Time for a Change of Business

06/14/2013 08:39 pm ET | Updated Aug 14, 2013

The notable finance ministers of England, France, Germany and the U.S. struggled to maintain the gold standard following World War I. It was their failure to recognize that they were living in a fundamentally different world that fed the Great Depression, as Liaquat Ahamed describes in his 2009 work Lords of Finance. For more than a decade these intelligent gentlemen attempted to sustain and resuscitate an economic corpse.

It's difficult to avoid feeling that we are in a similar decade today. The excesses of capitalism continue to erode confidence in that model, yet those excesses have today not been adequately addressed. Fresh jobless figures in the Eurozone point to the number of unemployed in the region exceeding 20 million by the end of this year. It is a stark reminder of the human dimension of this financial catastrophe.

For the G8 leaders who gather in Northern Ireland on June 17 and 18, the question is how you go about stitching society back together. Narrowing, not widening, the inequality gap and building a more cohesive society and a strong, resilient economy at the same time must be the aim.

The time is ripe for a model that isn't business as usual.

Technology has allowed collaboration and co-operation to emerge as a dominant form of action. Wikipedia, and its mischievous cousin Wiki-leaks, are examples of co-operation for collective benefit. Facebook and Twitter are tools for forming communities with people of common interests, not just to share photos but to achieve urgent action. The uprisings of people in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria have all been facilitated by this technology.

There is a cyclical pattern in modern history of the ascendency of different economic models, even if today it's hard to remember that we didn't always live surrounded by a corporate ideology. There was a period in which we witnessed the flowering of co-operatives and mutual and labor unions, which grew themselves in part from a realization that the industrial revolution had come at too high a price.

If we're reading the signs correctly, and if there is some legitimacy in this cyclical pattern of reaction to excesses of the past, then we might be at the beginning of a period that sees co-operatives not just as respected but as favored above other corporate forms.

For one, co-operation might replace consumerism as the dominant rhetoric. The prevailing business model today perceives of individuals as "people who consume things." Even the poor are seen as a business opportunity at the bottom of the pyramid. They simply consume things in smaller, more frequently purchased packages. When did we become calloused to this imagery?

Co-operatives, too, will increasingly be seen as a solution. From job creation to food security to climate change mitigation, co-operatives provide a market-based solution to a common identified need. We will see them operating increasingly in difficult sectors. The entry of the Midcounties Cooperative Society into electric utility services in the UK is an example of this.

Finally, a co-operative decade would be spurred by continued recognition that the ownership structure of a business really does make a difference. There is awareness that CSR (corporate social responsibility) is too often an attempt to add a veneer of respectability to a business model driven singularly by profit. We need to remind the public that true accountability only comes from a different governance structure: when the owners of the business are also its members or its customers.

The opportunity for a golden age of co-operatives ripens as we see these trends harden: impatience with consumerism; the insistence on sustainability; a demand for transparency, for information; global co-operation; seeing co-operatives as solutions; and disgust at unprincipled excess.

It was not a random gesture the UK government made in choosing to convene a Social Impact Investment Conference last week in the run-up to the G8 Summit. Global leaders today recognize that in order for society to flourish and for economies to be sustainable, capital must be harnessed to serve people, and not for the benefit of capital alone.