The top story in what we might call “innovation news” last month was the acquisition of photo-sharing site Instagram by Facebook for $1 billion. As Todd Warren, Northwestern professor wrote in Forbes: “It seems like a rocket ship of a success story, from Stanford graduates to millionaires with overjoyed investors in just a couple of years.”
He went on to advise readers—his own young, hungry students among them—to focus on the grounded lesson from this otherwise stratospheric-sounding fairytale: “Develop the simplest solution to the customer problem.”
It got me thinking about the biggest problems facing “customers” of American democracy these days: the financing and running of campaigns, our archaic voting system, and the lack of efficient, environmentally sound transportation options in so many cities—just to name a few.
Where are our “simple solutions” in the social sector? Where are our start-up glory stories? Where are the venture capitalists interested not just in the profit potential of sepia-toned snapshots, but also in a more functional democracy for our technological times?
In other words, what would happen if we leveraged the ingenuity and resources in Silicon Valley for the improvement and renewal of the rest of the country—starting in D.C., where simple solutions seem all but impossible?
This is no rhetorical exercise to New Media Ventures, the first national network of early stage investors who are putting their money into, in their own words, “cutting-edge start-ups focused on building progressive change. Founded in 2005, New Media Ventures’ projects include Friendfactor, an organization that’s pioneered organizing allies online for the gay rights movement; NationalField, the private social network that shaped the Obama’s online strategy; and The Story of Stuff, an online video series that breaks down complex systems such as water and electronic waste processing into powerfully simple, super popular explainers.
Annie Leonard, founder of The Story of Stuff, says that while our “consumer muscles” have gotten a great workout over the last few decades, our “citizen muscles” have grown anemic. We’ve created gods out of entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, inspiring a fresh batch of the most innovative graduates each fall to aspire to go into the tech industry; all the while, the public and government sectors are starving for their ingenuity and energy.
In part, this is because we’ve failed to tell a better story about the rewards of public service and its potential for innovation. The “Social Network” movie grossed close to a billion dollars at the box office, glorifying the mid-college pilgrimage to Palo Alto; where are the stories about the creation of sites like Moveon.org—a website that changed politics forever? (Eli Pariser, a central force behind Moveon.org, has incidentally just co-founded a site called Upworthy—another beneficiary of New Media Ventures—that is essentially trying to make significant stories as popular as cat videos, or as they put it in “LOLCats” shorthand: “I can haz meaning.”)
There is some hope. Investors such as those with New Media Ventures and promising young organizations such as Code for America—which partners members of the web generation with city governments—are leading the way in creating a new class of public-interest entrepreneurs. They want to fix broken systems, including how public transportation works, how we find information about public schools, how we vote and support candidates we believe in, and how we find out about our food’s safety.
They may never see the kind of windfall that the 13 owners of Instagram are about to enjoy, but it’s hard to imagine anything more satisfying than knowing you helped make our dysfunctional democracy run smoother, more equitably, and more inexpensively. Or knowing you helped improve the average citizen’s quality of life—not because you lured her into the next, sexy acquisition, but because you helped create ways for her to advocate for herself more effectively. That kind of innovation that won’t make you rich, but it could make you a game changer, and at the very least, it will make you proud.