Countries: United Kingdom

Anne Bahr Thompson

Anne Bahr Thompson
Global Brand Strategist

Pioneer of the Brand Citizenship Movement

Is it possible to align purpose and profit?

What is Behavioural Economics? Why does it matter? And how can companies acting as good corporate citizens create both success and sustainability in their business?

These are some of the questions that Anne Bahr Thompson, the founder of the movement of Brand Citizenship, and author of the book Do Good, is seeking to answer with her work.

Anne is passionate about showing companies that doing good is no longer a barrier to financial success. Her research on brand citizenship and cultural trends reveals that the notion of separating how your business behaves, from how you earn money, is one that is falling out of favour.

She now believes that doing good, behaving sustainably, and combining ethical considerations with economic pursuits, can actually help businesses to increase their financial success.

Watch our interview to discover the ways in which a new style economics can help lead us closer to an open, sustainable, and successful new world.

Watch the video:
Listen to the Audiofile here:
Read the transcript of Anne Bahr Thompson's Video here

Nerina: Hi Anne. Great to have you here. Could you please introduce yourself?
Anne: My name is Anne Bahr Thompson and I am the founder of the Movement of Brand Citizenship and I’ve just recently written a book called @Do Good which is about my five-step model of brand citizenship.

Nerina: I am reading from your website Do Good: Brand Citizenship Aligns Purpose and Profit. Cultivate meaningful engagement with customers and employees and aligning purpose and profit. Is it possible?

Anne: For me purpose and profit never have been something that should’ve been separated. Really good well-run businesses have always had a bigger vision that has to do with something more than earning a profit or being the number one best thing and whatever. The notion of separating how your business behaves from how you earn money is almost like creating a false theoretical construct. In real life the two are so intertwined and I think this is why the notion of behavioral economics is becoming more and more popular because the old way of economics was theoretical and isolated itself from the way real people behave.

Real people don’t separate behavior and money. It’s so intertwined for us. Money is such a personal issue. You go online now you’ll see everybody trying to train people how to manage their money, how to feel better about their money. Why should it be any different for businesses? It’s so intertwined how you behave with how you earn money.

Nerina: You wrote that this book was born in order to create meaningful discussions and accelerate change. What kind of change?

Anne: If we can bring this out more publicly and have more public discourse and dialogue we’ll accelerate the movement of companies aligning purpose and profit. We’ll accelerate the movement of companies that are doing good and sustaining and progressing our world and while that sounds naïve it’s really important especially today. You know we’re at a point where people focus so much more on what divides us not what brings us together and I feel if we bring this out more and feel more comfortable talking about the fact that this is all new we will all come together and coming together will be stronger and we will help support companies as they try to find a way forward.

Nerina: Could you tell us a little bit more about the book?

Anne: The book is about my five-step model of brand citizenship and the cultural trends that led up to it. At the end of 2011 as part of my ongoing trend research we were doing a study to come up with Transfer 2012 and we went out to people in the US and the UK and asked them a series of questions: what were their hopes and dreams for the coming year, what were their fears, what brands they thought would exhibit leadership and why, which brands they thought were good corporate citizens and why, and which brands they thought were irresponsible or bad corporate citizens and why and there were some other questions in there, but they’re less relevant.

As we started reading people’s responses because we did not have the data coded by people in the backroom who read your responses and turn them into three-word answers. We actually read all the responses everyone gave us. We started noticing under the surface that people were asking for businesses to step in and help solve the problems on the planet and then in society. It wasn’t I want business to fix this problem. It was more how you connected the dots that was under the surface.

So, when that happened over the next three years I granted myself some money to research the difference between brand leadership, good corporate citizenship and favorite brands which is a proxy for brand loyalty. That’s how the model emerged and as a result of our learnings I thought it was something too important to ignore which is why I wrote the book.

Nerina: What is the core message?

Anne: Well there’s two sides of it. One is that doing good is no longer a cost of doing business; it’s actually a way to grow your business and increase your profits. Because historically all the things that fall under doing good have been seen as the cost of doing business, not an investment into your brand and into bettering and strengthening your business and today they are investments into bettering and strengthening your business. So that really the biggest message I would like to get out to people because when business leaders really believe that they will start acting on it and more and more business leaders are believing it and acting on it because more and more investors are believing it and acting on it and that’s what drives the business.

The other thing is that you need to really clarify your why. You know people talk about why in the sense of their individual why and their individual purpose, but this is equally as important to businesses. Knowing why you exist, clarifying your why is very important and it’s the starting point of being a successful business and that is simple. Once you clarify and know your why you do have to deliver it every day in every way and do what you promised and that’s why trust is the starting point in today’s world of fostering a meaningful loyal relationship not the endgame.

Nerina: Do you think that it’s more complicated trying right now to define what a brand is?

Anne: Well it is because when you think about the whole notions of brands and when they started in the 60s you know when brand marketing really started in earnest with the 60s everyone knows about the TV series Mad Men, which shows you the whole evolution. Brands now are all about their point of view on the world, the position they take in terms of how they see the world and their relationship with the world, their customers, employees and other stakeholders. It’s not solely about what you offer in your product and service anymore.

So yes, it is more complicated but what emerged from my research was five simple steps to actually start connecting with your different stakeholders and your customers in a way that fosters real faithfulness and loyalty and in a way that shows you care about them and you’re solving their problems and you also care about their greater what I call we worries and you’re solving the things that they’re concerned about for the world and the planet.

Nerina: You developed five-step model as you mentioned, and trust is a very important topic in this. Everything starts with trust. Could you tell me more about this?

Anne: What’s interesting about the fact that we learn that it starts with trust is advertisers and reputation management people and people who work in the marketing communications industry have historically thought of trust as the endgame. Once we have your trust we have you. What we learned in this three years of research is that trust is actually in today’s world the starting point because people out there know that we all contrive our “authentic” personalities. So we as individuals, politicians, celebrities and companies create “authentic” personas online so we’re skeptical of believing things they say because we do the same thing; we craft our Facebook posts, we craft our tweets, we craft our LinkedIn profiles to look like the person we want people to see. For people to see the “genuine” authentic self and there is truth to who that is, but it’s not the full, genuine, authentic self. Because of that trust is more and more important and harder and harder to cultivate.

