MaRS and the “Big Questions”

Dr. Solly Benatar

Laying the groundwork for a 21st century innovation economy is by no means light work. But even in an organization as systems-focused as MaRS, it is surprising how little opportunity one has to link his or her day-to-day work to the fundamental ethical questions of our day. All too often the immediacies of the present force us to bracket them, and in doing so, defer them for someone else to handle. MaRS set aside a lunch hour to talk about it how to make it (our company) relevant in the world. While MaRS is a uniquely endowed organization, the issues at stake are relevant far beyond the boundaries of 101 College.

Our facilitator was Dr. Solly Benatar, an eminent physician, bioethicist and humanitarian, among many other things. The conversation went in a great number of directions, and what follows is not a summary, but a reflection on some of the points that resonated with me.

Dr. Benatar set the tone by reminding us of two great ethical problems we face: environmental unsustainability and the increasing material inequalities between core and periphery—the shrinking minority getting richer, and the growing majority getting poorer. It occurred to me that the financial crisis is an apt metaphor for thinking about our relationship to these problems: financial traders were aware that the sub-prime mortgage system was fatally flawed, yet they participated in it all the same. Similarly, we participate in a global economic system that is leading towards absurd outcomes, yet the logic of the market is compelling. The paradox is that while we face vast problems that dwarf the individual’s ability to make change, it is societies made up of such individuals that perpetuate them.

How can we proactively disrupt these systems? This is of course the million-dollar question, and there’s no clear answer. What is clearly lacking is leadership, but where can we find it? It is easy to call out weak-kneed politicians, for example, but one must also remember that they dance to the tune of electoral politics reinforced by everyday Canadians. And as much I hope that people will spontaneously take to the streets, I won’t hold my breath. But the irony is that many, many people feel the same way. I get the feeling that there is something akin to a vast underground network of people concerned about the future, but overwhelmed by the inertia of greater society. Can we unite these concerned citizens, and if so, how? Moreover, is there a role for MaRS in the process?

Two tentative answers emerged from the session. Dr. Benatar attended Net Change Week, and commented on the sense of energy and possibility that he felt in the atmosphere. Perhaps, he suggested, social tech might be one enabler that helps people convene around the issues that concern them. Second was MaRS’ ability to lead by example—incubating and showcasing the sort of ventures with transformative social potential. Tom Rand’s recent 75%-5% presentation is an excellent example. My key takeaway was that the technology to drastically reduce our carbon emissions is already here; what we need is the consciousness and collective will to implement it.  What made Tom’s message compelling was that it cut through armchair speculation, demonstrating what low-carbon design looks like.

Leadership is of course a collective responsibility, not MaRS’ alone. But the fact that leadership is dispersed does not allow us to sideline it. To this end, I wish that every business could be a social enterprise. This is of course wildly unrealistic.  But it is realistic to lay the foundation for change in how the Canadian economy operates, as indeed it will change whether we make plans or not.

For further reading on this topic, two books might be of interest: