Looking To a Post-Prahalad Future

This morning many awoke to read the sad news that renowned management professor and development theorist CK Prahalad passed away after a brief illness. Even though his most well known work, "The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid", was released in 2004, it seemed that in some ways, Prahalad's vision of a world where the poor, to paraphrase his obituary in the Times of India, are not seen as victims but as consumers in their own right, was reaching its largest audience today. In an era where so many companies in the developed world are seeking new opportunities to replace the weakening consumer markets of the West, Prahalad's enticement to create demand from, and deliver value to, people in emerging and underdeveloped markets looks very attractive. And not a few of these companies are staying in business at this stage due to the relative strength of these emerging market economies.

And now, many top global players followed Prahalad's advice and have poured resources into India, China, parts of Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America in hopes of selling cars, soap, PCs, appliances and many of the trappings of "mainstream" consumer society to new buyers. Banks, NGOs and technology companies are hard at work finding ways to speed the arrival and movement of money and credit to these sectors. And local companies in these regions are rapidly developing inside tracks to serve their own markets. Ironic that the week of Prahalad's passing the Economist carries a special feature on bottom-up innovation and the success stories of companies and brands many in the West have only just become aware of.

So, what comes next? What is the post-Prahalad world? As a futurist, my job is to think about these things—to observe, think, sketch and describe possible futures that may emerge, and look at possible models that aren't just extrapolations of the past, or fulfillment of management fantasies about the successful transplantation of Western strategies to other regions. To me, we are already starting to see some of the signals that outline this future: not just rising incomes and new consumers, but a fundamental shift in global power dynamics in economics, social values, technology models, and more. We are seeing a swing from acquisition to utility, from consumption to production. And the producers, creators and builders are the ones that will call the shots for some time to come. We aren't just seeing our own ideas and values with an Indian or Chinese or Brazilian name on the label. We've spent five centuries in the West creating models of commerce that reflect our deeper cultural values. Why will the next phase be any different for those people, countries and cultures that have the momentum in the next five centuries?

If one believes that Prahalad's ideas have helped bring us to the edge of an era where "the other 90 percent" are the leading innovators, we need to be prepared for how those innovations differ from what's come before, with what values they will teach and shape us, and how we might find new economic and social pathways forward as our current ones increasingly falter. Prahalad's ideas have been interesting, stimulating and to some extent catalytic. It's what comes next, however, that will be really powerful. 

Posted via email from Some Observers