Large-scale businesses, especially in the realm of industry, have made the work environment more insular, specialized and mechanical. While business leaders seem to benefit from compartmentalizing and scaling operations, it’s important they don’t ignore the less understood, sometimes terrifying costs of their actions.

For instance, ‘economies of scale’ are meant to drive the price of consumption down in principle but what happens when we consume faster than we produce? Why isn’t anybody concerned about the day when we have nothing left to consume? Similarly, what happens when a worker in a factory shares a spot with another person on a conveyor belt but doesn’t know that person? What does that signify?

These questions stem from two fundamental problems that will branch into additional problems in the days ahead. Firstly, natural resources are finite and dwindling and therefore scaling any operation involving raw materials without thinking about re-using or recycling will ultimately lead to severe shortages; and secondly, millions of people have no interest or choice in what they help produce along unending assembly lines – a stifling work environment that results in the death of independent thought, creativity and ambition.

To put it simply, we are sucking the world dry and turning thinking people into mindless drones. Both actions spell disaster for future generations unless global business leaders work together to find solutions to these problems.

Unfortunately, in the fiercely competitive world of ‘deadlines’ and ‘bottom lines’, the effect of business on people or the planet we inhabit, hardly ever makes the news.

Let’s first discuss the effect on people. Today, the prospect of a mechanical life is mind numbing to many, yet many more sign up for repetitive work. Some think they don’t have the necessary skills to do more. Others don’t have a choice. But both kinds of people are often found equally disengaged from the act of consciously navigating through life decisions; it’s almost as if they occupy a programmed vessel that will carry them forward, regardless of what they want or think. But that’s not how it works.

Occupying one single space that generates one specific utility through one specific function does not define progress. In monetary terms, if the annual increment at a workplace appeases the appetite of the workforce, it’s a tragedy. Why? Because every human being is capable of achieving so much more.

And so the immediate question that is born out of this logic is ‘how’ – how do we get people to dream and think and act beyond their mould? How do we make them believe that they are indeed larger and greater than the role assigned to them or the role they have assumed for themselves?

The first step is to change the way organizations are structured in terms of recognizing and rewarding talent. We need to encourage ‘focus’ and ‘specialization’ without discouraging ‘initiative’, ‘experimentation’ and ‘innovation’. To help people realize they are more than what they have always believed themselves to be, it is first essential to break the mould they are inadvertently subservient to.

For example, at an ad agency, business leaders should encourage everyone to think of themselves as marketers first, advertisers second and specialists last. A copywriter only writes copy for a product whereas a marketer markets a product using all the tools available to him in the marketing world. A copywriter works inside a box defined by a job description whereas a marketer works without a box or at worst a much larger box that allows the marketer the freedom to do more.

Essentially, when people associate with an industry rather than a specific job description, the spectrum of ideas they can think and work on suddenly blossoms across a wider horizon. Business leaders who understand this should adopt a managerial style that creates space for and rewards new ideas; that recognizes the job description as a guideline that can be extended or abridged in line with an employee’s personal motivations. In other words, we need business leaders who fuel conversation on the power of ideas as opposed to systems, procedures, hierarchies and processes.

Beyond deconstructing compartments in the work place and empowering employees so that they do more, industrialists and manufacturers in particular need to rethink the economy – and they have to do this if they want to save the planet from disintegrating.

Today, new technologies appear in stores every other month, which means old technologies are immediately discarded. Just take mobile phones for instance. The production involves aluminum, copper, lithium (and a variety of other materials extracted from the earth). What happens to these products when they’re discarded? Nothing. They rot in our homes or landfills where they serve no purpose.

But the story in Pakistan is a little different. Pakistanis have in a sense pioneered the idea of reusing waste materials. On Beaden road in Lahore I have seen people turn old monitor screens into television sets. At Attabad lake in Gilgit-Baltistan, I have seen Bedford truck engines used in boats with the clutch plate and steering of an actual truck! In Pakistan no technology ever goes extinct. Even if your mobile phone is cracked and bruised and not working, a mobile phone shop owner will pay you for it, fix it and then sell it at a reasonable profit.

The world at large is looking for leaders to espouse and promote the idea of a circular economy and a country like Pakistan that has learnt the art of making do with scraps is naturally tailored to seize leadership on this most pressing concern.

The Ellen MacArthur foundation researches and promotes innovative methods to build a ‘restorative circular economy’ where nothing or at least little goes to waste. The foundation believes that underdeveloped economies are best suited to adapt to and benefit from the circular model. What the foundation may not know is that Pakistan is already a living, working, breathing embodiment of its philosophy. How the Ellen MacArthur foundation can work with Pakistan to become a driving force for change across the globe is the bigger question now.

The writer is a communications consultant based in Lahore.

Khizr.imran@gmail.com