What we learn from people is that there is I keep talking about five-step but there’s five-step to trust which begins with clarity of purpose. So really understanding who you are and communicating. Reliability, being reliable constantly in every action and delivering what you promise. Sincerity, speak from the heart and so when I talk to my clients for example, I try to get them away from the notion of authenticity and into the notion of sincerity and speaking from the heart and once you speak from the heart you also then have to learn to give to give not give to get and businesses are famous with loyalty programs and things that really aren’t giving things away. It’s more about what they’re going to get and that leads you into the notion of active listening that when we have this idea of big data and we can trap all these things about our customers and the people we interact with you need to use that to connect with the things that matter to them and what’s important to them, not just cross sell new products and services to them.

Those last two steps give to give and active listening are the transition points between trust which is step one of brand citizenship and step two which is enrichment and enrichment is all about bettering our lives. It’s amazing the brands people talk about that enrich their lives and how they enriched them.

In the US, there is this company called Mrs. Meyers and they’re household cleaning products and Mrs. Meyers have lovely scents and nearly all natural, but not all natural and people forgive it for that because of what it does. When they’re cleaning people talk about how they feel like they’re in a lavender field in France because of the scents and it makes cleaning more inspiring and enriching.

Actually enrichment is a very important point because Apple is a brand that enriches people’s lives and Apple is actually one of the first brands that came up in my research that intrigued me to learn more. So, when we went out and asked people who were good corporate citizens, this was the end of 2011 when Apple was being lambasted for its supplier relationships by activist, by the media, by a whole host of people and at the end of 2011 Apple was the brand that rose to the top as the number one good corporate citizen. Who would have ever thought and that was one of the things that intrigued me. But when you read people’s answers why Apple rose to the top was because of what it did for them: Apple enriches my life, Apple has made my life better and is good corporate citizen because it’s changed the way I communicate with people across the globe. Apple is a good corporate citizen because it brought joy into my life by bringing music into it 24/7 and that was one of the things that actually started and triggered the further research. We go from trust which is do what you say, enrichment inspire my everyday life.

Then we moved to responsibility and responsibility is more the traditional notions of corporate citizenship. But first and foremost, what matters to people is that you treat your employees well and fairly. So if you go out there and you better your supply chain and in doing so you are creating a benefit to the environment people say that’s good but if simultaneously you don’t pay your employees a fair wage they’ll say I don’t care. You’ve doing good but I really don’t care because you have to start closest to home first and that’s with your employees. So the critical notion if you see in that trust enrichment responsibility the critical notion is how you interact, treat and acknowledge people.

So then you move into community which is step four and community is all about bringing people together through shared values it’s not just digital communities or things like that. In the book I talk about IBM, for example, which in 2004 before Facebook IBM ran these values jam over three days. Where it allowed its employees across the globe to participate and contribute to what IBM’s values were going to be moving forward.

2004 was a year after Gerstner left IBM financially stronger but culturally weaker and Palmisano, came in and as a true IBMer and wanted to bring IBM back into itself and make people proud. He connected IBM people across the globe to allow them to participate in creating values that’s community. Community is also something like the notion of the Forest Stewardship Council, which is that tree on paper products you often see. Forest Stewardship Council brings together communities of businesses that have the same values and want to sustain forests even though they produce paper products or use paper products to package their goods and services.

So trust, enrichment, responsibility, community and then finally it is contribution and contribution is make me bigger than I am. So through my association with you, through being your customer or your employee I am bettering the world because you’re doing something better. And whilst it’s easy to put that in the notion of socially conscious businesses and businesses that have purpose at their core, not only businesses that have purpose at their core are considered businesses that contribute.

Kenco coffee, which is owned by Mondelez a huge global consumer goods company has an initiative called Coffee and Gangs and this is about giving teenagers in Honduras an alternative to the three choices they have when they hit a certain age. Honduras is the number one or number two murder capital in the world every year and when teenagers get to a certain age they have three choices: joining a gang, leave the country or be killed. Kenco has given them a fourth choice and that is to apply to become a coffee grower and learn how to run a coffee farm. Their impact in terms of scale is not great because they only can take I think it’s 30 to 50 students per year but their impact in terms of what it does for those students and give them an alternative is huge.

So one of the things I pose in the book is imagine if Kenco created a community of coffee producers, coffee manufacturers, coffee sellers and took all the coffee sellers that source their coffee from South America for example, and brought them together and working with the nonprofits they work with to run the program expanded it across the whole coffee growing regions in South America with these other coffee producers. The impact that would then have could potentially change a continent. So contribution doesn’t have to only be socially conscious brands.

Nerina: What you are inviting companies to do is not a onetime fix everything program but a journey, aren’t you?

Anne: I didn’t want people to think there’s a given set of steps to follow. Yes, there’s a general framework to go through to start actualizing brand citizenship and start stepping on the pathway of it but once you step on the pathway it is that it’s a pathway it’s not I’ve stepped and I’m done. You have to see it is a journey and I think what’s important is that people also step back and say no business can get it 100% right especially out-of-the-box and we have to start supporting businesses for the good they are doing. Not just every time someone does something good go in to figure out what they’re doing that’s bad.

What was really interesting when I was researching for the book, when I was doing research for the book and reaching out to companies, to speak to companies to see if they would give me more the inside scoop of what they’re doing virtually every company I reached out to I heard back from and a lot of people spoke to me but did not want to be named in the book or in the research. Because they felt if I was going to present them as a brand that was doing good, that exemplified one step of the five steps of brand citizenship activists would go and start hunting through their company to find out what they were doing wrong. I think we have to get away from that notion of trying to find out what people are doing wrong.

