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April 2006

 

No more business as usual?

- Alan

It's late February, and the Auroville seminar season is in full swing. The big event this year is called
“The 2nd Auroville dialogue on Knowledge, Business and Consciousness. Manifestation of Consciousness through Business in the Knowledge Society.”
Here is Alan's take on the event.

Who, I wondered, would be brave enough to tackle such a topic? Fortunately we had the irrepressible Marc Luyckx Gishi, International Advisory Board member and Dean of the Zagreb Business School . Marc launched proceedings by explaining that today we live in a ‘knowledge society'. “We are a global network in terms of information. Everybody knows everything about everybody else: the knowledge economy creates a level playing-field between nations.”

Clearly a man who likes to start proceedings with a bang. Marc's breathtaking assessment, however, was not shared by all. “We are not yet in a knowledge economy,” said Ranjan Mitter, Professor at the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta , “we are still in a post-industrial society.”

The seminar in full swing in the Town Hall conference room.Photo by Volker HannBut, one moment, what exactly is this knowledge society/economy which everybody was suddenly talking about? Good question, because although it was the main topic of the first day none of the speakers described it in any detail. Presumably it has much to do with the explosion in information transmission and storage, enabling all kinds of information to be shared much more widely and swiftly than before. For Sergio Lub this makes good business sense. “The whole reason I'm successful in business,” says Sergio, who owns a jewellery company, “is because I stay in touch with the people I meet.” He also believes that sharing information about one another can be an important way of building trust and community.

The information revolution can also be a means of improving national and local governance through raising the general level of awareness/education and making those in power more accountable. In fact, these were two of the Prime Minister's motives in setting up the Indian National Knowledge Commission, explained Dr. Pushpa Bhargava, the Commission's Vice-Chairperson. “A corrupt government does not want its people to have more knowledge. When knowledge is disseminated unevenly, there is a great possibility of exploitation. This is why knowledge equity within and between countries is essential for world peace.”

The dangers inherent in the unequal distribution of knowledge were also emphasised by Dr. Doudou Dienne, International Advisory Board member. “For knowledge to be liberating there must be a free flow of information. But the way knowledge is accumulated and transferred in the world today merely supports existing power structures. For example, wealthy organizations are investing in schools, universities and the media as a means of influencing what is taught and expressed.”

So how has the information revolution affected Indian businesses? For Ravi Chaudhry, former Chairman of the CEMEX consulting group, it has increased efficiency. However, Ram Seghal (former President of the Advertising Standards Agency of India) points out that it has had little impact on the motivation for doing business. “Today the emphasis remains only on profits, on making money in a hurry. There's no value system, no sense of social responsibility.”

Ranjan Mitter, who has been teaching value-based management for over 20 years, demurs but he agrees that empowering people through knowledge is not enough to make a sustainable and more just society. “For that we need ‘wisdom leadership', the kind exercised by the Emperor Ashoka. Mother said Auroville was founded to resolve India 's problems. So perhaps Auroville can take a lead in this.”

Group session on the terrace of the town hall. Photo by Volker Hann
Cue for the second morning on which Mother's vision for the ideal Auroville economy was presented. ‘Coffee Ideas' Marc followed with a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis of Auroville businesses today. The perceived strengths included a unique environment and socially- and ecologically-conscious managers who share a common vision. A mite of wishful thinking? His description of the weaknesses, however, seemed spot-on: lack of quality standards and common marketing strategies, inadequate management skills and a culture of competition rather than collaboration.

And the opportunities? Auroville, he said, could be a model for a post-industrial campus (a what?). We should set up an institution for management and business consciousness.

That a spirit of unreality had somehow infected the morning was confirmed by the next presentation: Marti on establishing a ‘brand identity' for Auroville businesses. This involved a vision statement (The Dream), a mission (‘To build the city the Earth needs'), a ‘signature' (‘building human unity') and a catchy sound-bite (‘Many dream of building a new life on Earth. Some are making it happen.') And then, of course, there was the all-important logo: the Auroville symbol.

Amazingly, the ensuing discussion was all about improving the Auro-sell. Nobody questioned the ethics of using our ideals as a means of selling more candles and jam.

