Citizens not Consumers: the next frontier for systems innovation

Across the business world, the systems thinking revolution is very much under way.  But it is as yet primarily a revolution of material flows, not yet of mindsets.  We may be looking to close the loop, but we are not yet looking to open the conversation.  This is the next frontier of systems innovation for business: to find our role in opening up involvement from people as Citizen participants, not just Consumer buying machines.

Too often – including at a recent Crowd event – the distinction between Citizen and Consumer is seen as merely words, something some odd people get obsessed about but hardly a rational concern.  It is far more significant than that.

The key point is that language is not just words; it is the scaffolding on which we build our thinking.  It brings with it possibilities, and it eliminates others.  This is because words themselves carry inbuilt meanings – think of the difference between a bachelor and a spinster, for example.  If we think with the wrong words, we make the wrong assumptions, and we do the wrong things.

This difference between Citizen and Consumer is no mere assertion.  There is a steady build up of evidence from the social psychology field of priming in particular.  In one study, 1000 people were given a survey of environmental and social attitudes.  For 500 of them, the front cover said ‘Consumer Response Study’; for the other 500, it said ‘Citizen Response Study’.  There was no other difference.  Those who answered the ‘Consumer Response Study’ reported far lower levels of environmental and social motivation.  The very word makes people less likely to care.  As a result, and as I’ve written elsewhere, consumers simply aren’t going to solve climate change.

That ought to be reason enough to abandon it as language, but the fact is that for leading businesses, the kind who aspire to qualify as systems revolutionaries, thinking of people as Consumers is also limiting your business success.

When people in your company think of the public as Consumers, what do you think they imagine them (us?) to be capable of doing?  The word creates an unconscious image of people as buying machines, capable of interacting with you ultimately only through purchase.  It makes you treat people instrumentally, a fundamental lack of respect which shuts off deeper interaction.

As the New Citizenship Project, we see this again and again in the organisations we talk to.  It throttles innovation at every turn.  Take Unilever’s Project Sunlight, for example.  A pioneering business, doing more than most governments to fan the flames of public motivation for a better world – only to then deliver consumption decisions as the limit of our agency.  It is the equivalent of saying “Shh little people, just go shopping.”

Those who signed up to Project Sunlight could do so much more, and in these interactions could generate far more connection to Unilever as an organisation, inviting genuine participation not just pushing immediate consumption.  There are plenty of ways to do this, if we can just think with different language.  And these approaches will have more impact on the world, and thereby also on your business.

Truth be told, the Consumer is on the way out whether we choose to abandon him or not.  In the age of the web not the TV our default setting is now to participate not receive; in the emerging collaborative economy we will share more than we own...  in such a context, the word will simply cease to make sense before long.  Are the people who share their homes with one another through Airbnb, now the world’s biggest hotel brand with nearly 700,000 rooms in 192 countries, ‘Consumers’?

What we replace it with is up for grabs, but our proposition is that for businesses who have a purpose beyond naive pursuit of short-term profit (as every business should), thinking of people as Citizens capable of active participation is both a moral imperative and a powerful way forward.

In a rightly famous article published 15 years ago, the true systems revolutionary and pioneer Donella  Meadows outlined the 9 key places to intervene in a system in order of impact and significance.  She placed material flows at number 6.  At number 1 was the mindset out of the which the system arises.  Language is critical to mindset.  So I say let’s change it, and be true systems revolutionaries.

Written by Jon Alexander, New Citizen Project

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