Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

Part I: The Emerging Civic Economy

Abdul Semakula
10 min readJul 8, 2022

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In this four-part series, we will explore how designing for two strategic leverage points can divert us from the unsustainable path and put us on a path to sustainability. The four parts are;

Part I: The Emerging Civic Economy.

We will see that humans have an innate sense of justice that is beginning to show up in customer behaviour and dozens of surveys and how early adopter businesses are responding.

Part II: Justice as a Customer Need.

We will explore how reframing the customer from a material being to a holistic being with spiritual, material, civic, and moral needs shifts the paradigm from maximising material accumulation to optimising wellbeing for people and planet.

Part III: Designing for a Civic Customer.

Using a design thinking map, we will briefly explore two broad ways in which early adopting businesses can offer spiritual value, material value, civic value, and moral value to customers to gain competitive advantage over laggards.

Part IV: Fintech — A Strategic Driver of the Civic Economy.

Money drives the economy. We will explore how we might design civic money to drive a civic economy and how we can leverage the point-of-sale to engage civic businesses and customers daily in grassroots social and environmental activities while nurturing civic mindsets in participants.

Part I: The Emerging Civic Economy

A basketball strays from a throw and a boy chases it. He picks it up, and as he turns, he sees another boy damned to a wheelchair with crippled legs. By looking at his emotion-loaded eyes, you could sense the uncrippled boy’s heart feeling — I’m able to play but he ‘the other’ isn’t. This feeling diffused from eyes to heart to brain to limbs — the uncrippled boy moved into action, mobilised wheelchairs for other boys on the team, and invited the crippled boy to join the game.

This short video story touched millions of hearts and went viral on the internet because the uncrippled boy helped level the playing ground for the crippled boy to enjoy the game. But how he did it is more noteworthy- he reframed the narrative from ‘you have to be uncrippled to play basketball’ to ‘the uncrippled can put their skills to test by playing in a wheelchair while allowing the crippled to enjoy the game.’

This scene might sound unfamiliar but it is one we’ve all seen or experienced. Whether that is through mentoring or donating school fees to orphans, we’ve all been on either uncrippled or crippled side — giving or taking emotional favours from others. Others want us to have what they have or be able to do what they can do. It’s in our nature, but more importantly, it is our purpose — a justice mechanism inbuilt into living beings for life on earth to thrive.

Life is a mesh of interdependent justice — any deficit in justice puts the resilience of a system and life on earth at risk.

We have an innate sense of justice

Humans have a natural inclination to justice. Justice is a virtue intrinsic to natural creations and earth and thus human nature. If the elements in and of the earth and its natural principles were more or less than required, earth would not be home to flourishing life as we know it.

“[Ironically], unjust people expect justice to be done: even thieves expect it from one another. If they agree on certain conditions, and some of them violate those conditions, [they are so incensed by the injustice] their relationships are thrown into chaos and disorder. Thus, each soul naturally feels happy when seeing or hearing justice, and feels unhappy to see or hear the opposite. That is why even the unjust admire just actions when they see or hear them. Since man has an innate sense of justice, he is grieved by the abnormalities and disorders of the world. He is sad to see someone with physical deformities like a limp or a squint. To achieve equality and symmetry, God placed single features [like the nose] in the middle, and other organs [like ears] in pairs, one on each side of the body.” Dr. Yasien Mohamed

Even though justice is inbuilt into the human psyche, humans are also explorative beings and often find ourselves choosing injustices. Whether it is through the evolution of decision-making in communities, state democracy, corporate boards, or household and individual decisions, man-made systems are prone to injustice which is why throughout history we’ve been re-aligning them to our internal need for justice.

Compared to the billions of years earth has existed, justice with humans on it is a two-minute baby whose first-time parents are learning how to grow it better. Like the body gains immunity by unintended exposure to pathogens, systems gain immunity from injustices by unintended exposure to injustices.

Unintended, meaning like a baby is curious to taste infected stuff on her tongue with no knowledge of what will happen tomorrow, we, adults focus on the short-term benefits with little or no knowledge of our actions to us, other beings, and the future of life itself. Sometimes because the line between justice and injustice is blurred, or we have limited knowledge of the impact of our decisions on other beings, other times we are corrupted by self-interest. And we’ve had our fair share of infectious injustices and anti-injustices.

From female inferiority, slavery, colonialism, segregation, and many others, injustices have gone through cycles of normalisation, rebellion, and rectification.

Whenever imbalances were normalised into daily lifestyles, just people demanded justice and more just systems emerged.

Capitalism has had its streak of imbalance normalisation, and today there’s a wave of rebellion growing in numbers and power against its very foundations — how common resources are extracted from common into private wealth ownership. The graph for Global Protests correlates with the graphs for Global Inequality, Global Warming, and Global Biodiversity Loss.

Like the uncrippled boy in the opening story, like the rebels who fought against slavery, colonialism, and apartheid, like the heroines of female emancipation, like today’s social and climate innovators, these protestors are channeling their inner sense of justice by demanding social and environmental justice on the streets.

Customers are also demanding justice.

Street protests may be targeted at state inaction against businesses but businesses should be bracing for a wave of their own — directed at what they value most — growth and profit.

