Humans and Things: Revisiting Stakeholders’ Role in Strategy

Liubava Shatokhina, Human Sciences in Strategy Board Member

The name HUMANs seemed liked a good one when we started our association, a group of social researchers who seek to contribute to the strategic decision-making of business and policy-makers. We settled on the name HUMANs because, put simply, we are human-centric; in our approach to decision-making, we use the tools of the humanities and uphold the values of humanism. However, like all good researchers, we are prone to questioning our assumptions. Despite the meaning of our name, then, might it be productive when thinking about decision- making to move beyond a focus on just humans?

Not only humans

Most progressive organizations today like to claim that they are human-centric. To be human- centric commonly means to listen to consumers, citizens, and other stakeholders, and to take their interests into account when making decisions. Human-centricity is unquestionably a good thing; it is a lodestar, and one of the main goals of HUMANs. However, I would like to argue that human-centricity is in a sense limiting. Indeed, for the sake of our and the world’s future, we might consider embracing a broader approach: expanding our definition of stakeholders to include not only humans, but also animate and inanimate nature as well as human-made objects.

For some time now, social theorists have been writing of subjects such as the agency of non- human actors; the false dichotomy between culture and nature; and the shortcomings of anthropocentrism. Though these approaches are very different, they all question whether, when thinking about the future, we should put humans front and center. Indeed, strategic decision-making can benefit by broadening the scope of our vision to include actors beyond humans.

It is gradually becoming mainstream to recognize that animate nature has its own interests, and should not just be protected, but seen as having rights of its own. It is now commonplace, for example, to consider many animals as having their own rights, to live and, in some cases, to live well. Inanimate nature is another story; we can cite only a few examples of strategy that recognizes its rights. In political decision-making, one is the Constitution of Ecuador. In this historic document, an ecosystem is said to have rights just as individuals and some animals are said to have rights. The result is an appreciation that biodiversity is valuable as such, not just a prerequisite for human well-being.

The fate of goods

But what about the next frontier—human-made objects, or put simply, things. Human “progress” has endangered many species and natural environments, but the same processes are taking place in the world of things. In some cases, technological innovation has rendered many older technologies extinct; in others, it has reduced them to just aesthetically pleasing objects of nostalgia (a century-old typewriter, for example, decorates my living room). And though the extinction of some objects might seem to be the inevitable result of progress, the fate of these goods is actually the result of strategic decision-making. Thus, their futures can be imagined differently and a different route pursued.

In the early 20th century, capitalist and industrial “ingenuity” introduced the practice of designing for obsoleteness: intentionally reducing the lifespan of a product to sell more in the long-run. Today this strategy exists alongside a newer one, disruptive innovation, according to which innovation might render extinct a whole range of goods. Disruptive innovation can have a negative social impact, as the less advantaged struggle to adapt to the demands of a new material culture. Yet we might also think about the violation of rights of objects to exist.

It might seem hard to understand why human-made objects, say, the record player or spinning wheel, should have the rights of a living thing, like a plant that helps constitute the Ecuadorian ecosystem. But if we safeguard knowledge about the objects that humankind has created, and respect their right to exist, then we might find ourselves better prepared for the future—in all of its unpredictability. In other words, object-diversity might prove as valuable as biodiversity.

Take the recent history of transportation. The bicycle, an invention of the early nineteenth century, seemed destined to be superseded by the car, invented later in the century. Over time, the bicycle became a tool for leisure and sport, while the car became a widespread and often standard form of transportation, not to mention a status symbol. However, today the bicycle is experiencing a renaissance, both as a means of transport and as a marker of a life-style. It has even begun to shape infrastructure development and perceptions of mobility. A similar picture can be presented for the history of the train vis-à-vis the airplane. Bicycles and trains, of course, never became extinct; nor were they relegated to decorative purposes. Yet how many objects, of possible benefit to our world, have met a different fate? How much has the world lost because of disregard for our material heritage?

New frontier, new questions

It might be about time, then, to start asking new questions in our strategic decision-making. Why do we fail to consider the value and usefulness of things from the past? Do we think that people prefer new things to already existing solutions? Do we believe that innovation in most cases means the production of the new rather than re-imagining the old? Why are business models today predominantly centered around production and consumption of the new things rather than around maintenance and care for the things that already exist? Would it make sense to create a strategy to consider what should be done with outdated or soon-to-be disrupted things? In short: Might things become stakeholders in the discussions around innovation and future strategy?

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