Yes, there are companies that behave irresponsibly and companies that do really bad irresponsible behavior you know will be caught out and should be caught out but most companies actually are trying to do what’s right. They just don’t know what the formula is and they’re working around it, so they are going to make mistakes and that’s one of the things that’s also important. Brand citizenship is a journey, it’s a pathway you step on but it’s also a pathway where you have to be a little bit more compassionate with your people and with yourself as a business. You need to forgive yourself when you make a mistake and you need to allow for more risk and more innovation.

Nerina: Is this something new?

Anne: Every really strong brand has always had a more holistic perspective. I think what we’re doing is adding one additional filter or making one filter in that holistic perspective stronger. So how you better the world is more important now than ever because we know that we have limited resources, we know we are using our resources up. There also is a cultural sentiment that’s growing stronger and stronger for equity, fairness and social justice. So business does not operate isolated from social culture. Business is integrated into the fabric of social culture and it’s an essential part of our social culture. So if business doesn’t respond to what’s happening frankly it may not exist or won’t exist in the form and shape it does now.

You look at how many disruptors keep stepping in and changing industries. Now granted, a lot of these disruptors now are huge corporations in and of themselves, but maybe there’ll be backlash against them and you see that little push that’s going on against the tech giants now that used to be the heroes and they still are heroes to a lot of people, but people are also calling for them to step up and behave better because they had so much influence over our lives.

Nerina: What really surprised you during this process?

Anne: The brands people named as good corporate citizens a number of them really surprised us. Apple was the number one good corporate citizen in both the US and the UK and it really was the number one by far. Why it was there was because what it delivers to me and enriches my life that’s helped me to better communicate with people across the globe, it’s brought joy into my life by bringing music 24/7 into my life.

So there was this whole me proposition which was really shocking and those of us in industry and sustainability professionals and social responsibility professionals would have [00:21:16] [indiscernible] at that answer and said these people are wrong, but we don’t want to say they were wrong we wanted to understand more.

Walmart in the US and Tesco in a comparable way in the UK came up and why were they named good corporate citizens? Not because of any of their initiatives but because of their low pricing. They afforded me a better lifestyle and in the US at the end of 2011 Ford came up and Ford was in there because for turned around its business, which meant America could turn around, which meant me as an individual can come back from the economic crisis in 2008, even though I don’t feel that now. So it was about hope and exhibiting what we all can do. So this was a me proposition and it was really very surprising to us.

Now there were brands in there but named in smaller numbers and more fragmented that delivered good to the world in the way we would have expected people to say a good corporate citizen behaved. What emerged through the five steps was something we call a me to we continuum and this came from the grassroots up. Brands must first deliver to me and that step one trust; do what you say, delivered to me your promises. Step two enrichment; inspire and better my life and then pivot points between being a me brand and we brand is responsibility. Responsibility is as I’ve mentioned before about treating your employees well and fairly first and foremost and then the other elements of responsibility, the environment, etc. So then you move from responsibility which is the pivot point: treat people, treat the environment fairly and that the natural pivot point between being me and being we and we as the community in contribution.

Nerina: Companies have to learn to listen, don’t they?

Anne: Yes, exactly and even more than just listen they have to advocate on behalf of their customers and their employees. Businesses and brands have historically wanted their employees and their customers to advocate for them. So, if you like them they want you to go out there and wave their flag and tell everybody how great you are and these people will do that but they’ll do it now only for businesses that are doing something for them first, that understand the issues that matter to them as a person and that matter to the groups of people they care about and the movements they care about. So businesses have to step up and step out first before people will step up and step out for them.

Nerina: Do you think that people want companies to advocate on their behalf?

Anne: So actually, when I first started writing that businesses had to step up and advocate on the behalf of their customers, employees a lot of people looked at me in a cynical manner like, oh really. But it was becoming more and more clear and it emerged at the end of 2011 when we started the research in the US it was another election year. A different election than the last one, but there still a lot of controversy around that election because everyone was saying that the economy had improved but most people still weren’t feeling it.

So they were on a roller coaster of emotions since the downturn and they said they didn’t trust politicians to fix or better the world anymore and business was better poised to do that because business had to keep progressing to keep selling its products and services so they knew how to innovate. What people told us was that politicians always had an opposing force which was the opposite party. Businesses did not have an opposing force so therefore they were better situated to do good because they didn’t have to deal with that opposition.

Now in reality and I talk about this in chapter 2 business does have an opposing force and that’s their shareholders and that’s their board. So those people have to get on board and a lot of CEOs that do want to do good are held back by the returns their board wants to see. But as I said now that investors are demanding this and you have someone like Larry Fink from BlackRock stepping up and in 2014 as I mentioned, he first started talking about long termism in his letter to the CEO. This year his letter to the CEO started talking about corporate social responsibility and when investors with that much power start telling people you have to do these businesses do do that.

So what’s happened since I first started writing about businesses stepping up to advocate on behalf of their customers and employees, we started seeing businesses having to do this and especially in the US, given the polarized politics and where large corporations stand. You know we’ve had businesses waving they gay flag, the rainbow flag for gay rights when the Supreme Court made a decision.

We’ve had businesses stepping up for social justice in terms of immigrants. Now granted a lot of that is selfish because a lot of the businesses that are stepping up for that are businesses that have an immigrant workforce, especially the tech industry brings people from across the globe into it who are the smartest people across the globe. So there may be a selfish aspect to it but again it’s still happening and where people don’t want to see businesses step up and behave it’s when it’s overtly political.

But what we found in 2011, which seems to be emerging as we’re seeing current events happening around us is that people felt business had a right to step up when it came to social justice, fairness and equality and now I think the environment will probably come in especially in the US, given some trading backroads on environmental laws. People are demanding it and you have business leaders and political business and political leaders such as Michael Bloomberg, who is creating a consortium of companies that are actually creating effectively the legislature and regulation of what they will abide by because the government in the US is no longer forcing them to abide by certain things.

