agriculture (2)

It’s an Intangible Capital Revolution

We are living in the middle of an historic revolution that is taking us from an industrial to a social, intangible capital-based economy. This revolution is visible everywhere but one place that I love to watch is in how the intangible capital economy is changing one of the oldest human activities: agriculture.  Here’s some context:


One of the turning points in human history came when men and women figured out how to control production of food. These practices of the Agricultural Revolution improved over the next 10,000 years but it was still largely a physical process using human and animal labor. Throughout this time, a large portion of the human population worked just to produce food.


What changed? The Industrial Revolution. This is when machines were put to use to replace human and animal labor. This mechanization made it possible for less and less labor to be required to do basic activities. And agriculture changed with it. This table from Wikipedia says it all:


  • 3,000 years ago primitive agriculture fed 60 million people
  • 300 years ago intensive agriculture fed 600 million people
  • Today industrial agriculture attempts to feed 6 billion people


This also meant that labor requirements for agriculture continue to drop. This table shows the male workforce in the U.S. and shows food production jobs declining from 42% to 4% of the workforce during the last century. 


But the industrialization of agriculture brought many negative outcomes that present challenges for the future such as high energy use, chemical and waste pollution and overabundance of low-nutrient foods. In these opportunities and the latest revolution lie the seeds of the future.


Today we live at the birth of a new Revolution. Fueled by information and social technologies, we are automating our minds just as the industrial era automated our bodies. And, just as the Industrial Revolution dramatically changed agriculture so, too, will this new Revolution.


Automating our minds creates intangible capital. And IC is fueling radically different approaches to agriculture that use less energy, use fewer chemicals, lower waste and improve diets. Here are a few fun examples:


These new approaches are still tiny changes in a world-wide system. But they show us how intangible capital--people using information technology to build collaborative, innovative solutions to old problems--can radically change the thinking even in the oldest and most traditional of industries. How will your industry be revolutionized by intangible capital?

Read more…

I talk a lot about the knowledge era. I specialize in the measurement, management and monetization of knowledge intangibles. I wrote a book on intangible capital. So what I am about to say shouldn’t be that big a surprise to me but it kind of is….

Technology is not as important as it used to be.

If you think about it, technology and top-down industrial models still dominate our thinking. When we industrialized our economy, we industrialized everything from agriculture to education to government to manufacturing.

I have written before about how the shift from the industrial era is coming at a time when there are new constraints on our global economy. Externalities like energy use/mis-use, pollution, health are all represent (at the same time)nbsp; problems, opportunities and design constraints. The failure of the industrial model to address these new constraints and the potential of new models to address them is fueling the shift to the knowledge economy.

Of course, the shift has been driven by the rise of a new kind of technology: information technology and brain power.

In today’s Boston Globe, there is a great opinion piece that exemplifies what is going on.

World hunger is best treated with local growers and crops was written on the occasion of UN World Food Day on Sunday. It explains that the conversations about solutions to world hunger often go immediately to “ways to increase the food supply with purchased technologies”nbsp; that use chemicals and carbon-intensive solutions to food production.

This won’t be sustainable to improve the yields of the “half-billion small-farm families that still grow 70% of the world’s food.”

The alternative suggested is agro-ecological approaches that use local seeds, build healthy soil and conserve water. Finding the right approaches in individual communities solves the challenges of both hunger and greenhouse emissions (the article quotes GRAIN magazine’s estimate the agro-ecological approaches could offset as much as a third of global greenhouse gas emissions within 50 years).

Lest you think that this is only about the third world, read How the U.S. Curbs Farm Work. It's basically the same message.  That U.S. agricultural policies promote "industrialized and chemical intensive" production. And that

Ecologically based food systems should become the United State' overarching goal. Such a shift would invariably employ larger numbers of people while providing safer, more appealing jobs. It would also create safer, tastier, more nutritious food...

As with many knowledge-era solutions, these conversations are about bottom-up empowerment, not top-down control. It’s a way of solving problems using brainpower, training and teaching rather than large-scale production using expensive technologies and inputs brought in from outside a community. It’s just another set of examples of how our basic assumptions about the answers to our problems must be questioned.

This kind of thinking is very disruptive to existing economic and business models. Many businesses will fail in the face of this thinking. But many more will prosper. Which one will you be?

And when will you start treating knowledge intangibles as the key infrastructure of your own business?

Read more…