Friday, December 11, 2015

Dear "Mr. Macy" - A Challenge

Someone asked me the other day: How does a corporation stay authentic in an ever more green-washed market place?

Fair question. My immediate response is to say: don't market anything. Because that's not what we do. Marketing intrinsically means selling something your customers don't need. That's why people are inherently suspicious of marketing regardless of how true the content may be. But the big open secret is that customers will indeed buy based on marketing, so it is easy to get tempted. Some corporations try to use the sustainability movement as a marketing opportunity, ruining the playing field for the rest of us.

So, how a corporation approaches their marketing (philosophically, fundamentally, and responsibly) is very important. In this way, corporate social responsibility achieves authenticity and not mere window dressing.

Recently the movie “Miracle on 34th Street” has been on TV. It is a movie about Macy's with all advertising pointing to the other scheduled show times, sponsored by Macy's.

Fair enough, it's a good movie; but one scene struck me in particular: there was an 'apparent angry' customer stopping Shellhammer to rant about Kris Kringle (“Santa”) directing Macy's customers to other stores. Shellhammer was shocked to find out the customer wasn't angry at all but praised Macy for the Christmas spirit to do the good deed. The dramatic dialogue ended with this customer pledging to be a loyal returning customer and Mr. Macy's advent approval to extend the practice beyond just Christmas.

And there you have it, an authentic moment on the silver screen.

Being the ever optimist, I assume a corporation sells widgets or services that customers actually need. But that's the hard part, isn't it? Corporations are so focused on selling more that they forget there is more than one way to sustain a brand and a business. So when competition gets fierce, corporations think they will have to race to the bottom. A tragedy of the commons.

But the simpler truth and escape is just as Mr. Macy (in the movie) pointed out: something authentic must be authentic. You can't fake it because it will never make it.

So I stand by my recommendation then and now: the right path is to look at this as an exercise of actual engagement. Yes, you the corporation must engage your stakeholders.

Get to know them, understand them within the framework of sustainability. What are their social and environmental problems? What are their goals? What can they do to contribute? What are the barriers to change and what are the benefits to change? How do you initiate change? How do you test and measure for improvements?

From there, the engagement then becomes a community based action. Based on the maximum effective solution possible and stakeholder engagement, a corporation can find a new path to create new models of doing business. This is the only way to make the business responsible and sustainable to its community. This is also the only way to authentically continue your corporate brand.

As I've said before, this process based approach is slow and painful. It is incremental. It requires trust and collaboration which we Americans seem to lack these days. I therefore remain doubtful that any corporation is willing to embrace the challenge.

Or perhaps this is my challenge to all the corporations: MAKE A CHANGE. STOP MARKETING AND START CARING.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.

- jin [Challenge issued to "Mr. Macy" in particular. Cheers.]

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

What Is Process Innovation Anyway?

It struck me today that not many people know what process innovation really is. No wonder when I tell people about my company, the raised eyebrows signal many suspicions that I’m simply selling snake oil.

But rest assured that process innovation is a real thing. It's also a very productive and useful thing. It’s very different from the dominant form of product-based business innovations (*ah hem, Apple*) that drive transactions we know today. Process based innovation is not well studied; it is more complex, slow to be seen because it attempts holistic results, and it does not attract capital attention because it is not solely focused on capital returns.

Only mature firms currently apply process based approach to refine their product based businesses staying current with market trends (Toyota - Six Sigma - set off a whole wave of this in may industry and sectors). Smaller firms do not have the patience nor do they see the value in the process based approach yet. This is because we still have some very antiquated worldviews about how the market innovates, creates value, and how we make productive gains in our global economies.

There is no time like the present to challenge the status quo, is there? First, understand that process based ventures mean the focus is on the existence of the market as an ecosystem. The market is presumed important. The default method calls for defining the market, then measuring and analyzing to design market strategies. Process based approach also involves ongoing updates of variability to control for market improvements. Process based ventures therefore adopt the deliberate slow approach to solving uniquely localized problems with ongoing "agile" improvement efforts.