So all of that is advocating on behalf of what people care about and if you don’t advocate on behalf of your employees guess what? They’re going to leave and millennials are a generation that switch employers much more quickly than Gen Xers and baby boomers had in the past and Gallup ran a survey that said this turnover was costing US USD30 billion a year. So guess what if you don’t start advocating on behalf of your employees and doing things that matter to them and the things that they care about you’re going to lose them and do you really want that cost to your business? So that’s why I say a lot of these things that were thought of as cost to the business are actually now investments in your business. Investments in strengthening your brand, investments in strengthening your reputation and investments in making sure that you sustain, in other words maintain your ability to keep earning a profit.

Nerina: Do you think that we want to feel like a community belonging to a brand?

Anne: Well we don’t want to feel like a community in a brand but we want brands to bring us together with people who care about the same things we do and the community just happens. I think part of the notion of what’s really hard for businesses and especially for marketing communications people in today’s world is they’re trying to contrive these communities. But if they let go of control and they participate as a part of the community or they are the facilitator of the community, not the one who’s controlling and directing it they will benefit more if they let the people they bring together sort of collaborate to create a bigger community.

You know the only thing that comes to mind is that it’s a beautiful thing. It is something that exponentially grows and fosters loyalty because you are the one doing it. If you think about if you go back to your days at the University there were certain professors that were always followed around by students because they were leaders, because they spoke about things that people cared about and because they acknowledged each of those people around them. Then there were professors who were leaders who were arrogant and people followed them, but always felt smaller around them. They didn’t feel bigger and then there were just the professors that went around doing their job that you know made one or two friends but didn’t have a group of followers; brands are the same.

The ones that are real leaders create almost coaxed following because they represent what other people aspire to be. So brands that progress the world, that better the world, that deliver across what I called the me to we continuum those brands inspire more people to believe in them because what they do is help people believe more in themselves.

Nerina: There are people who say that companies are starting to behave in a sustainable way or have started to speak about changing the world only because they want to keep earning money and they want to keep selling. How do you see it?

Anne: I don’t care why they’re doing it they’re doing it and that makes it better. You can’t expect companies to be altruistic that’s not their purpose. We have nonprofits, NGOs and thing that’s purpose is altruism, but to have the notion of doing good and some semblance of altruism forced upon them, whether they choose to do it or the market’s making them do it who cares why as long as it is happening. That’s all I care about is what we expect from our friends changes over time depending upon what’s happening in our life. So why what we expect from businesses shouldn’t also evolve and change over time.

Now that said there are businesses that have been doing it since the beginning. You look at a company like Lush which is handmade soaps and cosmetics out of the UK, but they are more global now and you read the story and understand the story of their founders and they had this mission since the beginning. They’ve had a lot of fits and starts. It took decades for them to actually get to Lush and deliver what they felt was their purpose. Another company seventh generation in the US has a similar story. A lot of fits and starts until they got there, but these were leaders with a purpose and yes, they are socially conscious businesses. But the more socially conscious businesses that exist the more regular corporations have to start embracing those notions because that becomes our expectation of business.

So as a Pollyanna, I personally believe and would want all business leaders to behave ethically because that comes from their inside, but at the end of the day if they’re only behaving ethically because their customers and their investors are demanding it the outcome is still the same. So let’s stop criticizing and let’s get on this bandwagon together so we can sustain this planet and create greater equity for people across the globe. Why it’s happening it doesn’t matter to me at the end of the day.

Nerina: And why now?

Anne: You know the whole notion of brand citizenship as I talked about started in 2011 but the underpinnings of it actually I think have been part of my philosophy and the way I’ve seen the world or the way I’ve read the world. The way I read the things I was seeing and hearing since nearly the beginning; I mean alignment from a single purpose has been something that’s always been important to me.

What I’ve said to people over and over is that what we’re saying happening in the world now is accelerating the recent trends that began at the turn of the millennium. These things were there and they were bubbling under the surface in a very light manner. You know the larva wasn’t popping out of the volcano yet but now it’s rising and rising and if businesses don’t really start changing the volcano will start erupting and if you’re forced to change as a huge reaction you won’t do it in a smart way. If you start learning how to respond rather than react you will maintain your business and you will maintain the customers you have nurtured over time and the reputation you’ve built. So too me if you don’t start doing this now you’re going to be forced into it at some point and then it’s probably not going to be such a good situation for you as a business leader to react to what’s going on around you.

Nerina: Which brands are going to be successful in your opinion in 10 years’ time?

Anne: The one thing that when people ask what I think is sort of the most important change in brands that I focus on, while every good company has always had that it hasn’t been as much of a discipline and for me what I’d like to see have happen is brands change human resources to human relationships. If it becomes human relationships it starts embracing a business, a brand, a company’s relationship with most of its employees and customers and actually it’s not just both employees and customers. If it is human relation it’s how it interacts with everybody across its entire stakeholder base.

So I think what’s the most important thing for brands is that we stop separating and saying oh the customer is important, the employee is important, this stakeholder is important but we start seeing it as holistic relationships and how we foster relationships with everybody across our interactions.

Nerina: Why are you doing what you are doing?

Anne: I am passionate about anything that I’m working on. When I’m not passionate about something I’m working on I can’t do it. What I love to do is help people and companies see what is possible, recognize what’s possible. To step back and break apart the Gestalt they’ve been living in and reconstruct it based upon what’s going on today and how people behave today because in doing that you open the world and you create a more expansive world of possibility. Opportunity is great but possibility is so much wider. So I love to help people just step up into what’s possible for them and I tend to see that more in people and companies than they see it in themselves.

Nerina: What motivates you?

Anne: What motivates me is getting out the truth, pilling things back to find what sits at the core. What motivates me is to change the way people see the world and connect dots that they haven’t connected before. What motivates me is helping to create a sense of fairness and equity across everything and helping people and companies to be more of their best selves, to be more of what they really can be you know when they’re sitting in the light. I’m motivated by progress and change and never accepting the status quo.

Nerina: Do you have a dream?

