Three rules we need to break for a better future

Allison Heller Allison Heller
Principal, Social Value – Engagement and Change Advisory, Australia & New Zealand
Lani Johns Lani Johns
Senior Consultant, Engagement and Change Advisory
19 September 2023
6 min read

Imagine playing basketball with no three-point line, soccer with no penalty kicks, tennis with no court markings, (no kidding!), or football without that two-point conversion.  

It's hard to imagine these sports without those distinct game-changing rules that we've come to know. Those rules that might not have existed to begin with. They weren't part of the game…until someone invented them.

Whether it's for safety or spectacle, professional sports leagues are continually reviewing or changing their rules to improve the game. It's a matter of embracing agility and flexibility in pursuit of better outcomes. This approach makes sense. Why would you keep rules that don't work? And why wouldn't you add new ones that can make a game much, much better? 

As Pablo Picasso once said, "Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist."

Could this also apply to the socially constructed rules we follow in our daily lives? It is sometimes easy to forget that our concept of society and the systems and structures we’ve come to know were created by people (just like us) who lived before us. 

If we were to assess our own society the same way professional sports leagues review game rules for improvements – with social value as the ultimate goal – how many of our long-held rules would we be willing to change? 

Here are three rules to break for society to thrive in the future:

Rule #1: You can't measure value unless it's a dollar value

One of the biggest misconceptions about economic growth today is that gross domestic product (GDP) should be the standard metric of an economy. If the economy isn't growing, a nation's development is considered to be pretty much non-existent. 

Is this accurate? Or is it possible that decoupling the idea of 'development' from ' product growth' allows for a more sophisticated approach to measuring progress? 

Economic growth is a critical driver for infrastructure investment and can contribute meaningfully in improving quality of life – only if decisions are made to invest in those ways. Leveraging the benefits of growth to tackle the critical issues facing our society, such as climate change responsiveness, resilience-building, and interventions addressing inequality are what is needed to improve individual and societal level wellbeing. 

The Australian Treasury's Measuring What Matters framework' gets to the heart of this issue, highlighting the need for a focus on health and wellbeing and measuring social value through economic decision-making. 

Even before this, New Zealand was the first country to adopt a 'wellbeing target' in its economic planning, not only to boost productivity but also to focus on improving overall wellbeing by prioritising mental health, reducing carbon emissions, increasing incomes of Māori and Pacific Island minorities, and lowering child poverty. 

The growing focus on social value in infrastructure investment decisions, through changes in business case parameters, is increasingly apparent. New sustainable economic models, such as 'donut economics' and the concept of 'planetary boundaries,' go to the heart of the question of how much growth can our planet handle without destroying the ecological systems that enable societies, economies and ecologies to exist at all. We need new models in which the three coexist and are far better integrated.

From another angle, research shows the correlation between happiness and productivity. If we focus on society's wellbeing and happiness, productivity will automatically follow. In fact, Bhutan, which is popularly known for its Gross National Happiness Index, is graduating from the "least developed country" category this year – improving its annual GDP, decreasing its poverty levels from 36 per cent in 2007 to 10 per cent in 2019, and becoming the only carbon negative country in the world. 

Prioritising wellbeing transformed the economy. Imagine what the world would look life if the rest of the nations followed through.

Rule #2: Big decisions are made by adults not the young

Here's a question: how would your life change if you were making decisions on behalf of your children's children's children's children's children – generations you will never meet, for a time beyond your own lifetime? Beyond what we can imagine. 

The term sustainable development was originally defined by the UN Brundtland Commission as: "development that meets the needs of present generations, while not compromising the ability of future generations to also meet their needs." 

Similarly, the term Ecologically Sustainable Development incorporates the central premise of intergenerational equity, requiring "the present generation to ensure that the health, diversity and productivity of the environment are maintained or enhanced for the benefit of future generations."

So, the answer to the question is a lot more complex but it is clear: those who currently hold the power to make the calls will be long gone before they experience the consequences of their decisions. We're playing with children's futures, so why not ask them? 

Isn't it time to move away from "the grownups are talking" speak and hear out our younger generations and the innovative ideas they bring to the table? Those who fail to acknowledge the importance of young minds risk getting stuck in the past, hindering progress. 

Luxury brand Gucci learned this the hard way when they were experiencing a creative coma and were struggling to keep up with the appetite of the market back in 2014. To change their office environment, CEO Marco Bizzari created a shadow board composed of millennials from different functions who collaborates with the senior team to discuss issues the executive committee is working on. And their sales grew by 136%!

The model makes so much sense to allow for a more agile and inclusive decision-making process. Decisions should not be made solely by today's leaders, but together with the next generation of leaders who will succeed them. Ask the young and let them decide!

Rule #3: Profit comes before purpose in business

Narratives about humanity, social justice, and capitalism have been going head-to-head for centuries, with businesses chasing profit often seen as unjust and corrupt. But should it really be seen this way? 

The creation of profit – if harnessed responsibly – delivers investment into improvements to society and the environment. The phrase "profit with purpose" or 'conscious capitalism' captures the concept of economic growth being harnessed for social good. 

But like the chicken and egg paradox, determining the cause and effect of situations is not always as straightforward. Analysis from BCG BrightHouse shows that purpose-oriented businesses are more profitable but only if an organisation's purpose is "deeply embedded and not superficial." Therefore, organisations need to undertake this work meaningfully – not just as a branding exercise.  

The key lies in connecting humanity, ecology and economy in a much more integrated way, and strengthening and deepening social and ecological value in business and governance systems.

Businesses, after all, are made up of people – people who make up the rules, people who run the company, and people whom these businesses are serving – and they are too intricately connected to operate under separate terms. 

As a World Economic Forum article puts it, "civil society and business share the same space, and therefore should share an interest in defending what unites them." It is in this 'shared space' that businesses, humanity, and ecology can coexist and grow together. 

While economic and market trends change, the primary importance of humanity and ecology never changes. If we build our businesses with the core goal of sustaining humanity and ecology, we'll create greater social and economic value, not only for today, but for future generations to come. And that's how we change the game!

We know the rules. We can break them effectively for better human outcomes.  


Allison Heller
Written by
Allison Heller

Lani Johns
Written by
Lani Johns

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