This is a Pro-Panopticon Essay.

In prison architecture, the structural Panopticon allows for all inmates to be viewed by a single watchman. Surveillance is control, and this is why it works. It is this assumption that drives compliance with prison yard rules. Of course, it is impossible to always be watching every inmate, to be successful, the Panopticon need simply only provide the illusion of a voyeur. In his book by the same name, Christian Parenti, a professor in the Global Liberal Studies Program at New York University calls surveillance the “Soft Cage,” taking us from slavery to the War on Terror.



In supply chain sustainability, we see a failed system of surveillance in the form of surveys, often an annual glance in the rearview mirror at the footprint of the supplier network – if that. It is surprising that there are so many organizations lending their acronyms to this seemingly archaic tool when the idea of a digital Panopticon is so readily available.

This failure of the survey framework comes from a place of greed, if not outright fetish. I’ve had conversations with supply chain managers who do nothing (or worse – don’t know what to do) with the data they collect from their suppliers. This amounts to panty sniffing in my opinion. Surveys, in the way that sustainability practitioners commonly apply them, serve only the surveyor – the prison bull collecting information for their own analytics, awards or reporting requirements. This greed is the problem. This is not to say that partnering with supply chains doesn’t happen – but it is more rare than common, and it is unnecessarily laborious as currently practiced.

EHS and Human Rights compliance, LCA data accuracy, and so on are instances of the “seeing of suppliers.” This seeing is the very purpose of The Survey as a tool. This is not the Orwelean “there was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment… you had to live… in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized,” but it could be if done right.

Classically, the Panopticon only works in a fear-discipline-punish relationship – an arrangement that is rarely (outside of a consenting sexual context) welcomed with open arms. So how do we install the Panopticon with a willingness to be observed? How do we create a supply chain culture of Happy Panoptics?

Let’s look at the practice of a Survey – it’s almost as if the surveyor doesn’t really want to see. Surveys are safe. They offer the supplier only a sense of peek-a-boo at best. “I see you,” is the friendly butt-end of the riffle of “I’m watching you.”

New technologies are shifting this – LaborVoices for example is a disruptive platform that surveys employees on compliance related issues and then sells that data to the prison bulls. This is sousveillance gloriously monetized – undersight not oversight.  What is the sustainability data version of this model? How can supply chains report on their customers? Consider this a challenge – SEND A SUSTAINABILITY SURVEY TO YOUR CUSTOMERS AND SEE WHAT HAPPENS. Email me at john @ rapport. io with the results.

But the idea of the Panopticon need not be Orwellian (only). Geometrically, and situational the Panopticon is a circle. Think of the classic guard tower in the center of the prison yard. Nova Corps Prison, The Klyn, in Guardians of the Galaxy is based on this design, lest we think the concept has yet to break the seal of popular culture. Heck, even Batman refers to himself, in a sense, as a metaphorical Panopticon to criminals and corrupt cops. Who watches the watchmen? Indeed.


This Panoptic circle shape has a home in our sustainability prison as well. We can think of the closing of loops of Cradle to Cradle, the darling hope of a Circular Economy, and the fundamentals of biomimicry to name only a few such circles. But our supply chain engagement efforts fail to see the circle as an important shape – even as it would relate to the most intimate of surveillance techniques – give me your data. Call and response dialogues like Surveys travel along predictable (uninteresting) linear pathways. Fill this out and send it back.

What corporate supply chain manager hasn’t uttered the desire to build a better mousetrap with the qualities of “a mill for grinding rogues honest”? Ok, so that was Jeremy Bentham, social theorist and papa Panopticon from the late 18th century. But the intent of the corporate supply chain manager is, in fact, the same as the prison guard. Keep an eye on the bastards! I’m only half joking.  Which half, though?

What would a modern Panopticon include?

A modern Panopticon would not be based on fear, but on value – shared value. It would be technology based. It would be more like a virus that spread through a supply chain. More mirror than scope.

It would support the suppliers, helping them to see new opportunity through the lens of sustainability. And, of course it would be circular if not fractal in nature. Data (that goal of sustainability surveillance) would be visible and freely shared. The bridge from Things to Big Data is already being built.

Michael Foucault in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975) proposed that all hierarchical structures (armies, schools, businesses) evolve to resemble a kind of Panopticon. I argue that sustainability and supply chains have a unique opportunity to turn the classic “survey” into a Panopticon for Good.

If your supply chain is always reporting – (the sustainability report is dead, long live reporting – viva nuntis?) then the watchman is no longer needed. But reporting might not even be the right idea – invoicing maybe.  Mechanically, we can utilize existing communication (reporting) infrastructure – procurement. Imagine an environmental invoice (in Co2e) that traveled with a financial invoice for the Goods and Services rendered.  Simple, but not easy.

This shift establishes the much-needed move from My Footprint to Our Footprint.

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