What we've been reading: disruption, sexism and natural capital

What we've been reading
Kai Nodland
Francois Badenhorst
Deputy editor
BusinessZone and UK Business Forums
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In the past month, I've started a book club in my office. So if I was to literally adhere to the title 'What we've been reading', I'd be here chatting about our first book.

So that's what I'll do. We've been reading Songs of a dead dreamer by Thomas Ligotti. A confoundingly weird man, his speciality is horror short stories. But not horror as in 'BOO!'

It's horror that's rather that's grounded in the everyday. As Ligotti told the New Yorker, horror should be, first and foremost, concerned "with the mundane and not with a sense of what I’ll call ‘the invisible.’ ”

It's a variety of horror that anyone can recognise, a darkness that nips at the edges of daily life. So if you fancy a dose of existential dread this Summer, it might be for you.

That said, let's move onto the more conventional fair.

What the gospel of innovation gets wrong

Jill Lepore, a writer for the New Yorker and a historian, has this amazing ability to make harsh criticism not seem nasty. Take this article on the theory of disruptive innovation.

The idea of disruption, coined by Clayton Christensen, has ascended to a central part of startup lore. It has made him a wealthy man, no doubt, thanks to fat consultancy fees, speaking opportunities and book deals.

Obviously, Christensen has an interest in promulgating his theory then. But it's not just Christensen who is pushing it. So how has the theory managed to attain such an iron grip on the startup consciousness?

As Lepore notes, the theory has very little serious criticism. "Partly because it’s headlong, while critical inquiry is unhurried; partly because disrupters ridicule doubters by charging them with fogyism, as if to criticize a theory of change were identical to decrying change; and partly because, in its modern usage, innovation is the idea of progress jammed into a criticism-proof jack-in-the-box."

I won't spoil Lepore's entire, watertight argument here. I urge you to read it. But she does sum up her objection most beautifully near the end of the essay:

"Disruptive innovation is a theory about why businesses fail. It’s not more than that. It doesn’t explain change. It’s not a law of nature. It’s an artefact of history, an idea, forged in time; it’s the manufacture of a moment of upsetting and edgy uncertainty. Transfixed by change, it’s blind to continuity. It makes a very poor prophet."

An Open Letter From a 500 Startups Portfolio Female CEO

The undercurrent of sexism that has festered around startup investment, particularly in VC mecca Silicon Valley, bubbled to the surface last weekend as a series of female entrepreneurs gave public accounts of what they experienced. The New York Times told of female entrepreneurs being touched without permission and propositioned leading several prominent VCs, including 500 Startups CEO Dave McClure, have stepped down since the story broke. The UK is not immune from these issues with a notable lack of female investors and a large share of investment going to male founders. Indeed, Karen Bach wrote about investors' gender-based assumption that she was running a lifestyle business for BusinessZone last year.

With the furore mounting, it's worth reading this blog from 500 Startups-backed founder Ran Ma, who talks about the long-standing issues, the fallout from these revelations and what can be done to fix the problem. 

"I’m going to be very honest here — these experiences are unfortunately commonplace in tech. It’s an open secret that most female founders have undergone discrimination, unwanted sexual advances and were made to feel uncomfortable in some form or another in the course of their career. Definitely not saying that every investor or male in power does it, but almost every female founder will eventually encounter it," she says.

None of the world’s top industries would be profitable if they paid for the natural capital they use

In the latter decades of the 20th century, the environmental costs of industry started to be quantified as governments and campaigners looked to reduce the impact on public health. Carbon trading schemes, for example, ensured older, less efficient power plants were priced out of the market in Europe and the US.

In this article from Grist, David Roberts look at the extent to which unpriced natural capital like clean water and a stable atmosphere, would add.

"If we take the idea seriously, not just as an accounting phenomenon but as a deep description of current human practices, its implications are positively revolutionary," he says.

How much does it all cost? An estimated $7.3 trillion a year, with the coal burning in China incurring the largest unaccounted cost.

"The distance between today’s industrial systems and truly sustainable industrial systems — systems that do not spend down stored natural capital but instead integrate into current energy and material flows — is not one of degree, but one of kind."

 

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