Opportunities for Redemptive Innovation

 

This list of Opportunities for Redemptive Innovation articulates areas, models, and opportunities for new ventures that may not emerge without intentional pursuit. It is not a comprehensive account of what could be done, nor does it simply restate areas where there are sizable economic opportunity (e.g. ‘artificial intelligence’ or ‘5G’) or well-known and important sectors (‘economic development’ or ‘anti-trafficking’). It is, rather, an imaginative menu for redemptive entrepreneurs throughout the world.

In the words of Bill Gates, “There are some very important problems that don’t get worked on naturally. That is, the market does not drive [people] to do the right things. And only by paying attention to these things, and having brilliant people who care, and draw other people in, can we make as much progress as we need to.” Our goal with this list is to call attention to these things — and draw brilliant people who care into them.

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Nearly all technology involves trading depth of experience for efficiency. Text messages, for example, limit the number of sensory inputs by which we experience others, rendering more and more of our social lives as two-dimensional. Though there may be less friction in these connections, they also contain far less sensory and relational “signal.”  Consequently, we are more likely to have conflict, be misinterpreted, and lack genuine and full interpersonal connection.

Widespread adoption of this form of communication has not only left us “alone together,” it has weakened the social infrastructure required for a common life and left us a world of “influencers” and “followers” in its stead. Even churches tend to use digital communication technologies merely to extend the reach and brand of individual leaders, offer convenience to churchgoers, and create efficiencies in distribution and costs.

What if we deployed new technology in ways designed to enrich our understanding of and presence in one another’s lives? We want redemptive entrepreneurs to create new products that enhance rather than deplete the shared life of families, neighborhoods, organizations, churches, and society.

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Contemporary structures for placing investment capital are both effective and in need of reform. Equity-holding, market-return creating, liquidity-driven investment capital has driven innovation while creating inordinate pressure upon teams of small startups and public companies alike. These companies (and their investors) feel pressure to overstate their impact, minimize their deficiencies, and characterize other companies primarily as foes to be vanquished.

We’re interested in new investment mechanisms that mitigate this unproductive pressure without sacrificing execution and excellence. We imagine structures that sit between personally backed small business loans and high-growth, exit-oriented venture capital, allowing for access to capital and long-term private ownership for businesses of varying sizes and longevity. The challenge is to honor the stakes of both investor and entrepreneur. Solutions may include new debt mechanisms, pools of capital amongst entrepreneurs, or permanent capital placement with creative liquidity approaches.

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Bit by bit we are moving into the world of the quantified, modified, and enhanced self. Nowhere is this more evident than in the frontier technologies driving the next wave of medical care. Full of promise and peril, the fields of genetics, genomics, and biotech in general will undoubtedly increase the quality of life for many. And yet, the shadow side of these medical breakthroughs is risk of both individual and systematic exploitation of the vulnerable at all stages of life.

We’re interested in ventures that explicitly leverage cutting-edge technologies to place a premium on the flourishing of the most vulnerable, often working against the defaults of the market and human nature to protect and promote well-being for all.

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We may be entering the “third wave” of the sharing economy thanks to the innovation of the blockchain, which enables asset sharing and verification with limited intermediary involvement. While the salvific potential some ascribe to the blockchain is exaggerated, we do believe it will reshape many institutional structures, redemptively or not.

In moments such as this, we believe there is opportunity for “traditioned innovation,” reclaiming patterns and structures from the past and taking advantage of new technology’s ability to simplify them and increase their scale. For example, worker- or consumer-driven co-ops (earlier examples of which include the industrial collectives of Mandragon, Spain, and grocery and health care co-operatives) have the potential to check and balance power, ownership, and outcomes. We’re also interested in ventures where new economic software can pool talent, capital, assets, and voting rights to offer new forms of freedom and opportunity to marginalized and exploited groups.

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For roughly 250 years, accumulation of capital in Europe and the Americas was inextricably bound up with the transatlantic slave trade (as well as the forcible expulsion and repression of Native Americans). In the twentieth century, legal and social structures in the United States vigorously promoted wealth creation among “white” Americans at the expense of other racial and ethnic groups, especially African Americans. The systemic legacy of this history continues today, and calls for its repair are especially resonant for Christians. The politics and policy issues involved make a national, legislated program of reparations unlikely, if such a program is even advisable. Still, voluntary acts could be meaningful and significant—if white American evangelical Christian households chose to divest ten percent of their net worth, that would be an asset transfer on the order of $275 billion.

