Modern Capitalism Must Prioritize Our Minds and Brains

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By prioritizing minds and brains, governments, civil society, and companies will be better equipped with the health and skills needed to face unprecedented global challenges.

Stakeholder capitalism is a form of capitalism in which companies seek long-term value creation by taking into account the needs of all their stakeholders, and society at large.1 In order to ensure that individuals and the planet prosper, 4 key stakeholders play a crucial role: governments, civil society, companies, and the international community. In making the case against the maximization of shareholder value as a guiding principle, William Lazonick argues that it is wrong to assume that the firm is a closed system, where only shareholders make investments in the productive assets, and hence only they have a claim on profits.2 Taxpayers, through the government agencies they fund, and workers, through their efforts, also make risky investments in firms’ productive capabilities. It follows that the state and labor have claims on profits if and when they occur.

We applaud this holistic model and believe it can do a better job prioritizing our brains—our most precious asset. Our brains are key to how we understand, navigate, and interact with our world, a world which is ever accelerating.3 We must be nimble, adaptable, and resilient to be successful in this modern world. Accelerating technological change requires agility and other soft skills to keep up.4 Various types of shocks (financial, climate, political, and viral) necessitate a flexible approach to the world and long-term resilience.

To synthesize these brain-based necessities, we recently proposed a new asset—brain capital, which prioritizes brain health and brain skills in the modern economy.5 Brain health challenges occur across the lifespan and include autism, depression, anxiety, and Alzheimer disease. They cost the global economy trillions per year, even before COVID.6 And brain skills are critical not just to children and young adults, in their steepest learning curves, but to adults and older adults looking to stay engaged in a rapidly evolving workplace.

Threats to Brain Health

Science can help us understand how our behaviors and environments shape our brains. These insights can potentially guide policy and investing. Air pollution has been shown to damage our brains.7 Easier access to forests, parks, and waterways has been shown to lower risk of mental illnesses.8 The internet can stimulate learning and socializing which bolsters certain brain regions; however, there are downsides of the internet (eg, misinformation propagation, bullying, crime) which harm the brain. An emerging discipline is helping us understand the neuroscience of radicalization and extremism.9 Intimate partner violence, which has spiked during COVID,10 can lead to significant brain injuries for women and hence deficits in thinking and learning abilities.11 Purpose in life may increase dementia-free years and longevity.12 Poverty has long been known to damage brains across the lifespan, particularly poverty in early childhood.

Investing in Brain Capital

We note a number of stakeholder capitalism-based initiatives that are prioritizing our brains. To provide a few examples, the Sustainability Accounting Standards board recently included mental health and wellbeing in its proposed updated human capital standards.13 A recently published ISO standard 45003 gives guidance on managing psychological health and safety risks within an occupational health and safety management system.14 The Business Roundtable recently noted the generation of a healthy environment is a key purpose of a corporation.15 The signatories of the Principles of Responsible Investing recently listed mental health as one of the top 4 social issue priorities in the future.16 This is promising given the $40.5 trillion allocated to Environment, Sustainability and Governance (ESG) investing around the world.17 The American Association of Retired Persons, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and the World Economic Forum have created a new interactive online platform, Growing with Age, to give employers the necessary tools, research, and resources to help them develop better practices to build their multigenerational workforce.18 Global pandemic response initiatives like COVAX, providing vaccines to the vulnerable in low- and middle-income countries, can protect brain capital of recipients by fending off the neurological complications of COVID.19 Large public-private partnerships such as the Davos Alzheimer’s Collaborative and the Healthy Brains Global Initiative, will help to develop new and desperately needed diagnostic and treatment innovations for sufferers of brain health disorders.

Initiatives which aim to support entrepreneur mental health may boost economic vitality and resilience.20 We have been delighted to see record levels of venture capital investment into the brain health technology space, along with a number of companies now considered unicorns (valued at over $1 billion).21 We also applaud the OECD for publishing the Recommendation on Responsible Innovation in Neurotechnology, to cover opportunities and challenges for better innovation practices in company settings—including the use of ethics advisory boards, company-level principles, and ethics-by-design approaches.22

Concluding Thoughts

We suggest a thorough approach when considering where and how to prioritize our minds and brains in the modern economy—brain-based stakeholder capitalism (see Figure). Brain capital can be considered in all policy sectors to ensure none are missed.5 Various types of investment instruments should be explored and optimized, such as impact investing, venture capital, and thematic exchange traded funds.23 Finally, we should work with economics and neuroscientists to track brain capital and impacts of these interventions over time.24

Placing brain capital at the heart of economic development provides the opportunity to advance stakeholder capitalism. By prioritizing minds and brains, governments, civil society, companies, and the international community will be better equipped with health and skills needed to face unprecedented global challenges. Further, these stakeholders will be able to better develop the resilience and adaptability needed to navigate our modern world—enabling both people and the planet to thrive.

Erin Smith is a director with the PRODEO Institute and Thiel Fellow at Stanford University. Dr Hynes is a senior advisor to the Secretary General of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and head of the New Approaches to Economic Challenges (NAEC) Unit. Dr Eyre is co-lead of the OECD Neuroscience-inspired Policy Initiative and holds adjunct roles with IMPACT at Deakin University, Baylor College of Medicine, the Global Brain Health Institute and BrainLat.


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