10th Anniversary Essays
Sixteen special essays on how the field of social innovation has evolved and what challenges remain ahead.
The rate of change has been accelerating exponentially since 1700 at least. So has the number of people causing change. This acceleration also applies (and I believe this is especially important) to the number of combinations, and combinations of combinations, of changemakers collaborating.
The combined effect of these accelerating historical forces is profoundly changing how people work together. And nothing is more explosive than changes in how people interact—because they change everything.
At least since Homo sapiens first crossed the mouth of the Red Sea 50,000 years ago, human organization has focused on achieving efficiency in repetition. Think of the law firm or the assembly line. Consider our traditional goals for education: to give students a body of knowledge and mastery of the associated rules so that they can go forth and be a potter or a banker for life.
Of course, the world has always seen some change, at least evolutionary change. But the practical day-to-day work of an organization was marked by increasingly specialized repetition: A few people told everyone else how to repeat actions together, efficiently, in structures with vertical nervous systems and walls.
Although this organizational model still dominates, it is failing. The half-life of a Fortune 500 company gets shorter and shorter—that is, the death rate of these slow-to change giants is accelerating.
We are moving rapidly into a world defined by change, which is the opposite of repetition. Whereas repeating parts fit together with repetition reinforcing repetition, we are now tipping into an equally coherent world where change begets and accelerates change. When one system changes, it bumps all those around it, and then they bump all those around them.
In a world of escalating change, the rules cover less and less. Anyone who tries to be a good person by diligently following the rules will, inevitably if unintentionally, hurt people and disrupt groups.
Value in this world comes not from providing the same thing over and over to a client, but from managing kaleidoscopic change processes that are busily bumping one another. Because one now needs to see and seize ever-changing opportunities, the new organizational model must be a fluid, open team of teams. That is precisely what one sees in the islands where the new world of change is already flourishing—for example, Silicon Valley and Bangalore. Here (and increasingly everywhere) the critical factor for success is determining what percentage of your people are changemakers, at what level—and how good a job you are doing in enabling them to work together in fluid, open teams of teams.
A team is not a team unless everyone is an initiatory player, and in this world you cannot afford to have anyone on your team who is not a changemaker. Yes, there is still repetition (although automation, artificial intelligence, and the World Wide Web are fast shrinking its scope); but you cannot afford to have anyone without the skills to spot and help develop change opportunities. That is where the value lies.
This world requires a new paradigm for growing up and therefore also for education. Just as 50 to 100 years ago society took the radical step of saying that every person must master written language, now we must insist that every person have the social skills necessary to be an effective, confident changemaker before age 21. These core skills are empathy, teamwork, a new type of leadership (leading teams of teams where everyone is a powerful changemaker), and changemaking. (Ashoka’s global collaborative entrepreneurship teams for “Every Child Must Master Empathy” and “Youth Venture” are focused precisely here.)
In a world of escalating change, the rules cover less and less. Anyone who tries to be a good person by diligently following the rules will, inevitably if unintentionally, hurt people and disrupt groups. They (and quite likely their group with them) will be marginalized, thrown out. That is one of the reasons that the skill of empathy is essential now.
How does this world, in which all the systems are changing and bumping one another, stay on a safe, fair, and beneficial-for-all path? There has to be a powerful force constantly pulling society back to the center.
That is why social entrepreneurs are critical (and no doubt why the field has grown explosively over the last three decades). Because the challenge is at the level of systems, it requires entrepreneurs. That is what entrepreneurs do. Time and time again, however, entrepreneurs with narrow objectives (including self-interest, shareholders’ interests, or a religious or ideological end) pull the world astray. The environment suffers. Privacy fades away.
Social entrepreneurs are the essential corrective force. They are system-changing entrepreneurs. And from deep within they (and therefore their work) are committed to the good of all. Whenever the world needs to turn in a better direction, they emerge to ensure that it does so.