The Elkington Report

Why Wall Street needs a WCKD ticker

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For most people, a "ticker" has to do with clocks, hearts or bombs. But for anyone familiar with stock market capitalism, the term suggests the unique code assigned to each security traded on a given stock market — for example, AAPL for Apple Inc., BAC for Bank of America, F for the Ford Motor Company.

My modest proposal is for a secondary ticker to be applied by governments and stock exchanges to all companies vulnerable to risks associated with so-called "wicked" problems. And the obvious ticker symbol, whether on the Wall Street, London or Shanghai stock exchanges, would be WCKD.

Wicked problems are those that are difficult, or even impossible, to solve because of incomplete, contradictory or changing requirements that are difficult to recognize and understand. In other words, the term denotes resistance to resolution, not evil. 

Another way to think of it is "a problem whose social complexity means that it has no determinable stopping point." Worse, because of complex interdependencies, efforts to solve a wicked problem may reveal or even create other problems.

Imagine for a moment a future where WCKD is added to existing tickers, and where the direction of travel is indicated as pointed up or down based on the company’s perceived value based on how it is (or isn’t) addressing wicked problems, essentially solving for (or undermining) the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

We might then see AAPL-WCKD with a green arrow pointing up, suggesting the Cupertino company is, on balance, solving for its most significant SDG-related risks and opportunities, and is therefore more valuable to investors, or F-WCKD with a red arrow down, suggesting Ford is not yet pointed in the right direction, based on key indicators of sustainable mobility.

Which shares would we then want to sell, hold or buy?

As it happens, the first time I recall hearing the term "wicked problem" was around the turn of the century, when I was working with Ford in Dearborn, Michigan.

A third-generation Ford employee, David Berdish, used the term — and although I consider him a friend, my initial reaction was to wince. The term seemed uncomfortably colorful. Yet the deeper we dug into the company’s challenges, the more relevant the phrase seemed.

Bill Ford, our ultimate client, once summed it up for me. He noted that the tobacco industry had known for decades that smoking caused health problems, including cancer, but it had covered up the bad news to defend its so-called "sunk capital." Or, to use today’s terminology, to protect assets that risked becoming "stranded" when market demand shifted.

So, when the lawyers and judges eventually came after the tobacco companies, Bill noted, they had a field day, levying fines totalling hundreds of billions of dollars.

With a deep family and personal involvement in Ford, Bill had a longer-term perspective than most CEOs I have worked with. He was genuinely concerned that the auto industry risked going down the same road as Big Tobacco.

Here again, the industry had long known that emissions from its vehicles’ tailpipes contributed to a range of problems, including childhood asthma, lung disease, damage to property and plants, and climate change. How long, Bill wondered, would it be before the lawyers came after Ford and the rest of the auto industry? He hazarded a guess that it might be between 15 and 20 years.

In actual fact, the court cases began a few years later.

Murder, he wrote

The process continues today. Earlier this year, former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger disclosed that he was in talks with private law firms to help bring a major lawsuit against Big Oil. He argued that oil companies were "knowingly killing people all over the world" by helping trigger and exacerbate global warming. He even went so far as to claim that by contributing to impending climate chaos, oil company CEOs were guilty of first-degree murder.

Perhaps equally alarming for the oil industry, he also insisted that any product produced or processed using fossil fuels, which is pretty much everything we buy, should have a warning label on it. Great, but if we add WCKD for related stocks, in the case of fossil-fuel companies, the arrow largely would be red — and pointed downward.

Schwarzenegger went on to explain: "Because to me it’s absolutely irresponsible to know that your product is killing people and not have a warning label on it, like tobacco. Every gas station [and] every car should have a warning label on it, every product that has fossil fuels should have a warning label on it."

Despite the desperate roiling of reality by old guard industrialists and their domesticated politicians, the tide is changing. The breakthrough success of Elon Musk’s firm, Tesla, helped reboot the prevailing industry mindset, turning electric vehicles from an apparent impossibility into a virtual inevitability.

For several years, my firm, Volans, has been exploring emerging technologies alongside the U.N. Global Compact in our co-evolved Project Breakthrough, and emergent business models in a collaboration with the Business & Sustainable Development Commission, resulting in our Breakthrough Business Models (PDF) report.

But, throughout, we have also been exploring how mindsets shape wider, systemic outcomes. The WCKD ticker idea emerged from that work. And, in this spirit, we are also exploring the overlaps between the world’s increasingly pressing wicked problems and the mental models, mindsets and emerging forms of artificial and augmented intelligence that could provide solutions.

If you are working in related spaces, we would love to hear from you. Regardless whether we end up using new types of superhuman intelligence to extract us from the holes we are digging for ourselves, the central challenge now is not just to stop digging but to find better ways of working together.

Tomorrow’s capitalism will survive and thrive only if it works out how to address wicked challenges in time, at the necessary scale, in inclusive ways and, the ultimate key to market sustainability, profitably.