfunction, a faster, nimbler, and perhaps more powerful force is elbowing its way into social leadership.
We have inherited from the industrial experience an understanding of corporations as rapacious enemies of popular welfare. That image is increasingly at odds with our experience on the ground, as this rapidly evolving tool of human social organization begins to take on roles we never previously imagined. There is much more in this photograph than meets the eye.
Which power center is likely to play a greater role in curbing runaway global warming over the next few decades, governments or corporations? Which will do more to study, invent and deploy new tools to make people healthier and extend our lives? Which will do more to promote art, science, education and research? Neither can act alone. Neither will prosper while the other flails. It’s hard to imagine a healthy, progressive future without strong social leadership from a business sector that was once regarded by progressives as a kind of cancer, tolerated if necessary, but best subordinated and always treated with suspicion.
Life and economics have changed. Industrial era economics, in which labor was merely one more input like coal or capital, is behind us. Corporations now exist in a mesh of interests, competing with each other for talent, with brands dependent on a progressive public image. Modern corporations face social pressures that have never been exerted in the past. They are indispensable partners in human social progress.
This transformation is not unprecedented. Governments were once little more than extensions of aristocratic power, with no interest in public welfare beyond suppressing peasant rebellions. By rendering them more accountable to popular will, we converted them into tools of human thriving. Corporations are experiencing a similar evolution.
That doesn’t mean corporations will replace governments. It doesn’t mean corporations are now “good” instead of “bad.” What we are seeing in this fresh push toward social responsibility is merely a response to changing market incentives. An information economy runs on talent, meaning companies must work hard to attract and retain the most desirable employees, granting them labor power than never before existed outside the entertainment industry. And communication technology gives consumers unprecedented insight and choice, allowing them to incorporate their identity and interests into buying decisions like never before.
Corporations didn’t suddenly grow a conscience. Markets developed in ways that have begun to reward social responsibility. Companies are adapting to protect their bottom line, absorbing incentives which are tilting toward the public good.
A camera sometimes captures a truth that eludes the unaided eye.