Anne: My dream just to have a meaningful impact and help people and businesses be better and keep progressing and not accept where we are but keep pushing to… Oh I hate the notion of push because it’s such a you know it’s like a fight and I don’t want it to be a fight. So I guess I would like to see progress flow rather than have to be pushed because in today’s world, we have to push to create progress. We don’t just embrace it and let it happen. We are so frightened of change and not every change is good but we need to be more open to change and risk-taking.

Nerina: Your vision?

Anne: To help people and organizations feel comfortable and confident and brave enough to step up and be more of their best selves and what they really can be.

Nerina: Thank you so much Anne for this conversation.

Anne: Oh, thank you and don’t hesitate to get in touch if you want to continue the dialogue.

Nerina: I will for sure reach out to you again and thank you so much. Thank you for listening, thank you for watching and please subscribe to our YouTube channel if you do not want to miss our next conversation. Keep wondering and see you soon again. Bye and ciao.


Pioneer of the Brand Citizenship Movement

Alexander Kagansky

Alexander Kagansky
Molecular biologist

Working for Global Young Academy, Bio2Bio consortium, the University of Edinburgh, and Far Eastern Federal University.

Cancer research, biodiversity, and the future of medicine

Cancer is still a deadly disease. Sasha Kagansky is trying to understand how cancer cells are different from normal cells on the molecular level, and how they react to natural compounds. How important are natural substances, plants, and mushrooms for the future of medicine?

Find out more from Sasha Kagansky on the importance of biodiversity, ancient traditions, and listen to his personal story.

Watch the video:
Listen to the Audiofile here:
Read the transcript of Alexander Kagansky's Video here

Alexander: My name is Sasha Kagansky, and I work at the university of Edinburgh in research. I am also a member of Global Young Academy.

Nerina: What is your main research topic? 

Alexander: The main research topic is cancer mechanisms. I try to see how- on a molecular level- cancer cells are different from normal cells. Specifically, we try to see what small molecules are different, and then present different small molecules from natural extracts to the cells to see if pathways in the cells can change enough for it to be useful in medicine.

Nerina: Is this a new approach?

Alexander: I think this is quite a traditional approach. The ways to use this approach have changed a little bit and I think we now have the great benefit of being able to take a tumor from the patient and quickly grow a lot of the cells, then test them while they are still like tumor cells. In the model organisms or cell cultures that were traditionally used, there was too much time passage after the tumor and it was only from a particular patient. Because we have miniaturization of everything, and robotization, there are now ways to test many samples at the same time. In the same way, we can try and collect many different medicinal species and make extracts and try them on many different patients derived cell samples and see if they affect a particular cellular activity. It is looking interesting and we are trying to produce some data that could be useful for medical doctors.

Nerina: Do I understand correctly that you use herbs in your research?

Alexander: Some, but it is not limited to herbs. We have used endemic plants of Mauritius which is a small country that has very unique plants and other species some of which were used in medicine in the past. The number of plants remaining from each of these species is dwindling, so it’s high time to try and understand what they could be used for. We have very exciting data and have already published a couple of papers- I hope there will be a couple more on just a few of the plants that we took from there.

There are also other places – for example, in the far east on the Pacific coast of Russia and neighboring China – that have a long tradition in using mushroom extracts. Specifically, there are mushrooms that grow in the trees- a lot of which were used in Chinese traditional medicine and for treating cancer. In Russia there’s a traditional mushroom called Chaga – it’s Latin name is Inonotus obliquus. It doesn’t look very pretty on the birch trees as it creates a black mask- we were joking as kids that it was an ancient mask left by a knight- but it was used by poor people instead of tea because the taste of the extract is a bit like that of tea. There is some anecdotal evidence- and I don’t see why it cannot be true- that there were fewer cases of cancer in this poorer population than in nobles which had tea. Now, modern science also agrees that it is anti-cancerous; there are publications connecting it to the treatment of cancer, and it’s not toxic so I think it should be one of the researched anti-cancer therapies because I’m an advocator of changing cellular mechanisms in a gentle way.

Nerina: You also collaborate with other researchers in order to raise awareness about the necessity of preserving biodiversity?

Alexander: From the looks of things the majority of medicinal plants have not been studied yet in the very exact terms of today’s technological advances. Yet, we are facing a massive extinction of traditionally used medicines around the world. I think that for the future we definitely would like to keep the forests and the sea going, and to try and make a depository of natural extracts. I think that the more we think and talk about it, and the more we agree as scientists from very different disciplines that it’s good to have wildlife, even though we cannot completely understand what it is doing. I think that is what we would like to try and contribute, that’s why art is necessary in order to be able to feel what the data suggests; and, without humanities, there is no way to understand the common language and the culture of the olden days which may be critical for today’s knowledge. Shamanic knowledge was very heavily restricted and punished in some cases, but now I think it’s in everyone’s best interest to try and increase our knowledge. Maybe we are only at the beginning of the road, but I think it’s a very good moment- if not a very late one- to engage with it to find out together. It’s enough of an issue for everyone to be involved in, there’s no time for competition in this.

Nerina: What does the future of cancer treatment look like in your opinion? 

Alexander: I am an advocate of changing cellular mechanisms in a gentle way because a lot of cancer therapies are so invasive. Some of them destroy DNA very intensively- I have to admit the cure will allow prolonged survival of incurable patients, but I think cancer treatment will be complex in the future. I see how fast immunotherapy of cancer is developing, and I also see a lot of future in genomic and epigenomic therapy. I think there is still  a very long way to go in finding molecules that are regulatory- that are changing the fate of the cells- because in a particular metabolic context, if a person has a particular diet and lifestyle, especially an adult, I think that the tissues in the organism-to a varying extent- are experiencing some particular stress. I think we could correct this stress by adding natural molecules. Sometimes it’s almost indistinguishable from food. I think if we understand the mechanism inside us that the molecules from the food and drink undergo, the more we can actually make food our medicine. This is a bit of an idealistic concept proposed very long ago by the Greeks, but I think it isn’t far from where people would like with their own treatment. I think now the crisis with herbal medicine is exaggerated by some members of the public that don’t see the difference between homeopathy and herbal medicine. I’ve heard a lot of people saying ‘Ah, this doesn’t work!’- a lot of educated people- but it’s very important, and it looks like we need help from humanities here as well to try and separate understandings.

