Here's a novel solution to America's growth problem: export our human resources to other countries. In Charles Kenny's article in this month's issue of Foreign Policy, he argues that given our unemployment rate of 7 percent, it would be "far better for everyone if they were employed abroad rather than sitting idly at home."
Idle is the operative term. While some out-of-work Americans pass the time watching TV, many would-be employees prefer using downtime to hone their skills. Recent grads and re-careering adults increasingly are motivated to partner with enterprises that can offer leadership opportunities, skills enhancement or a way to stay productive, even if unpaid. I have met a number of such people on my sustainability journey — although I did not have a name for them until now.
"Excess capacity" is how Buzzcar founder Robin Chase refers to the ever-expanding pool of underused talent. "These individuals and networks," Chase said, "embody valuable social capital that cannot be replicated by institutions."
Examining the trend from the perspective of a recent graduate, Chase observed, "Each foray takes a minimum of one year. It's a process of serial uncovering." Companies that can offer individuals a path of discovery during these periods can benefit, too.
For example, as a boutique consultancy, my firm EarthPeople collaborates with interns, clients and colleges such as the University of Dallas. It's a cost-effective way for me to tap a human form of renewable energy to power green enterprise. (When you're bootstrapping a business, it makes sense to use every ounce of able-bodied enthusiasm available.)
To capture large-scale excess capacity, Chase advises organizations to create a "platform for participation" to facilitate the collaboration. This allows individuals to "self-select in," Chase explained.
"As an employer, I'm not having to hire you," she said. "And, as a worker, what's on my resume is irrelevant. Maybe I've never done that thing ever before in my life, but this organization, through its platform, is offering a chance to do something new."
Building a platform for participation
Launching a platform can help companies transform their relationship with external stakeholders, too. In her keynote at SXSW Eco 2013, Chase explained how her earlier venture Zipcar turned consumers into collaborators when it introduced a "pay-as-you-go" model as an alternative to buying a whole car.
"We tapped into the excess capacity of our members by making it easy for them to note problems with the car, call in repairs and refill the car on occasion," Chase explained. "Doing these things reduced the cost of the service and made that service possible. Today, I think of them as co-creators rather than customers." (Free word-of-mouth from happy customers — that is, collaborators — is a nice side benefit as well.)
Chase calls her model "Peers Incorporated." It can take different forms, but essentially involves people, NGOs and smaller companies joining forces with larger institutions. The smaller entities deliver the local component with small investments, sporadic efforts, unique expertise, customization, specialization, creativity and personal social networks. Meanwhile, the corporations and governments bring large investments, multi-year efforts, deep sector knowledge, diverse technical expertise, standardization, consistency, brand promise, integration or aggregation of many parts and a global reach. The yin-yang symbol embodies this balance.
The key to unlocking excess capacity in peers is to offer them a platform for participation. This is what social network sites such as Facebook, Skype, You Tube and Etsy have done, as well as hotel and travel communities such as airbnb and couchsurfing.org.
"There's a boom in this thinking now," Chase said. "Instagram, Snapchat, Amazon, Ebay — these platforms rely on other people to supply the product." These platforms for participation are also financing flexible lifestyles to allow self-employed individuals the means to pursue their art, music and other creative pursuits.
"It takes a while to get a platform going," said Chase. "But what's good about these smaller communities is that they are resilient. It's about being not too big to fail."
A recipe for green growth
"Lately I'm getting deep into climate realism," Chase revealed. "The scale of the problem is enormous. But one of the characteristics of this organizational structure is that once we get the platform for participation right, it grows at an enormous pace. The company does not have to make the investment. It can turn all the participants into co-investors."
By putting idle resources to work — in human, mechanical, industrial and natural forms — Chase aims to foster widespread systemic change. Since selling Zipcar, she has moved to Paris and launched Buzzcar, also based on the peer-to-peer model.
Already, Washington, D.C., New York City, Boston and San Francisco have seen vehicle reservations drop by 7 to 9 percent. As the car-sharing practice proliferates in major metropolitan areas, more of us get to experience the broader benefits, such as wider sidewalks, more trees along streets, bicycle lanes, less congestion and better air. The challenge is getting the various stakeholders to see the benefits as compelling enough to change their behavior.
"The beauty of what Zipcar did was show that in acting in their own selfish interests, everyone was able to win," Chase said. "For individuals, it was an obvious better option than the old status quo. And for cities and institutions, it's fabulous because car needs are satisfied." For example, Chase worked closely with Harvard, MIT and the city of Cambridge to create an outcome that represented a win for all.
"Over the last 10 years, MIT has expanded its faculty numbers but they have a fixed number of parking spaces that Cambridge allows for them. By working with Zipcar, both Harvard and MIT avoided having to build another parking garage because they have fewer cars to accommodate," explains Chase. "This represents a huge source of savings."
Chase shares several other examples to demonstrate how entrepreneurs and governments can aim to solve energy issues using a peer-to-peer organizational structure. Mosaic is doing crowd-funded commercial-side solar projects, in which projects can be funded in eight hours. Then there's One Block Off the Grid, which uses mapping to identify rooftops that are solar-appropriate, then figures out the best solar scenarios for given geographical areas and the cost structures involved.
"You can type in your street address and it will show you five companies in your local area that can fulfill on your request, as well as what your tax package will look like," Chase said of One Block. "They're using the Peers Incorporated model and doing systemic change." Chase believes that by transforming the way we work and use resources, this structure will move us from an industrial economy to a collaborative economy that values local as much as global.
"Industrialization began with local people producing stuff and quality was all over the place. Then it figured out that standards ensure the same reliability," she said. "Now we have commoditized and standardized everything." Of course, Chase concedes that mass-produced standardized products are still necessary, but globally we "can now back off of the 100 percent standardization."
"I'm happy my smartphone is built in a standard way," she said. "But if you look at the apps, they are individualized. Individuals have created 1.5 million apps to make it customized and local." With the main recipe (the "platform") in place and some "tweaking around the edges," we can still enjoy the benefits of economies of scale and standards, as well as customization.
"This is a way for us to put local people back to work, and give us all a way to enjoy uniquely produced things at a relatively low price," Chase said. "It's the best of all worlds."
Red car photo by Maksim Toome via Shutterstock