by Alan Moore on 11th March 2021
I am deeply grateful of this book review by Richard Brophy.
This is my personal reflection on Alan Moore‘s new book for the Do Book Co. series. The book: ‘Do Build: How to make and lead a business the world needs. In this piece I try to situate Alan’s book in my own reflection on the year that has passed and how books like his offer us a template to determine a richer, more hopeful future.
‘Catastrophe is the past coming apart. Anastrophe is the future coming together. Seen from within history, divergence is reaching critical proportions. From the matrix, crisis is a convergence misinterpreted by mankind.’ Cyberpositive, Sadie Plant and Nick Land
To say it now is to sound deluded. That in the Summer of 2020, in what we now know as nothing but a grasping breath between shutdowns and shut-ins, some of us could taste something different in the air, something other than the cloaking dust of Covid-19. Promise. I know. The word sounds almost vulgar now. As what we meekly call the ‘front line’ frays at the edges, quietly buckling behind closed doors, muffled by so much Perspex and gauze. Like journalists in a war zone, PTSD has been embedded with the men and women of our critical services in health and social care. Counsellors of the future will lift the rim of that black carapace and we will all be voyeurs at the great unravelling. In that environment, with a grief vector now consuming more than 120,000 families in the UK, who are we to talk of promise?
But back then it was different. In that brief cushion of fresh air, Covid could still perform a rhetorical function. It became a departure point for so many explorations of the phrase ‘Build Back Better’ – a license for a thousand webinars and thought pieces. The pandemic had gifted us time, time and long days, to reflect on what we had lost. But also on what we had gained. A reminder that our skies were once filled with birdsong. Indeed, what we were hearing now on our daily walks was merely an echo from deep time, a murmur from our pre-industrial past, yet still enough to give us pause. But if we crouched lower we heard something different, a sound with far less pathos, more urgent and unsettling. Covid as a portal to a well of rumbling hunger, a connecting tissue between the always precariat and the newly vulnerable.
‘Empathic extension is the awareness of the vulnerability we all share, and when expressed it becomes a celebration of our common yearning to live.’ The Empathic Civilization, Jeremy Rifkin
The promise I encountered that summer was that the pandemic offered what many of us thought was a course correction, an ‘empathic extension’ in Rifkin’s words. It was an opportunity to finally address the rampant inequality it had surfaced, unseemly and unfathomable in a country as rich as the UK. More, we asked ourselves, could it be that this period also rendered us the first, jarring step toward what gamers call ‘the boss battle’, a final rendezvous with all our boogeymen rolled into one – the rolling behemoth that is climate change? In truth, ‘build back better’ was more than a slogan from a corporate management retreat, it was the just challenge for our time. A gauntlet, laid down, albeit perhaps premature. The time was, is indeed out of joint. How now to put it right?
‘What does the world need?’ is a simple question asked with the generosity found in all of Alan Moore’s work. It opens his new book from the Do Book series, Do Build: How to make and lead a business the world needs, and immediately serves to re-orient our gaze. ‘What does the world need?’ As a starting point it’s both existential and humbling. If we stopped there in the book, and simply used that phrase to catalyse not only our daily meditations, but also our business models, our product development pipelines, our sales pitches and wash-ups, can we honestly say we would not be doing better work?
From design to build, and so it is that we can draw the line from Alan’s previous work Do Design – Why Beauty is the key to everything to this now necessary sequel Do Build. The pursuit of beauty is the common thread. It’s always the source code, the programming language of everything we now seek to create, to build. It’s Minecraft with bevelled edges and white space. If we use beauty as our algorithm, we can begin to imagine a world where a simple pair of jeans crafted by a company like Everlane can be as regenerative, as hopeful, and as filled with promise as a rewilding project in an otherwise monocultural waste land. The world needs jeans, for sure. But it needs them to be so much better, for people and planet.
‘There are ways to design and make a business that can meet multiple goals. The making of profit through the exploitation of people or the earth’s natural resources is simply bad business practice.’ Do Build, Alan Moore
Why should business-people concern themselves with books like this? Appeals to capitalism to be more elegant, more purposeful, more sustainable, also require us to be more uncomfortably transparent. It assumes we first embrace a hinterland of negative externalities, the dreadful social, environmental and humanitarian exhaust that has choked rivers, destroyed habitats and created the conditions in which a global pandemic was facilitated by perhaps the biggest market failure of them all – the failure to fully account for the biosphere in our balance sheets.
