The Social License — Rethink Disruption

How Social License is Gained

Public perception, along with the behavior and regulation changes that come with it, is a driver of disruption. It acts as a feedback loop that when compounded with other drivers, like regulation, investment, and scale of production, accelerates the adoption of a disruptive product, technology or system. Fundamentally though, disruptions are caused by economics. When a new product, technology or system arrives that is an economically viable alternative, i.e. dramatically better, cheaper and more effective, disruption is inevitable.

How Social License is Lost

When a social license is lost, it is because people are now able to clearly see the drawbacks of the old product or technology. The way it has always been was tolerated because we did not have the new product to compare the old one to. Few complained about a phone having a cord until they tried a wireless phone. We tolerated rewinding cassette tapes until they tried a CD. We accepted the smell and pollution of car exhausts until we experienced electric vehicles. Despite ample evidence about the costs on society (public health, environmental, social, ethical, etc.) of so many major industries — most people tolerate them because we prioritize low-cost products and services and maximizing short-term growth, tax revenue and jobs.

“Oil is increasingly becoming socially challenged, there’s no question about that.”

“There’s a view that this is a bad industry, and I understand that.”

  • Bernard Looney, BP CEO

Social License in the 2020s

At RethinkX, we examine sector disruptions and we think there are quite a few behaviours, processes and products that we consider socially acceptable today that will lose their social license during the 2020s. Can you think of any more?

  • It may be socially unacceptable to drive cars because of the new, safer system built on A-EVs and TaaS.
  • It may be socially unacceptable to use gasoline-fueled tools and vehicles like lawnmowers or chainsaws as electric alternatives get cheaper.
  • It may be socially unacceptable to carve our cities into massive parking lots because TaaS means cars are shared and constantly in use instead of privately owned and parked.
  • It may be socially unacceptable to eat animal meat, offer it at social events, display it openly for sale or even cook it in the presence of others once cheaper and better meat is available directly from cells, plants and microbes.
  • It may be socially unacceptable to use leather for car seats, clothing or furniture once cheaper and better performing materials are made — especially since otherwise we’d have to raise cattle just for the hide.
  • It may be socially unacceptable to destroy the environment to grow feed for livestock, make room for plantations or to mine the sea for products when it is much more land and resource-efficient to produce meat and other natural products through precision fermentation and cell culture.
  • It may be socially unacceptable to use fossil fuels for energy since the combination of solar PV, wind power and batteries — renewable energy — will be cheaper, decentralized and more efficient.
  • It may be socially unacceptable to monopolize and control electric power because when people generate their own energy through rooftop solar panels, they should be able to store it and even sell energy back to the grid.



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RethinkX, disruptive technology think tank

RethinkX, disruptive technology think tank

RethinkX is an independent think tank that analyzes and forecasts the speed and scale of technology-driven disruption and its implications across society.