Nerina: What motivated you to enter this field of study?

Alexander: It’s difficult to say, but part of it was the trauma of losing people due to deadly diseases. Every time you are in the hospital it tunes your mind into thinking about these things, and somehow trying to think about it and deal with it helps to suppress anxiety and the uneasy feeling that all of life is associated with losing people. Almost everyone is under the constant stress of losing people or expecting to lose a person or expecting personal decline or death. Of course, it is unavoidable and is deeply part of our culture, but I think that it doesn’t allow us to breathe freely, and at times it’s so strong that if people don’t see solutions and feel like they can do competing, it really paralyzes them. I felt paralyzed and sometimes I still do, but my aspiration that through working on this through the related fields trying to connect bits of the puzzle- what are the molecules that can be put inside to try and talk your cells out of becoming cancer cells.

The reason why I’ve chosen the natural compounds is because I associate the death of my father from cancer with the dose of radiation he got while he was cleaning radium at his work. With my mum, she was complaining that she had a chlorine gas leakage at times because of the sophisticated equipment that she was operating at work, and therefore I don’t want to research radiation and its effects. It’s like a burn. Despite a lot of people lacking trust in natural compounds, I think there is a big future in it, and if we pay attention to the different compounds in plants, marine organisms, mushrooms, bacteria, and yeast, there is a chance that we won’t lose them and be left alone as a species. I don’t want a future where my ancestors live in a human-only world, therefore I think we should find reasons for humans to research nature and to be careful with it. Even species that may seem insignificant, like a shrub, may be discovered to be essential for a particular purpose. We should not let the diversity go, we should try to cooperate and share the knowledge and molecules, and we may have a chance.

Nerina: What keeps you going? 

Alexander: It’s very interesting, I just feel that this area really is personal and I’m happy to do it. I’m happy to try and do it. Many people would say that I’m not successful and I can agree that we could be much faster and my mind could be much clearer, but I think it’s such a great opportunity to try and discuss these things with people who have had a different education, and it turns out that some of what I know can be useful or interesting and therefore I think interaction is one of the things that keeps me going; interaction with people, but also nature. I was going for a walk and you already see birds, grass, so many different colors and you feel great that you actually still have forests. It may surprise people in the future to see that there was so much forest, but I hope not- I hope there will still be plenty of forests.

Nerina: To you, what would it mean to be successful?

Alexander: If we are looking for success we may not know what we want, and in what we do we keep going with the information that we have, just trying to produce more of the good thing that you already uncovered. Being able to see different things and to be able to look at the same thing at different angles is what is also very important. I think trying new things is good- of course, you have to spend time and sometimes you feel the time has been wasted, but I think it happens even when you think you know very well what you are doing. We are all experimenting in life, there is no clarity in tomorrow.

Nerina: What makes life meaningful?

Alexander: I find talking about this very difficult because it is different from moment to moment. I think that meaning can change, and the way we look at the same thing can change. Therefore, I think hope is one of the meanings- being hopeful despite knowing how dreadful things are, and how much more dreadful they may be. I think the feeling that things can go in an unexpected way and you may surprise yourself even with the way you think about things and what you do that this feeling of hope becomes like a driving force if not a meaning. Some would say that hope is hollow, that it is only substantiated by the things that may or may not happen, but in my opinion, it is a very nice thing.

Also, of course, there are very fundamental things like friends, family, and I don’t want to be banal and say that love is the meaning, but I think that in a sense this unexplainable feeling of aspiration towards other people and elements of nature and some things that you cannot explain, even some things in your dreams or in impressions that you cannot put in words. They also substantiate life as a meaning I think.

Nerina: What kind of society do you dream of?

Alexander: I wish there would be such a level of trust and mutual understanding between people in different cultures, and so much kindness and hopefulness that the understanding of the disaster of the loss of someone and of death in general, and the understanding of the value of having good health and loving people independently of connection to you by blood. I wish for a future where people could informally meet- like us- and discuss big things that they are anxious about or excited about, and where the sex, race, or discipline of academic knowledge would not matter as much as what it is that we can achieve or aspire to do, and how shall we treat people, how shall we commonly learn from different people? Adults learn from kids, kids learn from adults in different countries, and agreement from everyone on very basic things like that everyone shares the same desire to survive even if you are not human. This sounds like an acceptable future.

Nerina: Do you have a personal dream?

Alexander: Before I die I would like to think that there is something that I knew that was worth knowing- that something that I contributed is helping people. Having the ability to invest energy into something that is very personal and fundamental for my own aspiration of the future- what I mean is, if I put my time, money, effort and attention to finding some drugs or remedies for conditions that not only me or people that I know can suffer from, but that far away in the future or in another culture, there always will be people who may also be helped by this. Chemically we are related in more than just that we share common DNA, on the material level – apart from very nice spiritual feelings of this – we also share metabolism with certain people. I think that the more we can do that, the more energy I put into it and the more I think about it, and the more I exchange knowledge with people who use completely different tools and scientific language, the more we are empowering ourselves for the future, for friendship, for peace building, and we can also share good food and drink together!

Nerina: If you could, what would you tell your younger self?

Alexander: Try to focus on what people around you tell you, especially the ones that you love. Pay attention to what other things that happen around you, especially try to spend more time in nature, and look at birds and animals and learn from them. And also; don’t worry- just do your best.


Working for Global Young Academy, Bio2Bio consortium, the University of Edinburgh, and Far Eastern Federal University.

Alice Krozer

Shall we care about inequality?

Do we all have the same opportunities? And if we don’t, what should we do about it? Do we have the right perception of equality? How can we change the social landscape and decrease inequality? Is it possible to create equal income distribution? Alice Krozer from the University of Cambridge decided to seek out the answers to these questions during her research on inequality.

