Hilary Cottam > Blog > Uncategorized > Who are the New Industrialists? (and why they matter)

Who are the New Industrialists? (and why they matter)

At the World Economic Forum in Davos last week, climate was at the top of the agenda – but close behind (and often discussed in equally apocalyptic tones) was the theme of work.

This year I am also focused on work (and its intimate connections to the climate challenge).  I am running a series of workshops across Britain where I will be asking those from all walks of life to join me in designing a vision of the good working life.  I am also asking those I call the New Industrialists to join me in thinking about their role in the creation of good work, flourishing communities and generative economies.

I started this conversation at Davos where I was joined by Ajay Banga, the CEO of Mastercard and Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft in front of a live audience.  You can watch a recording of our conversation here.

Why ‘New Industrialists’?  History shows us that technology revolutions are always accompanied by social revolutions: the design of new social systems and the widespread diffusion of new cultural norms about what is right and fair.

This social change does not happen by accident.  It must be designed through a process in which stakeholders, who are initially opposed to one another, come together and re-think.  The state is required to set a new framework. Concerted action by civil society is key.  Without the rise of organised labour in the last industrial revolution, it is hard to imagine the gains that followed.  Thinkers and intellectuals also play a role.

And then there is a fourth group: the New Industrialists.  These new industrialists are leaders of businesses at the forefront of the new technology who dare to challenge their peers, arguing that a new future is possible – one which encompasses new forms of productivity and new forms of human flourishing – but only through the design of new, collective social systems.

These earlier pioneers include individuals such as Saint Simon (a prominent investor in canals and pioneer of new forms of work organisation -he argued that work needed to be meaningful if workers were to be productive), Robert Owen (a founder of textile manufacturing and the co-operative movement), the Quakers (who created companies such as Cadburys and Barclays Bank whilst founding numerous social institutions and moving to abolish slavery).

In the early 20th century, figures such as Joseph Chamberlain a leading British manufacturer, was an important campaigner for mass education and a pioneer of land reform; in the US, the National Civic Federation of business (which brought together top business leaders with early unionists) moved to regulate child labour and introduce the first minimum wages; Rosenwald at Sears Roebuck pioneered kindergartens, low cost housing and recreational activities and, perhaps most famously, Henry Ford significantly raised wages with the realisation that workers needed to be able to afford his cars if he was to build his business.

What unites these figures is that firstly they dared to go against the grain of the normative thinking of their peers and secondly, they responded with innovation to the growth of economic inequality and social unrest which accompanied the early years of the technology revolutions they lived through.

What is also interesting about these pioneers is that they acted through enlightened self-interest.  We are not talking about philanthropy here – although this sometimes came later.

What the ‘new industrialists’ wanted to demonstrate was that the new forms of technology that underpinned their businesses, could lead to higher productivity and a different sort of society.  In other words, they were pragmatists: they understood that support for new working conditions and social lifestyles would be critical to diffusing the potential of technology and therefore their business growth.

In my discussion with Ajay and Satya I asked; where are the new industrialists today; what should be the principles of a 21st century social settlement and what are the particular challenges to designing change and good work in the face of ecological collapse?  I am grateful to them for joining me in this first conversation and to the team at the World Economic Forum who made it possible.  You can listen to our conversation and you can follow my work and read more about my ideas for a 5th social revolution here.

January 2020