This time it is customers and workers channeling their inner sense of justice — demanding a fairer and sustainable economy — not on the streets but at the Point-of-Sale with their wallets, while workers are demanding justice with their talent.

Several data points in the so-called ‘consumer’ studies signal a civic economy that I believe is a potent seed for a more just and sustainable future — that is if we can fertilise, water it, and nurture it into existence. Here are a few signals of an emerging civic economy in which everyday people make purchase and work choices with justice in mind.

“Millennials believe that working for causes is an integral part of life, and they are drawn to big issues. Instead of making one-off charitable donations in cash or in-kind, they’re more likely to integrate their causes into daily life by buying products that support sustainable farming or “fair trade” principles, or by joining large movements that aim to solve social or environmental problems. 67% are more likely to integrate their causes into daily life by buying products that support social or environmental causes.” BCG — The Millennial Consumer

“Only one in five feels that the system is working for them, with nearly half of the mass population believing that the system is failing them” and there’s an overwhelming ‘sense of injustice’ (76%) and ensuing ‘demand for action’ (78%). — 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer.

“91% would switch brands for one championing a cause.” “76 % agreed that businesses focus on their own agendas rather than considering wider society,” Deloitte Global Millennial Survey

“52% people want more business engagement, not less, on climate change, economic inequality (49%), workforce reskilling (46%)” Edelman Trust Barometer — 2022.

Collectively these customer data points and several others signal a transition from civic apathy in which people unconsciously buy products and services for their material benefits to civic agency in which people consciously buy products and services that are built with justice in mind.

These civic customers understand that their daily choices at the Point-of-Sale affect not only their material health but the health of other beings on earth and choose to buy just products. Just products value the health of nature and society as they value the health of their customer and thus balance profit with purpose.

Like the uncrippled boy cared about the happiness of the crippled boy and went the extra mile to make that happen, civic customers care about their interdependence with nature and society and go the extra mile to choose products and services that value that relationship.

Civic value is realised when just customers feed their inner sense of justice to protect the health of nature and society by choosing just products made by just businesses using just processes, just business models, and just cultures.

Civic Businesses — Early Adopters.

Businesses may be adamant to street protesters but ignoring customers’ growing demands for justice is ignoring a powerful source of competitive advantage. (I’m talking about competitive advantage more in the sense of being mission-driven, customer trust, social impact, longevity in business, and less in the sense of profit maximisation.)

As we see in most trends, early adopters are responding to civic customer demands in two broad ways;

Against the SDG and climate finance gap: businesses are sharing more wealth to fund social and environmental activities,

If you buy stuff on the internet, you’ve probably seen messages like, “5% goes to charities in Ukraine”. Every day, more than a million purchases on the internet use the model Buy X and send X% to social/environmental activities. Entrepreneurs in the Founders Pledge have pledged 1% of their wealth to charity. A new movement of post-growth entrepreneurs pledges to give profits above a flat growth curve to social/environmental issues. Another movement of purpose businesses has adopted a steward ownership model where profits are plowed into a foundation that funds social and environmental activities. Even on smile.amazon.com , you can choose a charity and Amazon will send 0.5% of your purchase to it. There are tens of thousands of businesses that value their interdependence with earth and society and are willing to take less to support social and environmental issues.

Against Extractionism: civic businesses as investing in sustainable products, processes, business models, and inclusive business cultures. From B-Corps, social enterprises, and others, businesses aren’t waiting for governments to reduce their appetite for profit at the expense of common interests. These entrepreneurs are channeling their inbuilt sense of justice by using renewable energy, reducing wastage and slave labour within their value chains, pay workers living wages, among others.

What these early adopters teach us is that businesses can serve justice to customers by adopting models, processes, products, and cultures that value the business’ interdependence with nature and society.

The difference between centralised sustainability models like ESG, CSR, and the like is that in civic markets, businesses realise that;

1) Civic Need:

The customer has an innate need for justice (common welfare) as s/he does have the innate need for food, clothing, shelter, and other elements of material wellbeing.

2) Civic Agency:

Giving customers civic agency feeds and satisfies their innate need for justice as it does build trust between business, and community or society.

To accelerate these key principles of a civic economy and thus sustainability into the general economy, we can empower early adopters to give customers civic agency to impact social and environmental issues.

As more customers choose civic businesses to satisfy their innate need for justice, non-civic businesses are incentivised to offer justice to customers, then more customers choose civic businesses, then more businesses become civic and the cycle grows until sustainability is the norm.

In the next post, we will explore why and how businesses can adjust to the growing customer ‘demand for justice’ by creating civic products and services that balance customer needs, and business needs with the needs of society and the environment.

We will briefly explore how to redesign customer personas from material beings with only material goals to holistic beings that benefit from the spiritual value, civic value, and moral value entangled in daily lifestyle choices.

The person or customer is the focal element of the current market system — viewing him/her with a holistic lense changes how businesses innovate products and services from maximising material value to optimising wellbeing for people and planet. This I believe is a neglected leverage point to accelerate sustainable markets.

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Abdul Semakula

Systems Innovator co-creating bottom-up a distributive & regenerative future at https://opencollective.com/nvc