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Listen to the Audiofile here:
Read the transcript of Alice Krozer's Video here

Alice: My name is Alice Krozer. I’m a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Cambridge in the UK. I’m currently at Stanford University for some months researching the topic of economic inequality.

Nerina: How did this topic get your attention?

Alice: I’ve been interested in inequality since I started researching, I suppose. I did my master’s in development studies then went to Latin America for research and a study period. I think that because the region is so unequal, it became a lot more obvious that that was the topic that I was going to research for my actual investigation.

Nerina: And now you are studying Mexico?

Alice: Well Mexico is one of the countries with extremely high inequality, so it’s a very good context to study if you want to know something about inequality.

I have been investigating the poor groups in society for some time, and I think that it’s very important and worthwhile. I also think that rich groups are equally important to study inequality. If we want to understand the patterns of inequality, it’s not enough to study poverty; we also have to study extreme wealth. Especially considering that power relations are not equal throughout society, and there is a chance that this very small rich group actually has significantly more power to change patterns. So if we understand the way very extreme wealth works, in the same way as we understand something about extreme poverty, we might be closer to discovering how to deal with inequality.

Nerina: You wrote a paper; “How Much is Too Much? The Inequality We Want.” Could you please tell me a little bit about it? 

Alice: It is a paper looking at the empirical income distribution across countries throughout the world. So we use income distribution data for 116 countries, and we find empirical patterns throughout these countries that are very interesting in terms of inequality studies. The first thing is that the share that the bottom 40% of the income distribution holds is very small, and the share that the top 10 or top 5% of the income distribution hold in terms of total income is very large.

The second thing we find relatedly is that the middle shares of the upper middle class is 50% to 95% of the income distribution. They hold a fairly constant share across countries and that is roughly 55% or 60% of total income. This has very strong implications because it means that relatively speaking, this is not absolute inequality, it is relative inequality. Relatively speaking, the middle groups have about the same share of total income throughout the world in every country, roughly. However, the very large differences in inequality across countries stem from the different share that the very rich, about 5% of the income distribution, hold. So in some countries, that share is about the same as the bottom 40%; in some countries, it’s more, and in some countries, it’s a little bit less, but not much less.

Nerina: When we speak about wealth inequality, how is the situation? 

Alice: Wealth inequality in the world is a lot more unequal, it’s a lot worse than income inequality in all countries. Even countries that are fairly equal in income terms are very unequal in wealth terms, like Sweden for example. There have been studies recently by Oxfam and I’ve participated in some of them, that show that the top 1,000 people in terms of wealth in the world own as much wealth as the bottom half. Wealth inequality is a lot larger than income inequality.

Nerina: Do we perpetuate inequality?

Alice: Yes we do. There is a very strong inheritance of inequality which has something to do with the fact that there is not so much social mobility as we sometimes like to think there is, in actually most countries of the world. It is a little bit easier in some countries than in others. Interestingly, those countries that put social mobility very high up on their agenda,  are usually more unequal or currently more unequal and that is, for example, the US. So there is this curve that’s called the Great Gatsby Curve where a very good scholar put some countries listed or lined up according to their social mobility and he says that; if you want to live in a country with equality for opportunity, you have to go to Denmark or Scandinavia rather than to the US.

Nerina: Do we have the right perception of inequality?

Alice: I think very often, we don’t and that depends. There is some overestimation of inequality in some context but there’s actually a lot of underestimation in different contexts, which is something that my work addresses with the measurement of inequality. That very often, if we don’t actually know what the actual level of inequality is, we might feel that it is unequal, but we don’t know how very unequal income is actually ours. So we have some companies for example where CEOs earn 4 to 600 times the average salary of their workers. That’s a very, very big disparity and most people are not aware that the disparities are so big.

Nerina: Why should everybody care about inequality?

Alice: Inequality affects everybody in the sense that it’s something very good to care about because there are very strong, negative effects in highly-segregated societies.

There has been a lot of research on how inequality can be helping our incentives or motivating people, but actually many people are not motivated by competition or punishment. They are actually motivated by having others around them being good as well and that does not happen in a very unequal society.

The consequences in terms of health, educational differences, social exclusion, and economic stagnation are very large. And not only for the poor or the middle classes that might lose out, but also for the rich. There have been studies that show very precisely that the stress level for rich and poor people is higher in highly-segregated societies than in more equal societies.

The effects range from very large migration patterns for example which we can witness in Europe currently, and have been witnessing for a long time in Latin America and countries where people want to come to Australia; Malaysia for example, and many other places in the world. So migration patterns are very important as they can be addressed through a decrease in inequality.

Nerina: What should we do in order to reduce inequality?

Alice: I think if we are aware that inequalities exist, are harmful and it is socially and individually desirable to live in more equal societies; then we can start thinking about what should be done about it in more technical terms. There are a couple of things that are known to be fostering more inequality, and we can look at countries where income distribution is more equal, thus use them as an example for policies, for example.

Social policies – policies of social inclusion are important. Universal and unconditional policies like public free education and health care are incredibly important to equalize starting points for everybody so that’s more about equality for opportunity. If we want to have less income inequality we have to address the income distribution, so, for example, minimum salaries play a huge role there.

Depending a little bit on the different aspects of inequality that we want to address, there are different policies that we can use. Everybody should support these kinds of policies if they want to live in a more equal world.

Nerina: What motivates you?

Alice: The idea that I can help improve circumstances for somebody. I would like to improve the well-being of people that are disadvantaged, disenfranchised, or whose voice is heard less. In a world where some people have a lot of power and other people have very little power to voice their interest, I feel it is a social obligation for the position of the privileged to help those that don’t have that.

Nerina: What is the most important lesson you have learned from your research?

Alice: Humility and understanding are good lessons. Currently, I am investigating the elite so I’ve become very humble about assuming things about other people that I don’t actually know. Mostly, there are reasons why people act a specific way, and trying to understand what these reasons are, is more helpful than judging beforehand. So that is an important lesson, for example.

