At least in Philadelphia, we’re in that part of February when you can begin to see the spring. Fleeting, for sure—and maybe the heat around the Eagles warmed things up just enough. But I’ve always found hope in this stretch of winter. For me, January is the hardest month.
The idea that there is something fresh and new ahead relates to work too. We’re not always convinced that our skills and effort can change the world for the better, even a little bit better. That’s what I was thinking about after I read a short piece in the paper this week about harnessing a powerful innovation to help solve one of the world's greatest problems. Today’s boldest hopes are still finding outlets in highly practical and almost mundane solutions….
For me, February is about believing in what's ahead of us.
This picture captured the mood this morning. I took it a year ago, posted it on my profile page today, and within minutes got this comment from @andyourstory: “This is surely horosho! :))”
There is a tree hydrangea in this part of the park, the papery husks of its flowers a reminder of its last bloom. My text with the picture was: The flowers will come back, they always do. #february #seventhinningstretch.
Horosho is from the Russian. Meanings include “It’s nice to walk here” (здесь хорошо гулять) or "well-said" (хорошо сказано) or maybe a combination of the two. However lifeless your work might feel, even in February the possibilities are suggesting themselves when you take the time to look.
2. There’s No Excuse for Meaningless Work
Work that fails to engage your values is a lot like those dried flowers—unless of course, getting a paycheck or “filling your day with busywork” is what you value most.
We all have personal values. If anything, we’re over-run by them. It’s why your blood pressure rises, becomes “value-charged,” when someone mentions Donald Trump, trans rights, fake news, #metoo, Vladimir Putin, religious hypocrisy, Nancy Pelosi, or collusion.
Drilling below the chaff of the talking heads in our echo chambers is an opportunity to become more familiar with the values that are sub-consciously driving your opinions about the hot buttons of the day. Freedom. Equality. Sanctity. Community. Respect. Tradition. Values like these are the engines that undergird your opinions.
Thinking about these baseline commitments is where any re-assessment about your work also begins to look for tools that you have at your disposal to realize what you value most.
I’ve talked about blockchain technology on this page more than once. One previous post included my attempt to describe this on-line platform, and for good measure, I included a link to a light-hearted video that also provides an explanation. Blockchain isn’t a complicated idea, and it is increasingly becoming a part of our lives. It also has the potential to change nearly everything about the many ways that we gather, share information, and do business with one another.
This week’s Wall Street Journal included a short essay on how blockchain technology is being utilized today by a group of forward-thinking women and men to reduce economic inequality wherever it exists. These are women and men doing value-driven work today on the frontier of innovation.
Their work inspires me. I hope it will inspire you too.
3. Economic Opportunity Through a Blockchain of Property Rights
Hernando de Soto
Most work stands somewhere between a problem and a solution. How do I get this product to that market, this service to people who need it, even something as intangible as knowledge or expertise to those who are willing to pay for it?
What follows is how an organization called the Institute for Liberty and Democracy (“ILD”) and its long-time leader, Hernando de Soto, sized up the vast problem of economic inequality that it confronted, first in Peru and more recently, in its global mission.
For many years, economists and policy-makers failed to recognize the interrelationship between private property rights and economic development. Without a formal system for registering these rights, a country limits its progress because its citizens cannot establish a foundation they can build upon to realize their potential. The ILD identified the connection between citizen discontent over disputed ownership of land in the Marxist Shining Path insurrection in Peru and years later, in the many confrontations of the Arab Spring. More than anything else, they discovered that these upheavals were triggered by poor people feeling excluded from economic opportunities that they could see all around them.
In other words, without an open, accurate and accessible recording system for proving ownership of their property, masses of poor people were expressing their discontent through violence.
Today, 2.5 billion people in the developed world can register their property rights while another 5 billion people are impoverished, in large part, because they cannot. It is the world’s great economic divide reduced to a system of accounting. Without a durable way to document and defend property rights, the ILD estimates that two-thirds of the world’s population is sitting on top of $170 trillion in resources and assets that cannot be developed without it--in other words, "wasting assets."
In their essay, Hernando de Soto (along with former U.S. Senator Phil Gramm) describe the practical effects on poor people when they lack a formal system of property rights:
“Values are reduced for privately owned assets; wages are devalued for workers using these assets; owners are denied the ability to use their assets as collateral to obtain credit or as a credential to claim public services; and society loses the benefits that accrue when assets are employed for their highest and best purpose.”
As a result, the poor are unable to break the cycle of economic insecurity where they live and work.
An ILD videoclip illustrates the problem vividly, particularly how capitalism has utterly failed until now, but can still manage to succeed. As more and more of the world’s poor have migrated to cities, poor people see “what others have” but they do not. Their rebelliousness rises not because of ideology or religion but because they feel excluded, denied the opportunity to take their place at the table. And much of what excludes them from doing so is what de Soto calls “a paper wall” that bars their entry into a formal, legal system.
He and Gramm illustrate just how much economic security can be built when that paper wall is breached and having your own stake in prosperity becomes possible. Their poster child for the potential "upside" is the valuation of a Peruvian telecommunication company that had been unable to defend its titles to land that it owned.
“In 1990, the state-owned Peruvian telecommunications company CPT was valued on the Lima Stock Exchange at $53 million. The government wanted to sell CPT to foreign investors but couldn’t, because Peruvian titles to the company’s assets did not meet global standards. CPT initiated a program using ILD guidelines to research title records and formally establish its property rights. Within three years CPT was sold on the world market for $2 billion—roughly 38 times its previous value.”
This is where blockchain technology can make a difference, by providing a global property registration platform for the very first time.
Blockchain makes available almost infinite storage capacity for private property records. Once the platform is established, it can potentially be accessed by anyone with internet access. Because of its general accessibility, this recording mechanism provides a level of cross-border transparency that is more resistant to political interference from within a nation’s borders. Once established, the platform can also be updated immediately (without any bureaucratic delay) as property ownership changes hands.
Given its advantages, de Soto and Gramm may be right to crow about the possibilities that flow from their groundbreaking work:
“If Blockchain technology can empower public and private efforts to register property rights on a single computer platform, we can share the blessings of private-property registration with the whole world. Instead of destroying private property to promote a Marxist equality in poverty, perhaps we can bring property rights to all mankind. Where property rights are ensured, so are the prosperity, freedom and ownership of wealth that brings real stability and peace.”
4. Working For a Better World
Your work doesn’t have to change the whole world, but it can always make the world a little better than it is today.
De Soto and his collaborators looked at the problem of poverty squarely in the eye. Unlike most of us in the developed world, they went into the barrios and slums to understand what the poor were actually confronting day-to-day and saw the same disadvantage holding people down over and over again. You have to become familiar with a problem and see its component parts before you can begin to find solutions for it. They then looked for the simplest tool they could find to address one of the lynchpin impediments.
Part of me wants to start working with practical idealists like them tomorrow.
But there are many problems in the world, in your city, or even in your neighborhood—and endlessly innovative ways to solve them.
Sometimes the most important thing about your work is believing that something better will always come when your expectations are strong enough.