The answer is Alan’s generosity is always twinned with optimism and it’s infectious. We must dwell on the generational consequence we have left to our children and this book cannot avoid its context. (‘The times have found us’, Thomas Paine). However, what carries Alan’s work is primarily a relish in the motivation and optimism of those who have been determined to put it right. Those like Ray Anderson, founder of sustainability leader Interface, who put his previously polluting carpet tile business on a path to zero carbon. Having achieved that goal Interface are now re-engineering the product lifecycle so that they actively regenerate the Earth – what they call a ‘Climate Take Back’ – and create a circular balance sheet that serves the world. Whilst the commercial and moral clarity of that mission is vital, it can’t succeed without investment in the product, in workplace culture, in new business models and in wholesale organisational change:
‘This is a story of large-scale organisational change, which involves the redesign and the re-engineering of a business model and supply chain. An organisation has decided to operate on a new set of values and principles. This is a narrative of ‘beautiful unreason’, as a company is challenging business orthodoxy, which in its short-term demand for profit can be harmful to our planet and people.’ (Do Build, 46)
In Sacred Economics, Charles Eisenstein talks of the separation of money from commodity as the story that defines our civilisation. ‘Money is undoubtedly part of the story of civilisation, critical to the ‘mechanics of growth’ that have fostered ‘the “ascent of humanity”…[but] it has also played a central role in the dissolution of our bonds to nature and community.’ What we seek now is a kind of reverse alchemy, a fusing of both the commodity and the means of exchange. The medium is the message. If we invest our products with a sense of purpose and craft, and if we offer them as gifts to the world and in service of what the world needs, first and foremost, it fundamentally alters their nature.
If we re-conceive products, commodities, as gifts, we restructure the DNA of both the giver and the receiver. We change the way we interpret the peaks and troughs of the value chain. Convertible value accrues to something approaching abundance, a counterpoint to our toxic obsession with economic growth, which is always butting at the ceiling of limits and back down to the brittle, fleeting language of scarcity and want. Abundance, however, has no end, it merely changes its value, its form. It mutates, and its story along with it is first enriched and then passed on. Robin Wall Kimmerer explains this concept so beautifully in her book Braiding Sweetgrass – an influence on Alan’s work – and in this shorter piece for the magazine Emergence:
‘Gratitude and reciprocity are the currency of a gift economy, and they have the remarkable property of multiplying with every exchange, their energy concentrating as they pass from hand to hand, a truly renewable resource. I accept the gift from the bush and then spread that gift with a dish of berries to my neighbor, who makes a pie to share with his friend, who feels so wealthy in food and friendship that he volunteers at the food pantry. You know how it goes.’ ‘The Serviceberry – An Economy of Abundance’, Robin Wall Kimmerer
This pivot back to nature as an economy of gifts achieves material expression in Alan’s introduction to biomimicry, the application of nature’s solutions – so elegant, multi-dimensional and rich – to our otherwise stubbornly two-dimensional and linear problems. Our planet is and always has been a cosmic laboratory, a vast un-ending experiment in biological R+D. Our ancestors knew that instinctively, so much closer were they to the rhythm of Gaia’s heaving breath, but we have become disconnected like a child separated from its mother by soundproof glass.
Biomimicry affords a new agency, a new language with which to discern and abstract problems in design, engineering, energy optimisation and materials science. In the built environment, experimental architect Rachel Armstrong advances the concept through a radical invocation of the mythical Tower of Babel story – where mankind’s hubris was answered by a wrathful god shattering our neat linguistic symmetry into a thousand pieces. ‘The Tower of Babel is a symbol of the world on the verge of falling apart’, but re-imagined in Armstrong’s ‘Babelsphere’ it becomes a symbol of persistence, an enduring diplomatic entente between the human-made and the organic, a ‘protocol for the design and engineering of agile, responsive living spaces…’.
‘Soft living architecture allies with Babel as a recalcitrant expression of matter and an ally of the living realm that resists the imperatives of decay. It does not seek permanence, but facing ruination incites fresh rebellion against entropic forces and becomes the substrate for many new acts of life. Its quest is not to ‘solve’ Babel and prevent it from collapse but to develop the materials, apparatuses and prototypes that help its diverse communities continually negotiate its persistence.’ Soft Living Architecture, Rachel Armstrong
Progressive, forward-looking, business, in strategic alliance with the biosphere, becomes a vehicle through which we ‘negotiate’ that persistence – of community and nature. If we conceive business as actually the most effective distribution mechanism for the gifts that the world needs, that changes the design principles we must employ. It expands the questions we must ask ourselves, the things we measure, the stakeholders with an expressed interest in our output and much more. It’s what Alan calls ‘the mattering’. The fundamental question, does it matter? To you, your employees, your communities. Innovation has no inherent value without utility, without purpose, without mattering.
