Reflections Upon Social Impact

March 4, 2018 | Minsung Kim

As many young people struggle with the feeling that their careers don’t have a meaningful impact on the world, it is time to broaden the definition of “positive contribution”

Edward Lorenz’s “Butterfly Effect” theory is widely known. Lorenz suggested that in a nonlinear system, even a miniscule change in a single, initial state would lead to significant differences in a later state, e.g. the flap of a butterfly’s wings might ultimately cause a tornado on the other side of the world or as Terry Pratchet and Neil Gaiman elaborated:

“It used to be thought that the events that changed the world were things like big bombs, maniac politicians, huge earthquakes, or vast population movements, but it has now been realized that this is a very old-fashioned view held by people totally out of touch with modern thought. The things that change the world, according to Chaos theory, are the tiny things. A butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazonian jungle, and subsequently a storm ravages half of Europe.”

What this means is that every action that is happening right now, is the end product of a countless number of decisions and actions. Therefore, to have a positive impact on society, you do not have to necessarily be the one directly doing this final positive action (something I would label as “direct participation/participant”), you can also contribute by being an enabler of this positive action.

This does mean, however, that anybody could claim credit for any socially positive change that is happening at this moment. For example, you could argue that because you decided five years ago to go to a certain Thai restaurant rather than a certain Vietnamese one, you may by a series of knock-on effects be the person that caused Iceland to be the first country in the world to legally enforce equal pay (assuming you think this is positive progress, which I hope we all do). I call these linkages “un-evidenceable enablers” and this is clearly ridiculous and not something I advocate widening the definition to. But between un-evidenceable enablement and direct participation, there is an important yet oft-ignored middle ground that we as a society should not ignore the impact of. This middle ground is where you have been close enough to the impact and your contributions have been material enough to be able to take some credit in your contribution but you were at the same time not the direct participant. This area is made up what I call “direct” and “indirect” enablers

I define “direct enablers” as those that directly contribute to a specific action by a specific individual or group of “direct participants”. For example, let’s say your friend “A” was working for a not-for-profit that you thought was having a significant social impact but “A” was struggling personally financially and he or she was considering quitting. Let’s say you gave A financial assistance which allowed him or her to continue in his role at a not-for-profit, I would define this as you being a “direct enabler”. Another example would be one where let’s say you are senior management in a multinational corporation. You ask a team to come up with an idea for giving back to the local economy. Let’s say this idea is to invest company resources into the long-term recovery and sustainability of a whole impoverished city. You sign off on this project and the team goes and executes it. This could be another example of “direct enablement”.

“Indirect enablers”, on the other hand, are one step removed and I define this as people or actions that increase the likelihood of a direct participant making a significant social impact. So rather than a specific action you have contributed to, you are contributing to the behaviours of an individual or group of direct participants. The obvious actions here are awareness. For example, enlightening people of certain issues, letting people know of what others are doing for social impact (such as the work done by Bridges for Enterprise) and even just consistently sending interesting reading to those around you may change the behaviors of others positively and may increase the probability of positive direct impact. Great as this sounds in theory, “indirect enablement” is, however, a dangerous concept due to the subjectivity of categorisation. You being a supportive friend of a direct participant, not distracting him or her from their work are actions that some may argue are “indirect enablers” but many would argue are not. Even if you did come to the conclusion that these examples do constitute “indirect enablement”, it is still hard to evidence. Despite this issue of subjectivity, I believe if society had a greater focus on indirect enablement there would be a net positive impact.

My thoughts here are not a rallying call to stop people from being direct participants. One of the key risks of indirect impact and greater focus on it is complacency i.e. the potential rise of the “I know reasonably well a direct participant; therefore, I can take credit for what he or she does” mindset. The world needs to see more direct participants of positive change whether this is done via working in large corporations or outside of them. But many people don’t have the confidence, network, visibility, priority or financial buffer to quit a job that they feel like adds minimal positive value and do something that they feel like has a direct positive impact. Therefore, not everyone can be a direct positive contributor. However, if more people did feel empowered in their ability to influence through indirect impact, their positive social progress would happen quicker and would also help with the issue that many young people do feel that their careers lack the positive impact that they would like to be a part of. Even without a radical change in one’s lifestyle or career, people, especially as a collective, can have a great impact on society through indirect means. Enablement of positive participation can be just as valuable as being a direct participant of it.

You don’t necessarily need to be working in a charity or a social enterprise to be having a positive social impact on society; you can have a positive impact through the everyday decisions that you take today.

Minsung Kim

HSBC Global Banking | BfE Mentor