Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

CAPITALISM, like all systems, is constantly evolving. For centuries, intellectual and social movements have called for its complete annihilation, or hoped for it to be superseded or, more modestly, that it can be reformed. Milton Friedman may have railed that the business of business is business, but that hasn’t stopped generations of thinkers and entrepreneurs from coming up with ways to achieve both profit and social impact.

We’ve seen corporate social responsibility as an early attempt by businesses to formalise charitable efforts. The sustainable development movement sought to ensure private sector companies internalise the impact of their activities on the environment and society. Then businesses were to be measured on their triple bottom lines. And, more recently, social entrepreneurship put forth the idea that social good can be embedded in the business model, as opposed to being a happy consequence of profit-making activities.

The way business is conducted has undeniably changed. But many of these developments have been co-opted in ways that risk making them mere buzzwords without facilitating fundamental social change. The disjuncture between company social reports and the experiences of many mining communities is a case in point.

South African businesses have often been eager adopters of these capitalist mutations. But it’s hard to argue that the country has provided intellectual leadership in this area. This is strange, given the way the role of business in society was interrogated throughout the struggle against apartheid.

Add to that a diverse country, where prosperity rubs shoulders with dire need, in a vibrant democracy with healthy debate, and one begins to expect more than followership. SA should surely be the world’s laboratory for new ways of thinking about the future economy.

In Peers Inc, Robin Chase, the founder of car-sharing service Zipcar, argues that the latest evolution of capitalism is towards the collaborative or sharing economy. This mode of creating value is facilitated by open platforms that connect independent creators, producers and workers with customers. These peers use the platform to exchange goods, services and information according to their need, on demand, outside the dictates of standardised and hierarchical institutions. Uber has become the category-defining business of the sharing economy.

The argument advanced by Chase and others is that the sharing economy is not just about disrupting old-style industries, but that it can also solve great social problems and empower consumers and independent producers. "Chris Anderson couldn’t determine Jordi’s age from their online exchange, nor gauge his accent or assess his social background or lack of academic pedigree," Chase writes on how the former editor of Wired magazine and best-selling technology author came to approach Jordi Muñoz, a talented "amateur" developer — who also happened to be a university dropout and illegal immigrant from Mexico — to form a robotics company.

Platforms draw the wisdom and energy of the crowd, and can break down barriers, so the argument goes. This is an attractive proposition for a country like ours. How do we develop platforms that build bridges between the formal and informal, black and white, mature and youthful?

Local entrepreneurs are taking up the challenge. Emerging companies such as SweepSouth (home-cleaning services), Obami (social learning), Locomute (car sharing) and City Soirée (crowd-funding creative events) evince a desire to rewrite the rules in established industries in a way that enhances social value. It’s early days for these entrepreneurs, but in a concentrated economy with high barriers to entry, such start-ups are opening up new ways to work, create or access resources. We need platforms that bridge SA’s dual economy as they hold the best prospects for reducing unemployment and inequality.

• Makhaya is CEO of Makhaya Advisory