‘It matters what matter we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell other stories with; it matters what knots knots knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what ties ties ties. It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories.’ Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Donna J. Haraway
As an owner of a pair of Veja trainers, it matters to me that the company founders have explored how their product is made, how much their labourers are paid, how much the organic cotton producer earns, the life cycle of the chemicals used in the process. In asking those questions, business leaders are forced ‘down a path of transformation. This covers regeneration, circular economy economics, leadership as generosity and responsibility for ‘The Total’, a concept for looking at our world based around what we take, make and waste.’(Do Build, 81)
This takes us beyond a simple romanticisation of craft, of ‘good’ design, a performative aesthetic where we lionise the handmade and the rare as talking points bobbing aloft so much dinner party froth. The danger with such a mode is that we imbue products with little more than the superficial allure of an Instagram post, something effete and passing at the behest of that contemporary dilettante – the influencer. It is not enough that those of us with discretionary capital can make the occasional ‘ethical’ (= more expensive) choice and then celebrate that mercilessly as a distraction from our guilt. That won’t get us where we need to go. We need a universal application of these principles into all our ventures, from the anodyne to the sublime.
‘Consider the social purpose of making, whether you are working for a vineyard, a bank, an energy company, a farm or a sneaker brand. How does it matter to the world?’ Do Build, Alan Moore
The questions Veja and other companies featured as case studies in this book are asking are far from romantic. They are some of the most challenging questions of our time. How to make products and services the world needs at a price point our still zero-sum economy can tolerate. How to invert the immutable laws of a dismal science that drives everything toward the lowest common denominator of a planet on its knees, begging for relief.
‘Do Build’ is an instruction, a direction, but one that conveniently comes with an instruction manual, concise and clearly written. It needs to be. Because what’s clear from Alan’s book, including in sharing a list of at least fifty or so businesses operating at the vanguard of this movement, is that many more people, many more organisations, are going to need to come on this journey if we have any hope of building back better. According to the OECD there are approximately 41,000 listed companies in the world with a combined market value of more than USD 80 trillion. How many are asking themselves the kinds of questions posed in Alan’s book – simple questions that nevertheless suggest a radical approach to re-organising society and our economy in service of a better world.
‘But what if someone asks a question: ‘Is that the most ethical decision we can make?’ It’s a simple question, but is packed with important frames for business decision-making: how to stand in truth, how to be guided instinctively to a better outcome, how to discover a path based on values, and how to retain the concept of legacy building.’ Do Build, Alan Moore
Emerging blinking into the scorched earth of a post-covid economy it’s appealing to believe we will witness a spawning of kitchen-table businesses, the side hustles of a million furloughed minds. I hope we do. For such businesses to survive and grow, to influence and disrupt the lumbering incumbents of the legacy economy, they are going to need to acquire the leadership skills necessary to foster resilience, pragmatism and humanity. They will need to submit to building like the stonemasons of the past, accepting that it’s really the process that matters even if others are left to enjoy the Cathedral that endures long after we are gone.
They will also need to institutionalise new forms of governance that make values-led businesses the default, rather than a novelty. My lawyer friends will be pleased that there is still an urgent and necessary place for corporate law in this brave new world. Many more businesses are looking to the B Corporation model featured by Alan as the timely reboot of corporate governance the world needs and are seeking to make that transition. This practice cannot be left to the vagaries of fashion or fad – it has to be written into the operating system of businesses and then held to account through legal and accounting standards. The proliferation of the B Corp model is a beacon, but it’s exposed and fragile without that accountability, without cementing its practices. It needs, paradoxically, to become dull and routine.
The publication of Do Build coincides with the extraordinary journey to Mars of the Perseverance rover, its photos back so cinematic and haunting. Space travel is the most profound manifestation of promise, our promise as a species, operating at the far edges of our intellect. Working in calm cooperation and a mutual achievement we celebrate that success with awe and humility. But as Alan points out ‘…not everyone is going to Mars, so we might as well fix the planet we already have.’ As much a manifestation of science and engineering prowess, space travel is a chance to look back, to hold up a mirror up to our planet, and wonder anew at just how extraordinarily vivid it remains, how beautiful, how it still embraces us despite our damage, our wilful neglect and greed. Many books will be written exploring this brutal, unforgiving year in our civilisations history, but perhaps it’s the books written because of it that matters. Do Build is the pocket guide to a renaissance. It starts here. With the promise of something better.
‘…sublimed he seem’d
One to whom solitary thought had given
The power miraculous by which the soul
Walks through the world that lives in future things.’