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Who owns us? Who owns our future?

REVIEWING
Owning Our Future: The Emerging Ownership Revolution

Marjorie Kelly, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2012

In the beginning, God created heaven and earth.
—Genesis - Bereishit 1:1

Since the very beginning, who owns the world, its natural assets, and its people’s productivity has been an open question, the goal of dynasties, wars, and tax policies, and the cause of economic, environmental and social inequities.

Ownership is not a legalism, nor a settled and sedate arrangement between buyer and seller. The accrual, demise, and contingent nature of ownership rights—who uses the assets, who holds their financial value, debt service, tax and other flows, and who bears the risks that ownership will be unwound—all ride on an economy’s existential question: Who owns us?

Like a couturier for an emergent economy’s new clothes, Marjorie Kelly has captured the linen, color, and patterns—the finest detail—for tailoring ownership as a productive endeavor, rather than one worn with threats of coming undone. Owning Our Future is a large catalog of what’s possible, balanced by equal measures optimism and pragmatism.

The corporate form of ownership, predominant during the Industrial Age, is a model that Kelly watched as the pressures of inequity mounted. First as cofounder and president of Business Ethics magazine (1987–2007), and then at Tellus Institute in Boston, as cofounder of Corporation 20/20, Kelly saw that adjusting corporate policy at the edges would not fix the ills that sprang from corporate ownership—its very DNA.

Owning Our Future is not a socialist, communist, or other variety manifesto, repackaged as plaintive kumbaya pop culture or cultic fetish. The book speaks clearly on how to start and grow a business that is more accountable to itself, its employees, its customers, its communities, its business partners, and its owners. This is a readable business text, distilling principles for design and enhancement, naming such principles, and exploring their accuracy and viability through case studies of real businesses and social enterprises.

As an Ashoka social entrepreneur and a visiting scholar in Stanford’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, I appreciated the large effort made to collect what works alongside doses of what doesn’t and hasn’t worked as founders tinkered and adjusted experimental designs to evolve the iconic brands that Kelly cites as exemplars of the new ownership patterns. Her contrasting of Muhammad Yunus’ version of microfinance against others operating microfinance without “clear and ethical design parameters,” illustrates Kelly’s objectivity. She sees ownership as a historical sequence of experiments, not as a one-size-fits-all matter.

Unearthing the healthy roots of ownership, Owning Our Future maps a set of generative ownership elements that: create conditions for life, thus avoiding regulations that threaten life; put ownership in the hands of the living, rather than corporations; let stakeholders be financiers, avoiding the split incentives of bankers and stockholders seeking short term results; and establish ethical values and goals as a core reason for ownership, thus making what is unethical transparent.

Generative ownership contrasts with the house of cards built upon extractive ownership, the principles undergirding mortgage speculations that deflated in the 2008 collapse of the global banking and financial system. Scars from the global collapse still fresh in readers’ minds and lives heighten the need for finding solutions. Admirably, Kelly’s decoder instinct has evolved First Principles for a way forward. Kelly steers us past pit stops where others might feel tempted to sprinkle more blame. Instead, she explains how the absence of generative ownership—ownership that is sustainable and resilient for all stakeholders, including the planet, its diversity, and generations unborn—led to the frailty of the global banking and financial systems, and continue on a course largely unset by human hands, unguided for humane purpose.

Kelly’s unraveling of what happened on Wall Street pursues a clinician’s triage agenda: This patient is dying. How do we help the living avoid this pandemic? What organisms of finance are self-healing and have the transparency to see and react to local impacts and conditions?

Wall Street mechanisms for “public ownership” of mortgages, company productive capacities, and other assets are the masquerade of slicing accountability into slivers so legally disconnected from their ownership sources and purposes as to be largely untraceable. Eventually, when the financial instrument (a mortgage, collateralized debt obligation, or other option or guarantee) needs to be restructured, its ownership is in so many shards and fragments—so atomized—that the homeowner with an underwater mortgage or the community development authority in charge of neighborhood renewal is stymied, turning verdant suburbs to waste. A parallel story of atomized assets rendered untraceable, funded through banks bailed out to save the Euro currency or prop up sovereign debt in Europe, supports Kelly’s thesis that ownership structures in the developed countries are in need of change, and the banks and financing structures using such ownership outcomes as collateral will need to be part of that change.

Often, when I try to explain the focus of my own work to create a high-transparency, impacts-aware bank (GoodBank™(in organization)), people ask: Who would be customers of GoodBank? Would GoodBank finance businesses, foundations, and ordinary people, working every day to bring their ethical goals into reality?

Owning Our Future brings management lessons and transactional structures for organizing enterprises that generate value as their purpose. This is a formula for success, for a bank’s customers, and for the bank itself.

Full disclosure: In reading Owning Our Future, Kelly and her publisher cite many practitioners from the United States and Europe whom I know and respect as change makers. Personifying generative ownership through so many personal stories was one of the delights of reading this book.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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