Nerina: Do you have a dream or a wish for the future?

Alice: That we would take better care of our environment and each other.

Nerina: Thank you very much, Alice.

Alice: Thank you Nerina.

#followup with Alice Krozer | How do Mexican elites think about inequality?

Alice Krozer tells us about her work on the perceptions of inequality among Mexican elites. Have a watch!

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Main research field: Development Economics (Inequality)

Francesco Carollo

Francesco Carollo
Innovation Strategist

Innovation Researcher, London, UK

Do we innovate?

What is innovation? Innovation is not polishing something old, adding a bigger screen or making a smaller battery. According to Francesco Carollo, real innovation transforms the way that people engage with each other. That’s what really makes a difference. If you really want to make a change you have to change the basic cultural rules of society. So, he argues, innovation is a social thing, and we all can – and should – contribute.

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Listen to the Audiofile here:
Read the transcript of Francesco Carollo's Video here

Francesco: My name is Francesco Carollo, I’m based in London. I am a researcher in innovation, most notably on the implication of collaborative sharing economy on society, innovation methodologies and innovation in cities. And I also consult with different types of organizations, and I am a co-design facilitator.

Nerina: What is your research area? 

Francesco: Basically, my main research fields are how to apply design, I would say, service design to public sector and how social innovation can be enabled by ICT, which means basically how tech innovation can have a good and social impact.

To give you an example that is both from a research and consulting side, I’m helping a few startups, promising early-stage startups that I believe they have the capabilities and potential to have an impact on society. And one of these basically helps visually-impaired people to navigate through cities or indoor and outdoor environments by availing the smartphone technology. So instead of using the classical cane, the stick, they use the smartphone. So they use technology to help a marginalized category of citizens so that ultimately, this will lighten up the welfare burden for the city and for the government if you improve the life of those who are in need.

Nerina: What is innovation, in your opinion?

Francesco: To me, the real innovation is transformative and it’s cultural. So it transforms the way that people engage with each other. If it doesn’t change this, to me, it’s not real, true innovation. It’s just old rules, new output and you’re just polishing something up and making it more pretty. But the substance is the same.

Why is culture  important? Because culture is about the rules of engagement, how do you engage with other people and what you want out of those interactions. If you want to keep it as it is, you just keep the same rules. If you want to make an improvement, you need to change those rules. And you need to drive new behaviors, you need to create the opportunities for people to do things in a different way, but more meaningful.

Nerina: Why do we talk about innovation so much?

Francesco: Innovation at this moment, it’s part of the so-called hype, everything is about innovation. We need innovation but at this moment, it’s very tech-driven innovation. The problem is that the average user of technology, the average citizen, at this very stage, cannot cope with the implications of the mass adoption of technology, which means, in very practical terms, that we do things but we don’t think of the implications of what we do just because we are shaped by the tools that we use.

You know, if I want to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, he was saying that we shape our tools, then after the tools shape us. If we consider a smartphone, it’s basically shaping our behaviors on a daily basis. And we live in a society in a hurry basically and we don’t have a moment to think about what we are doing. There are those people that they think that every type of technology is good. And they call this the disruptive chaos that is brought by technology innovation. So whatever happened is fine, then there will be a new order. Somehow it’s going to be fixed on its own.

Then on the other hand, you have those pessimistic like Evgeny Morozov and other people, other scholars. And I think I’m in between in the sense that I’m not supporting one of these parts. But I think that critical thinking because it’s not mainstream, it’s urgently needed, more critical thinking.

Nerina: Is innovation top-down or bottom-up? 

Francesco: Personally, both. During my research, I found out that – and this can have an impact on policy analysis, activities and policy-making – you need both levels. You need to find an intersection point, a breakeven point between applying top-down activities, so decision-making for those who are supposed to decide, and also tapping into the diversity of the crowd. So you need to have both. You cannot rely on only one of these. If you rely on bottom-up, there will be a point where you need to take decisions. And the crowd does not want to take decisions. The crowd, at a certain point, wants to delegate somebody or at least somebody will emerge, some leader will emerge and will take decisions because nobody wants to take those decisions. But we need a new breed of leaders, we don’t need any more one-man-show leaders and basically the new leaders, they need to see themselves as enabling platforms. They need to help others to fulfill their potential. So there’s a lot of unlocked potential around, within and outside the organizations. The leader’s duty is just to unlock this potential to create as much value as well as impact for all the community they are serving.

Nerina: And the biggest challenges for business?

Francesco: Well, they need strategic tools because they need to think in a strategic way, in a more holistic, organic way. They need to break silos, so they need to break their silo thinking. So, you know, Silo thinking is basically “I work in finance, I don’t want to know what the people in sales do, and I don’t want to know what marketing does”. While nowadays, it’s more cross-sectorial type of activities and learning. Those organizations, those businesses, they need to become learning organizations, which means that on a daily basis, they need to learn from users, from their own colleagues what works, what doesn’t, and they need to adapt.

Nerina: Why are you so passionate about innovation?

Francesco: Because I am an activist and I believe that the people that are in innovation ecosystem, most of them, they are activists as well. Even more, they do politics. They want to shape society. They have a vision of what type of society they want to build. I’m part of this fabulous global community on collaborative economy, OuiShare. We embrace change and we adapt constantly and we constantly challenge ourselves and our beliefs. And we always ask ourselves the tough questions. Where are we heading to? Are we happy with this? What makes us unhappy? How can we change this?

So we are pretty constant that especially in a community and you have people from everywhere and everybody can contribute and society is moving fast. And we don’t want to be, as I said before, we don’t want to be driven by technology. We want to drive our behaviors and we want to, you know, ride the wave of technology in a way that stays meaningful to our lives because we are looking for meanings and the meaning is the most important thing.

Nerina: Thank you so much.

Francesco: Thank you very much for inviting me. It was a pleasure.


Innovation Researcher, London, UK

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