Jan 3, 2021

Wanted: rebel upstarts to refresh our institutions

written by Lisa Eason

Civilisation is built from institutions that provide order, innovation and structure. These are the companies, charities, universities, foundations, hospitals, associations and other hubs of human activity that provide jobs, technology, funding, education and the public and private goods on which society depends.

These institutions do not spring from nowhere. They are created by founders. Typically, one individual is the prime mover, although partnerships may be responsible. Certain institutions are much more important than others in shaping society. These are the truly original organisations. They tend to endure, and spawn imitators.

Examples might be the BBC, moulded by Lord (John) Reith, Tesla, whose driving force was Elon Musk, Alcoholics Anonymous, founded by Bill Wilson and Bob Smith, and Nasa, partly the initiative of Wernher von Braun.

Some might argue that every organisation is the product of the entire team working there, and that no individual can ever claim credit for starting it. As society progresses and grows more complex, so the idea of a lone pioneer who invents a technology is becoming something of a myth.

However, the launch of an enterprise usually requires a leader who rebels against the existing infrastructure. This role is almost never fulfilled by a committee. Groundbreaking organisations normally involve disruption and contrarian thinking. Typically, only one or two individuals are capable of radical dissent — bigger groups compromise and conform, and the dangerous elements of new organisations are eliminated, which usually means they change nothing.

Of course, most fresh ventures fail, or at least make no impact. Only a very small number persist. Often their importance stems not just from their specific output, but from their influence on competitors and followers. Henry Ford didn’t just make cars affordable for ordinary people; he introduced mass production as a manufacturing concept.

A good example of a great founder is Sir Jeremy Isaacs. He created Channel 4 in 1982, and in so doing launched the explosion of independent production companies that made its programmes. This transformed the model of how television is created in Britain — prior to Channel 4, most content was produced in-house by the broadcasters. Now, even the BBC makes only a minority of its shows. This revolution enabled a variety of new creative voices to obtain access to broadcasting.

Two recent outstanding social entrepreneurs are Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, who in 2001, co-founded the enormous free online encyclopaedia Wikipedia, which is open-source. It is one of the best examples of a non-profit success on the internet. If they had not invented it, quite possibly no one would have done so, and, instead, a digital behemoth like Google would have developed an equivalent and profited mightily from it. Wikipedia is proof that economic incentives are not essential for the founding of vital organisations.

Systemically important institutions are hard to build but easy to undermine. Societies tend to decline rapidly when key organisations decay in sectors such as education, justice, media, politics and business. While highly authoritarian command economies tend to be poor at innovation, anarchy leads to misery. Institutions sometimes become redundant — technology or behaviour may make them irrelevant — but the best evolve with society’s needs. Fairly regular infusions of new institutions are needed to address the shifts in society and replace ossifying ones.

Existing institutions tend to become dominated by the Establishment — older grandees, typically with titles such as Professor, Lord, Dame or Sir. These stewards can provide wisdom, but are almost never risk-takers. They are part of the status quo and want to protect existing institutions, not encourage upstarts. Many older organisations are dependent directly or indirectly on government funding, which makes them more risk-averse and bureaucratic.

I hope the coming generations are active in founding institutions. Our communities need them to build economic and social capital. They can stimulate productive work, civic engagement, political participation, volunteering, self-improvement and higher living standards. There is something of a myth that any new enterprise needs lots of money: actually, the key ingredients are energy, confidence, imagination and commitment. There are no rules for founders — you just have to find a need, and seize the day.