Responsible Investor

Towards a Capitalism of Trust

A new understanding of the relationship between business and society

A Philosopher and a Mathematician

Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, was not an economist. He was a moral philosopher from Edinburgh, and while he is widely remembered for his book ‘The Wealth of Nations’, fewer people know that he was also the author of ‘The Theory of Moral Sentiments’. In this text, Smith attempted to identify the roots of social relations and sought to demonstrate that they are primarily based on the concept of sympathy, in the etymological sense of the word (‘feeling together’). The first paragraph begins, ‘No matter how selfish you think man is, it’s obvious that there are some principles in his nature that give him an interest in the welfare of others, and make their happiness necessary to him, even if he gets nothing from it but the pleasure of seeing it. That’s what is involved in pity or compassion, the emotion we feel for the misery of others, when we see it or are made to think about it in a vivid way (...).’ Compassion, happiness, pity. For Smith, a moral philosopher, these were the cornerstones of human relations. The invisible hand came later.

Let’s leap forward by two centuries, landing in 1950. A young American mathematician, struggling with schizophrenia while still in his prime, submitted his doctoral thesis, a slim volume that would bring him years of scientific and cinematographic fame. His name was John Nash, and he had demonstrated that, without cooperation and trust, two individuals acting with full knowledge of the circumstances of their situation tend to reach a nonoptimal equilibrium – this is the Nash equilibrium. The most popular example of this outcome is the ‘prisoner’s dilemma’, which imagines two men charged with a crime being interrogated separately. Both have an interest in keeping quiet. However, without trusting the other to make the same decision, they tend to accuse each other, thereby being sentenced to a longer term than if they had held their silence. Nash’s findings, part of the wider study of game theory, would later find a wide range of applications: from military negotiations to trade wars, from competition between publishers to grounds for divorce.

Business as a Social Actor

The global economy and society have changed enormously just since the days of Nash – not to mention those of Adam Smith. But the concepts of trust and cooperation still lie at the heart of contemporary capitalism, intangible, sophisticated and hyper-connected. Indeed, exactly ten years after the violent outbreak of the global financial crisis, the role of business – its mission and its raison d’être – are gaining importance and becoming subject to more scrutiny than ever before. The concept of trust (of consumers, citizens, or governments in their dealings with business) is a linchpin of the system, because today businesses hold enormous social influence, reaching well beyond their own industry – they can endorse integration and social inclusion, come out in support of government policies on welfare and education, and even impact the climate. Their role in society is characterised by attention not only to the choices of consumers but also to their demands for commitment and responsibility.

There is a growing understanding that businesses are a part of society, even if they remain strictly work-oriented. In his excellent book ‘How to Run the World’ (2011), sociologist Parag Khanna writes, with simple pragmatism, ‘If Walmart wants to support women’s rights in Africa, all it has to do is open a store there’. Trust and cooperation also lie at the heart of the unique field of social innovation. According to Geoff Mulgan, one of its leading proponents, ‘we define social innovation as new ideas (products, services and models) that simultaneously meet social needs (more effectively than alternatives) and create new social relationships or collaborations. In other words, innovations that are not only good for society, but also enhance society’s capacity to act.’ On the face of it, this is an abstract and generic definition, yet there are a range of initiatives within its remit, from microcredit to crowdfunding, including the sharing economy. The framework is provided by institutional reports such as the European Commission’s Guide to Social Innovation and organisations like the Office of Social Innovation and Civil Participation in the United States. In Italy, meanwhile, 2013 saw the presentation of the first Italian social innovation agenda to the Ministry of Education, Universities and Research, titled La via italiana alla social innovation [The Italian way to social innovation] (see Geoff Mulgan, Social Innovation, 2014, edited by Maria Grazia Mattei).

Creating Shared Value

In 2011, the Harvard Business Review published an article by Michael Porter and Mark Kramer titled ‘Creating Shared Value’. The article points the way to a new understanding of the relationship between business and society, effectively discrediting the neoliberal-style alternative of corporate success – defined by profits and corporate growth – and community wellbeing. In a way, it is as if companies today were to suggest a pact with their stakeholders, one that is based on trust again: let’s create value together, and ensure the value is sustainable: value for the consumers, listening to them and creating products and services tailored to their needs; value for the community, with targeted and constructive interactions; value for the employees and the shareholders, to help them grow with the company, reimagining it as a place of ideas and creativity.

The Human Safety Net is a global movement to empower disadvantaged people, powered by Generali and launched in October 2017. The Human Safety Net is how our Group is integrating sustainability into all that we do. Consistent with our Sustainability Framework, it is how we are becoming a company and brand with purpose.

Learn more at the page THE HUMAN SAFETY NET.