Product based ventures on the other hand focus on the level of demand and profitability, rather than the existence of the market. The market is not presumed to be all too important. Innovation is therefore for the pure sake of innovation anew - hence our patent laws have to define novelty and usefulness criteria to award these nonsensical IP exclusivity rights. Ranting aside, it is important to recognize product based ventures, by default, are preoccupied with disguising the "product" and ignore the market. While process based ventures are generally tailored and localized to market and solution needs, product based ventures standardize components to incumbent products and enter multiple markets in plug-n-play manner. The goal is not the ecosystem, but of the successful product itself.

So who is really selling snake oil here?

Process based innovation ventures are not popular because they have traditionally been linked to long learning curves, painful consensus building exercises, tedious documentations for measuring impacts, and ongoing management of data validation to control for condition variability and need for new evolution of products in place. The process approach is also riddled with uncertainties based on the ongoing efforts of controlling variability of the system. But of course, venture capitalists do not like uncertainties nor are they known for their patience. Which is another reason why process based ventures are not popular among aspiring social entrepreneurs. These days, we find many of our peers thinking of the next great gadget the consumers will never want. Few are applying a process to seek localized product solutions that are needed. 

We began our social company from the opposite direction. We've been referred to as a unicorn of sort but I don’t believe in unicorns. So, we hope you walk away a little enlightened about process based ventures and why we believe in the business model. However, all things are about a balance. We caution that even the process must also be balanced against product market trends. To quote someone famous, one must be like water to move like water. So, we believe successful process ventures will exploit the generic nature of open technologies, will position themselves in upstream or midstream target markets to effect change from stakeholder upstream and return on investment downstream, and they will participate in both the market for sharing knowledge (licensing) and making products (generics). Product based ventures have had a narrower market focus historically which has given us an unsustainable consumer pattern. They have traditionally positioned downstream or midstream in their target markets for the product’s sake. Although they choose target markets with less uncertainty and assure capital investments with greater confidence, it is important to recognize that confidence is built on an incomplete understanding of the value creation and impacts the ecosystem where they presume the market is secondary to the product. So don't be fooled by the magic of products alone. Know the process and why we are making products. Be not afraid of the magic in process innovations.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Story of (dot) Us

Recently, I started down a path to get a better understanding of open source culture. I wanted to see if the principles can be cross applied to other industries other than IT. Even more interesting of an inquiry is how “open” might fit our sustainability goals. My intuition was red hot on that trail and I was sure I’d find something there. What I’ve found was much more. What I found is a global happening. It was enough for Lauren and me to together take a closer look.

We are still very much on this journey, but the more we learned, the more we realize something very fundamental is shifting. The world around us is transforming. Scientific and industrial revolutions have enabled humankind to look beyond the functional appeals of our environment as we experience the information revolution. We are now looking for better ways together. Our common human experience in civil society has been elevated by the motions of defined, refined, and controlled social improvements. Globally, we have now put in place many process-centric evident-based global civil communities together via the Internet. (For example, Doing Development Differently is carrying on a core principal work doing exactly this with governance. Lauren and I became signatories to their efforts when they launched. Another example is the Open Knowledge Foundation's recent establishment of Open Sustainability - a network to open knowledge and source sustainable developments.)

Our collective consciousness is shifting from assets to knowledge, from scarcity to abundance, from hierarchy to network. We are connecting the dots and drawing up nodes on maps of our human capacity as a whole. This shift from the traditional functional, hierarchical orientation to a process-centric orientation is driven by a demand for efficiency and effectiveness. A primary target of opportunity is to increase information access and transparency. As our collective human experience transitions from hierarchies to networks and from disconnected functional decisions to process-centric development models, we are seeing a reinvention in institutional philanthropy and an emergence of distributed and disruptive social enterprises; both are measurable impact driven. A new generation of free society netizens began to see the world not for its scarcity of resources but for its abundance of knowledge and human capacity to make a difference. They are entering the shared information economy and the global community is beginning to understand the whole is in fact greater than the sum of its parts.

