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*A full executive summary of this book is available at newbooksinbrief dot com.

The main argument: Prior to the 19th century, public goods and social goals such as sanitation, health, affordable housing, education, and environmental protection were largely left up to individuals to sort out for themselves. Beginning in the 19th century, though, more and more governments—particularly in the industrialized, democratized world—began taking these responsibilities on themselves. In the latter half of the 20th century, the promotion of public goods and social goals expanded as governments in the developed world intensified their efforts at home and began spreading their attention to the developing parts of the planet, and large non-profits and NGOs started cropping up to help with the issues both domestically and abroad.

Recently, we have seen a new trend develop, as in the past two decades businesses and corporations have themselves increasingly entered the fray. Now, this may seem odd, given that business is often seen as indifferent—if not downright hostile—to public goods and social goals. However, several developments have occurred in recent years that have flipped this logic on its head.

To begin with, many consumers have begun to demand that companies display real concern and commitment towards the issues that mean something to them—and have begun to shun companies that fail to show a sense of social responsibility. This trend has caused businesses to respond in several ways. First off, most companies now assess the social and environmental impact of their business practices, and have taken measures to ameliorate them under a Corporate Social Responsibility report (CSR). Even more impressively, corporate philanthropy has skyrocketed in recent years; and, what’s more, companies are increasingly moving beyond donating, and are instead using their peculiar expertise to help directly with social projects and development efforts.

Business involvement with public goods and social goals goes well beyond just brand-building, though. Indeed, it turns out that big profits are also at stake. To begin with, many companies have come to realize that there is a fortune to be made by entering non-traditional markets and catering to the unmet needs of the world’s poorest people—and in helping them bootstrap themselves out of poverty. For though the so-called ‘bottom of the pyramid’ may not have much, they do have some, and collectively they represent an enormous business opportunity. Indeed, the bottom of the pyramid has been estimated to represent a $5 trillion market.

Still other businesses in the social economy are organizing themselves from the beginning around a particular public problem (such as traffic congestion or waste control), and then cleverly designing a business model that helps solve the problem—all while turning a profit.

Aside from these self-starting enterprises, other companies have been lured into the social economy by governments or non-profits who are looking to exploit their expertise—or who are looking to capture the benefits of competitive organizations more broadly (specifically increased innovation and efficiency)—and who are willing to pay top dollar to do so.

These types of collaborations (between governments, non-profits and businesses [and other types of groups]) have actually become quite a theme in addressing public goods and social goals—and author William D. Eggers makes a special point of addressing it in his book. The beauty of the arrangement comes from the fact that each type of organization has access to a special class of information, expertise, and resources, which, when brought together, can help yield solutions that are particularly effective.

As you might expect, many of the developments spoken of here have been made possible by recent innovations—everything from social networking, to crowd-funding, to crowd-sourcing, to micro-financing, to prize and pay-for-success exchanges, to socially-responsible and impact investing etc.—and the author is sure to touch on all these as well.

On the bright side, it is certainly nice to see a book-length discussion about a very timely and important topic. On the not-so-bright-side, the reading experience of the book leaves much to be desired. The biggest issue here is with the examples. Many of the examples are touched on only briefly, and in passing—some of them receiving but a single sentence in a paragraph. It would have been much better to see fewer examples explored in greater detail. Still, there is much to be learned here, and the book is a valuable read. A full executive summary of the book is available at newbooksinbrief dot com; a podcast discussion of the book will be available shortly.
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