We see an opportunity for creative organizations that create pathways for voluntary acts of reparation both through the activation of a movement as well as simple, tangible, and financial ways to take action. Possibilities abound, including in real estate development, fund structures, capital access, business equity transfer mechanisms, and more. By reducing friction, ensuring appropriate accountability, and raising the visibility of candidates for giving and investing, such ventures could dramatically advance the cause of repair and restoration of this grievous aspect of our economic history.

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In the last two decades, we've seen the rise of social enterprise (particularly in fashion and other material goods). These ventures, though celebrated, are limited in their transformative possibility due to the distance between buyer and maker. Meanwhile, many consumer businesses have validated the thesis of Pine & Gilmore’s breakthrough work The Experience Economy: when it comes to consumer value, experiences surpass things.

We see an opportunity for a new wave of social enterprise designed to create cross-cultural encounter. To be sure, we do not need more short-term trips with culturally messianic undertones, yet we do see opportunity in ventures that increase proximity and build empathy and friendship across cultures globally and locally. These mission-driven organizations might create products and services from language immersions to investment opportunities to craft and food-based experiences.

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Design plays an essential role in the formation of our desires and identities, from the creation of status-loaded brands to the intentional creation of “persuasive technology” to shape our digital habits. In this world, capitalism has turned into a strange beast: we are increasingly sold not simply a good or service but an aspiration to a comprehensive way of life.

We are interested in helping build brands that align their economic interests with a truer model of the good life—embodying virtue, sacrifice, and love, while avoiding the simplistic levers of money, sex, and power. We are also motivated to form ventures that use persuasive and behavioral design to encourage us towards positive habits, even when it may mean leaving profit maximization on the table. We are seeking brands, technologies, and economies that both thrive in the marketplace and, in the words of Muji creative director Kenya Hara, help us “re-educate our desire.”

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The prime axiom of capital markets is that the more risk you can tolerate, the more returns you are likely to receive over time. Some of the most exceptional financial returns come from startups, where venture capitalists and employees alike line up for ownership in ventures that mostly fail. The few that do succeed, however, create concentrated wealth. Most often their value comes from betting on significant societal change, whether the development of the gig economy or the structure of emerging economies. These shifts often reshape the economic life of the working class, who have few pathways for equity in the enterprises which are “disrupting” them, and little ability to stomach such risk if they did.

We are interested in companies and funds that provide some form of market-driven social insurance for the disruption in work life. We’re particularly interested in models of philosophical and theological resources generated in past periods of employment disruption, most notably the emergence of Catholic social teaching and distributism in the Industrial Age—the idea that the best economies are full of widely-held productive assets. Through creative approaches, we might not just provide for the basic needs of fellow citizens, but allow citizens to enhance their lot in life amidst massive technological disruption.

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Our society is awash in debt. Whether it be consumer debt, student debt, corporate debt, or government debt, we have managed our material abundance by becoming inordinately attached to it. Frequently and unfortunately, this creates a basic imbalance that can be exploited all too easily: creditors retain significant information and resources while debtors take on risks that are designed to be opaque and complex, and corporations create incentives that encourage the accumulation of debt. As a result, far too many fellow citizens live in a kind of paralysis, subject to usurious loans and business models built on late fees, collections, and the elimination of economic margin.

In a counter-effort to promote social mobility, economic jubilee, and civic peace, we are interested in ventures that operate in this sector with both controlled issuance (responsible lending) and creative forgiveness (compassionate finance).

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Higher education is under massive structural stress. The traditional credentials, especially outside of elite higher education, seem to cost more and mean less. Employers cannot rely on the completion of a degree at most institutions to signal notable skill or character. The word character once referred to a stamp that certified that a letter was genuinely from its sender.

We’re interested in creating alternative “stamps” that certify skill development, character, reliability, and attitude—not just selectivity. Such new credentials could help create pathways to social opportunity, alleviate debt and social pressure, and reward responsibility and creativity. We believe these stamps could become widely accessible and reshape the landscape of education, formation, and opportunity.

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