There are countless misconceptions about what entrepreneurship looks like and what it means to be an entrepreneur. Too often, the appearance and flourishing of innovative new businesses is misrepresented, usually by those with market sceptic, ulterior motives, as a “get rich quick” Ponzi scheme in which those with inside knowledge of a sector or inherited social capital dive into already overcrowded industries to squeeze an extra little bit of profit out of them.
This view of entrepreneurship, once sufficiently disseminated, passes on to the next generation of potential entrepreneurs, who see business ventures as little more than a way to make a quick buck. The result is an entrepreneurship which lacks purpose. Truly disruptive innovations become few and far between, and the next round of era-defining developments seems to slip further and further away.
What do we mean, then, by entrepreneurship with purpose? It starts at the very beginning. Not everyone can be an entrepreneur. If, upon starting a business, its founder’s primary concern is how quickly they will be able to recoup their initial investments, they are not a true entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs must be willing to take risks, to put themselves and their fortunes on the line in order to dive deep into innovation, uprooting consumption habits with vigour.
Stem subjects are the cornerstone of entrepreneurship. Science and technology, when combined with engineering and mathematics, provide the entrepreneur with the tools they need in order to not only make them money – which effectively becomes a secondary aim – but to instigate real change through the power of the free market. For every entrepreneur who chooses the easy route and opts for a safe investment, disruptive innovation is lost.
That means we miss out on necessary new ideas about how to reduce poverty or tackle global warming. Even within existing markets, endless opportunities remain in the development of technology, such as in energy storage and wireless communications. Entrepreneurs do not even need to conjure up whole new products of their own; fortunes can be made simply by optimising supply chains, thereby reducing costs and increasing logistical efficiency for existing companies, probably also resulting in a lessened environmental impact.
At the other end of the spectrum, some entrepreneurs seek to disrupt areas as fundamental as currency by creating alternatives to our traditional conceptions of money, such as through bitcoin and the blockchain process. These innovations can emerge only when those behind them are driven by a commitment to the capabilities of the free market.
While the debate about how – or, indeed, whether – we should go about regulating bitcoin rages on, the underlying ideas that make it possible offer a window to a world of entrepreneurial opportunity. Exchanges of money between completely unknown agents without an intermediary, facilitating access to goods and services online, and in the process creating a competitive money market outside traditional monetary policy is an innovation that subverts entrenched norms and would not have seemed possible until very recently.
Although bitcoin itself has not quite taken the world by storm in the way some said it would, technological changes to our everyday lives are frequent, material and substantial. The dawn of so-called “smart cities” is likely to constitute the next micro era of technological progress. From transport to housing and everything in between, our cities will soon look completely different to how they do today thanks to a new round of disruptive ideas.
Smart cities will be characterised by their celebration of entrepreneurship. If they are to be successful, especially in the early stages, they will require a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem in which innovators have uninterrupted access to the market and people and capital are always on the move. The potential for job creation, economic growth and technological development has no ceiling, so long as we take those driving those changes – the entrepreneurs – seriously.
The global movement that will make this possible is already underway. International organisations, including Unicef and the UN, are seeking to bridge the gap between the public and private sectors in order to undermine the Fordian production model, which turns a blind eye to the long-term consequences of ill-considered investments, and instead promote a socially and politically conscious entrepreneurship which shows consideration for issues surrounding human rights and the environment.
Entrepreneurship has always been founded on a desire to enhance technological capabilities and offer people new and cheaper products and services. The next step is to add a social consciousness, so that entrepreneurs seek not only to milk the market for money, but to create a better world too, paving the way for a new entrepreneurship with purpose.
In other words, the entrepreneurial movement has long focused on creating the tools of the future, but the next generation of entrepreneurs must concentrate its attention on building the users of the future, by investing in people’s lives as well as their money.