Under pressure, our old market competition model, based in the tragedy of the commons, is being transformed into a new way of strategic positioning to maximize our mutual advantage towards common goals. Put it simply, we are shifting from a labor-based economy to a knowledge-centric global free-marketplace. This has been fueled by the Internet and web 3.0 (collaborative) technologies. It will soon reach a tipping point where even censorship cannot prevent the cascading effects.

I’ve been feeling hopelessly lost for a while now, but the surest way to find a path is to create one. I recently realized that Lauren and I had been trying to create this path with our pathfinder company (BrainBox) that was founded just a year ago. Since then, we’ve applied the process based thinking, impact measuring methodologies, and open source methods, and executed a scaled research study into recycling habits and fostering sustainable behaviors with the City of Cincinnati.

From here, more work is to be done. There is much we want to accomplish. Lauren and I have been working on developing a learning schedule to get to know more about distributed masses' collaborative capacity to solve our sustainability problems, openly.

So. the Story of (dot) Us is only beginning.

/Stay Tuned/

Friday, June 5, 2015

BrainBox Completes its First Milestone

We started this little company in November of last year. Our hope was to incorporate process thinking with sustainable behavior science to help promote sustainability generally.

Our first project is for Rumpke Recycling to test mailer types in two hypotheses. We just completed the final write up of this project. A copy of our final analysis report is available under Creative Commons Attribution license "CC BY" by request to

Creative Commons LicenseCreative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

"Trickle-Down Techonomics"

To truly improve the process of human development, we really have to think about inclusion in a new light. The old "trickle down" inclusion effect is not working. In fact, it has been used to keep people from accessing the resources they need to be full participants in the development process.

That's why a process improvement for anything, a problem or a company's operations, require stakeholder involvement and empowerment. A conversation has to be created with the lowest cost to the primary stakeholders. The solution has to come from the people participating in the process, not enforced upon them. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Friday, March 13, 2015

East Price Hill Recycles

BrainBox is excited to share our most recent project: "East Price Hill Recycles" Campaign.

The City of Cincinnati, in partnership with Rumpke Recycling, Green Umbrella, Keep Cincinnati Beautiful, and Metro is launching an integrated recycling campaign in the neighborhood of East Price Hill in Cincinnati. The campaign will begin on March 16th. We will be canvassing the 4,000 or so residential homes in Cincinnati's East Price Hill (EPH). Businesses, schools, and community organizations will also be targeted for support for a fully integrated approach.

Our primary goal is to increase and sustain curbside recycling participation in EPH. Our secondary goals are (1) identify barriers and benefits of recycling for the EPH community, (2) test the idea that the availability of interior bin for a household resolves a major barrier for sustained recycling behavior, and (3) raise awareness of recycling in general and specific challenges Rumpke Recycling faces and the community can assist. (For example, plastic bags can't be recycled because they jam a $32 million dollar Rumpke recycling operation. However, other entities, such as Kroger, will take plastic bags and recycle them.)

Cincinnati's current curbside recycling participation rate averages 70%, making it a leader in the Mid-West. The City has a goal of becoming a national leader. It plans to target all 50 neighborhoods over the next 10-15 years. We hope to continue to gather important recycling data along the way helping the City succeed.

While the commitment to sustainability and curbside recycling is very common in other cities, very few have the infrastructure necessary to measure the impact of such an undertaking. The City of Cincinnati has incorporated Radio Frequency Identification Tags (RFID Tags) on all Rumpke recycling trucks. All recycling carts are given a specific Tag Identification Number. This allows the City to track every cart and to know when each specific cart is tipped by the recycling truck. This type of infrastructure is new in the world of curbside recycling and Cincinnati is one of the few cities in the country that has it giving the City the measurement tools necessary to track its progress in increasing recycling rates. BrainBox is excited to be able to facilitate this process and help the City continuously improve its recycling campaign initiatives.

BrainBox ltd is a social purpose company dedicated to serving other social purpose companies and projects through our process management abilities and our understanding of social impact and collective actions and behavioral changes for the better.