Bill Gates gave a great speech at Davos this week around the concept of Creative Capitalism, an approach where governments, businesses, and non-profits work together to stretch the reach of market forces so that more people can make a profit, or gain recognition, doing work that eases the world's inequities. It is an important and exciting way to think about the creative application of business models to help the world's poor. In addition to Bill's speech, there is also a good Wall Street Journal article and interview on the topic that appeared this week.

This is the concept that drove me to switch jobs within Microsoft last summer and join The Unlimited Potential Group, which is, of course, our company's main vehicle for Creative Capitalism. It is the concept behind the work Intel is doing with its World Ahead program. It is the concept behind the work the OLPC is doing with their XO computer. It is the concept behind the work of dozens of other companies around the world who are taking the philanthropic motivations of their Corporate and Social Responsibility (CSR) departments and integrating them with the creativity of their new product development departments in order to create a new, new thing: a systematic approach to applying the strengths of a company to serve the needs of poor people by essentially treating them as a new class of customers who previously happened to fall outside of the traditional market focus of a company. It involves a new approach to product design, research, distribution, partnership, and profit models -- all done in the name of helping a class of people that businesses have traditionally ignored.

A cool thing that Bill did with his speech is that he has given the concept a name. I really like "Creative Capitalism" as a description for the work we are doing.

From my perspective, there are multiple approaches companies can take to get on the Creative Capitalism bandwagon.

  • Differential Pricing - This is when a company creates versions of its existing products at a price point that poor people in emerging markets can afford. In Bill's speech, he talked about several examples of drug companies doing this with vaccines. CK Prahalad documents how Lever Brothers and others have successfully done this with consumer goods for the poorest of the poor in India. Microsoft's best example of this is the Microsoft Student Innovation Suite (MSIS), a $3 package of software sold through government programs where the government subsidizes the purchase of laptops for students.
  • New Types of Public Private Partnerships (PPP) - This is when governments and businesses transition from a classic buyer-seller relationship in order to partner in creating programs targeting specific social and economic outcomes. These PPPs usually work best in areas where government resources and expertise are achieving limited results. My favorite example of this at Microsoft is Partners in Learning -- a Microsoft program that we just renewed for another 5 years with a $235 million commitment -- that among other things has trained 4 million teachers on how to use technology in the classroom in a manner that emphasizes local collaboration and local impact. Also, Microsoft's Partnerships for Technology Access (PTA) program has worked with governments around the world to create dozens of these PPPs.
  • Affinity Campaigns - This is a branding campaign where a company publicly allocates a portion of its profits from a  particular product to a development cause. These campaigns boxRight.Davos[1] allow consumers in a small way to align their purchase choices with their desire to affect social outcomes. The best example of this, of course, is (RED) the branding campaign created by the singer Bono to help raise money for AIDS vaccines in Africa. Microsoft and Dell announced support for (RED) this week.
  • New Products - This is when a company designs new products from the ground up to meet the specific needs of people trapped in the bottom of the social and economic pyramid. This is the most exciting long term aspect of Creative Capitalism and is the main focus of the Unlimited Potential Group. We have software developers working in solution areas like education, low cost computing, and shared access computing. As part of this work, for example, some people on my team are conducting product design focus groups over the next month in Ghana, Morocco, and Peru. I've worked on a lot of products in my 13 year career here at Microsoft, and I can assure you that as a company we never used to do focus groups in places like Ghana. But it is the only way we can do what we do best -- which is develop new types of technology solutions -- in a manner that has the greatest impact on the needs of people that technology companies have previously ignored.

So why are we doing all of this?

From a long-term, pure numbers perspective this approach makes sense for us as a company. There are 6 billion people in the world today, and Microsoft's products are used by about a billion of them. As a company we can grow in the future by either selling more software + services to our existing billion customers, or we can grow by selling software + services to the other 5 billion. If we do the latter, than we have to do so on their terms, not ours. And the fact that our team is now doing focus groups in Ghana is interesting because it turns out that Microsoft sells more in Africa today than it does in either India or China. Most people in our company don't realize this. There is a real business opportunity here, but as I've mentioned before there is an emerging view that this opportunity requires new partnership and distribution models and even new types of products from us in order to sell into these markets in a relevant and sustainable way.

But there is a social aspect to this approach that goes beyond business, and this is an important theme in Bill's speech. People by their very nature like to help other people -- and believe it or not this sentiment is even shared by a lot of people like me who work at a company like Microsoft. There is a place for this personal need to help other people in business, and we can do this in a manner that goes beyond traditional corporate charity or philanthropy. In other words, it is OK to align business interests (the need to grow our company) with social interests (the desire to help people who need help) if it is done in a creative way that achieves measurable outcomes on both fronts, and those measurable outcomes for the company don't always have to be measured by profit numbers on this quarter's income statement. Microsoft has always focused on long-term markets, and why can't we continue to do this in a manner that helps poor people at the same time? Hence "Creative Capitalism."

Of course there are critics of all of these different types of approaches, and their general argument is that it is impossible for companies to serve their own economic interests and the social good at the same time. There is also a more specific criticism focused directly at Microsoft, that this is all simply an effort to circumvent the appeal of free or pirated software so we can gain access to markets in emerging countries. One group this week even likened Microsoft's approach to education as being the equivalent of a tobacco company handing out free cigarettes to children. These critics are missing the point, because this is not about Microsoft or about software licensing models or even about technology. It's about the recognition that people who are in the middle and bottom of the social and economic pyramid are, well, people who might actually have the opportunity to advance in their lives if there are greater choices for products and services that are relevant, accessible, and affordable to them. This realization can create opportunity for companies, but more importantly it can achieve a social good because the creative energies of businesses are now focused on the needs of people who were previously ignored. When software engineers in Redmond and India are focused on meeting the needs of farmers in Ghana, then the world becomes a better place.

And that is the beauty behind the idea of Creative Capitalism.