The final morning began with Olivier explaining how Auroville could develop a ‘sustainable and integral economy'. In essence, this would involve expanding the ‘kind' aspect of our Pour Tous accounts into a complementary currency or credit system. This could be used to pay for all Auroville services, for exchanges between Aurovilians and even for goods produced in the bioregion, providing local traders were willing to participate. The advantages of such a system, he said, are that it would encourage economic activity within the community, it would allow us to put a new value upon certain essential services, it would improve our relationship with our neighbours, and it would de-link us from problems – like fluctuating interest rates – associated with the ordinary money supply.

It was an impressive presentation. However, Toine noted that such an economy would not solve the essential problem. “The present Auroville economy is not sustainable because there is insufficient diversity of economic activity and investment.” Olivier agreed, pointing out that this idea would only take off when bioregional activities were also included.
The next session had the title “Development of criteria to create an incubator for integral entrepreneurship in Auroville and its bioregion. New consciousness and values.” Stripped of its verbiage, this was about coming up with ways of assessing the success of Auroville businesses.

Helga Breuniger and Guenter Faltin.Photo by Volker HannHelga Breuninger (of the Breuninger Foundation) began by summarising what she'd understood was Auroville's vision for its businesses. This included being small, blending modern techniques with traditional experience and knowledge, emphasising research, and including inner growth, beauty and perfection in the process as well as the final product.

The participants were then divided into groups to come up with ways of achieving this. When they reported back it was immediately obvious which groups contained the businesspeople and which groups were populated by those with, well, rather less hands-on experience. For example, while one group talked pertinently of the need for Auroville businesses to cooperate in sourcing and marketing, another group seriously suggested that Auroville units should integrate invocations and ceremonies in their manufacturing process in order to ensure that everyone remained in the highest consciousness. Yet another group concluded that ‘spiritual values' should be included in the pricing.

Guenter Faltin's lively talk on new entrepreneurship was a welcome relief, for here was a man who had actually succeeded in the market-place and, moreover, by bucking conventional wisdom. He began by investigating the tea industry and noted a huge price differential between source and customer. Why? He discovered that there are many middlemen, that tea is sold in small quantities, and that a lot of money is spent on advertising and packaging. So he decided to buy direct from only one plantation, to be transparent (he reveals the exact amount of chemical residues in his tea), to sell in large quantities and to operate only through mail-order. All this enabled him to cut his prices. “You must be mad” the experts said when he revealed his business plan. Today he is the biggest importer of Darjeeling tea in the world....

And so to another excellent cup of coffee (courtesy Marc) and the winding-up of yet another Auroville seminar. Was it a success?

That's very hard to say. For how can you assess all the intangibles, like the long-term consequences of a conversation over lunch? However, if ‘success' means exposing Aurovilians to new perspectives and energizing them to re-envision the future; or if it means persuading talented and value-based businesspeople to embark on long-term relationships with the community; or if it means receiving tough but useful feedback about Auroville's present course then, yes, these three days were definitely worthwhile. And, it should be said, a vast improvement in terms of organization on the first business seminar last year.

On the other hand, it's difficult on such occasions to separate the reality from the hype and the hope. For, soaring on a conference ‘high', participants' brains sometimes turn to pap, buzz-words replace rational thought, and soft-focus idealism replaces hard analysis. During this conference this was not just reflected in the failure to define key terms – ‘knowledge society', ‘integral entrepreneur', ‘post-industrial' etc. – but, more importantly, in a lack of examples to back up claims that we are entering an era of ‘new consciousness-based business'.

For even businesses like Guenter's ‘Teekampagne' – which he presented as an example of ‘new entrepreneurship' – rely on old-fashioned business thinking, like taking advantage of wage and cost differentials between India and Europe. (And, while we're at it, is flying 450 tons of tea 5000 kilometres across the world really a sustainable model for the future?)

There is also a very real danger, warned Ravi Chaudhry, that Auroville will ignore its real achievements in environmental restoration etc., in pursuing high-profile projects like an Auroville Business School which we don't have the resources or expertise to make a success of.

Finally, and most tellingly for a conference billed as a ‘dialogue', few Auroville businesspeople actively participated in the presentations and discussions. Why? No time? Or had they already written it off as irrelevant to their needs? One of the handful who attended all the sessions remarked that he definitely felt energized, but he'd learned nothing new.

So what, in the end, was it all about? Was it really about a new knowledge society, about the Auroville economy and businesses? Or was it more about collective dreaming (Auroville offers a wonderful ‘dream space') and, through that, a ‘bonding of the brotherhood' in the pursuit of individual and global change?
Perhaps, after all, that was the real, and no less valuable, bottom-line.

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