When a team representing diverse sectors collaborates to represent their own interests while focused on a common goal, well-defined opportunities and accelerated solutions are often the result. Today’s global development field is exciting for the tremendous opportunities present to create big systemic change by taking an interdisciplinary approach to solving age-old challenges.
The third event in our Intersection Thought Leadership series, to be held on September 17 at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, focuses on innovation. In philanthropy and in business, exciting innovations across varied sectors are disrupting “business as usual” and solving some of our toughest global challenges. Mobile banking is providing financial access to millions of people for the first time; online learning is enabling rural children to keep pace with peers around the world; remote agriculture sensors are assisting farmers respond to extreme weather conditions; while GPS technology better protects endangered species from illegal poaching — just to name a few disruptive solutions. Some solutions are born out of necessity, others out of the steady rise in entrepreneurial activity of recent years, but all of them share a few commonalities for success: they require partnership across sectors and they rely on active thought participation with the very population whose needs they are solving.
Hital Muraj, a 2013 Acumen Fellow who currently runs Cisco’s Education Initiative and CSR program across East Africa, works with local communities to find their own levels of innovation which are simple, functional and which “stick.” Whether it’s the creation of rural community centers that facilitate access to information, the first of its kind Cisco Networking Academy for the deaf or utilizing technology to eradicate poverty and to educate and empower women and girls, Hital’s North Star is innovation that works on the ground. These initiatives are successful because they rely on strong public-private partnerships and leverage the skills and talents of each. “We must strengthen our interdependence to bring the whole community into the next decade. And we must use every tool at our disposal.”
With a rising global population and potential food shortages, Africa is poised to become a major food supplier and breadbasket to the world. But as investors from different countries rush in to acquire land for their own gain, how can we empower small farmers as a way of investing in food systems, while at the same time protecting the rights of the local population? Titus Ngeno pairs his deep knowledge of African culture and markets with the technical and business skills he gained in the US to help connect regional farmers’ groups with leading US retailers such as Whole Foods, Costco and Walmart. Titus’ North Star has been providing opportunities to East Africans, especially women, to becoming self-sustaining. Reducing the economic inequality of East African women by significantly increasing revenues and profits of woman-owned businesses in turn increases employee wages, creates new job opportunities, and improves overall standards of living. “I believe that helping women gain economic independence is the most effective way to reduce dependence on foreign aid and create prosperous societies.” Whether it’s connecting small scale coffee farmers in Ethiopia to the North American coffee market or facilitating food security meetings between international organizations and local women’s groups, Titus’s approach proves that savvy investments in partnership with local small entities can yield viable financial rewards for large global businesses.
Erna Grasz’ North Star at Asante Africa Foundation is the belief that there are general systems engineering lessons we can all leverage for developing locally relevant solutions to meet the tremendous opportunities present in transforming education.
When you say innovation in education, most people today think of the flipped classroom, or self-paced, online and distance learning. Indeed, across the globe, technological advancements are not only enabling students in remote regions to learn on par with more affluent peers in wealthier countries, but also impacting program design and how students learn. Innovation in education, however, goes beyond improving access for billions of underserved people. Inherently it is not the technology itself but the way it is used in local contexts that creates the potential for monumental shifts. Whether working with local teachers to redefine their role as educators in traditional, hierarchical societies, integrating participatory learning methodologies for a whole generation of students who are bypassing traditional computers and leapfrogging instead into mobile access, or finding creative ways to address infrastructure barriers such as broadband access, device distribution and equipment repair, a one solution fits all model won’t work for education.
Across the globe, classic and social entrepreneurs are effecting large transformations but typically proprietary ownership of product or process is still controlled. So what happens when that gets disrupted? That is, what if we change the very nature of how we think about the knowledge and expertise we possess so that we openly share, draw upon, build on and repurpose proven solutions? Sphaera, a newly launched peer-to-peer online platform, will do just that for the social sector by collating and sharing the collective and practical knowledge of funders and practitioners working on a range of social issues. The North Star for Astrid Scholz, CEO of Sphaera Solutions, is ‘positive plagiarism,’ making it easy to discover, share and remix solutions so that together we are better, faster, and more effective at tackling today’s pressing social issues.
Many working to solve the world’s social problems find themselves in the position of having to prove in a quantifiable way that their solution is the right solution for investors or donors. Measuring impact in the for-profit world via a return on investment is easy but it is not as easy in the social sector or non-profit world. Even when measurements of social metrics are put in place, they don’t capture the specifics of how the social benefit is produced and provided. By turning our focus away from profit as the endgame and towards value inherent in the solution to a problem – that is, managing and improving the process being as important as the product itself and capturing that value – then social enterprises become disruptive innovations themselves.
“Manage what matters” is the North Star that Steve Wright, Executive with Grameen Foundation and Salesforce.com Foundation, lives by. He believes that this concept – recognizing inherent value that goes beyond revenue – will also fundamentally change the structure of our economy. Profit is necessary, but insufficient as an end game. Profit is needed to build effective organizations, and it is effective organizations that will solve meaningful problems and produce real, lasting impact.
Whatever your North Star, follow it to Silicon Valley to join these global thought leaders in a provocative discussion on how we can work together to create the change we want to see in the world. Tickets are available at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2008625.