A week ago today, the Skoll World Forum at Oxford University concluded, with its leaders and many of its delegates declaring that the failures of the global economy have given legitimacy, at last, to the new field of social entrepreneurship. The growing ranks of business innovators who also want to solve the world’s social problems, they said, now seem the best hope for institutional innovation in the 21st century. “Our trusted institutions have turned out to be stunningly untrustworthy, ” said Colin Mayer, the dean of the Said Business School, the site of the conference. “While governments around the world believe they are in control and that the old order will soon re-emerge, you can be sure they are not and it won’t. Now, more than ever, there is a need and opportunity for institutional innovations.”
Social entrepreneurship used to be seen as “an interesting but ephemeral fad,” said Skoll Centre Director Pamela Hartigan—but not anymore. Those in mainstream business, academia, government, and the media “are now finding that [this movement] has been, indeed, a harbinger of future organizations, systems, and practices.” Jeffrey Skoll, in concluding remarks, urged delegates to step up their leadership efforts in the coming year. He quoted the American economist Paul Romer as saying, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”
Among closing-session highlights:
- Lord David Puttnam, a movie producer [best-known for the Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire, Midnight Express, and The Killing Fields] and president of UNICEF UK, called on conferees to act urgently to overhaul education. Quoting the British author, H.G. Wells, that “the future is a race between education and catastrophe,” Puttnam said it is time for every citizen to “get absolutely honest” about the serious challenges facing humanity and to demand “exactly the same degree of honesty from those who seek to lead us and make decisions on our behalf.” He quoted from the 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby, to sum up the failures of today’s wealth-society: “They smashed up things and ... then retreated back into their money and their vast carelessness and let other people clean up the mess that they made.” Puttnam, however, was most passionate about the need for education innnovation, and showed the first seven minutes of a soon-to-be released documentary that he hopes will do for educational reform what Al Gore’s film, Inconvenient Truth did for climate change activism. Here’s a short portion of the script: “What we have now is a [school] system shaped by historical forces but now almost totally bankrupt of ideas for education in the 21st century—and they’re betraying most of our children. Public systems of education, paid for by taxation, were invented to meet the needs of the Industrial Economy emerging in the 18th and 19th centuries, when we needed a work force that could do certain sorts of things…The high schools of today were centrally designed in the 19th century…and in the old days, we’d say one-size-fits-all—we’d put 30 kids in a classroom and teach them the same material, which they’d all be expected get in the same way…But just five years from now, much less in 25 years time, we won’t know what the world will be like. How adaptable are today’s kids going to be? The very best we can do is to prepare young people for a rapidly changing social, technological, economic environment, in which they’re going to have to be the most flexible, collaborative, creative generation that has ever been. Education is the most fundamental challenge facing human beings; it will be key to solving all the other problems we’ve got.”
- Soraya Salti, a new Skoll fellow and the senior vice president of MENA, INJAZ al-Arab, an education nonprofit based in Jordan, said the region has strayed far from “the Golden Age of Islam”—a time when “people of different religions and cultures were coming together to move humanity forward.” Today, she said, schools across the Arab world have failed their students, fueling unprecedented rates of youth unemployment—30 percent in Saudi Arabia, 37 percent in Syria, 40 percent in Algeria, and 30 percent in Jordan. The irony? A lack of qualified human capital is cited by CEOs in the region as the No. 1 obstacle for growth. “Those who would control and politically mobilize the youth of the Arab world will be the ones who will win in the end,” Salti said, paraphrasing a 2008 report by the Brookings Institution in Washington. “Is it going to be government or is it going to be the [radical] Islamists?” Salti, in this video clip of her talk at the conference, described her recent work to assemble a team of 27 would-be social entrepreneurs from a girls’ school in Jamallah to compete for a regional prize for entrepreneurship. It was an example of what her group, INJAZ, is doing to reach more than 100,000 Arab youth in six countries across the Middle East.
Marcia Stepanek is Founding Editor-in-Chief and President, News and Information, for Contribute Media, a New York-based magazine, Web site, and conference series about the new people and ideas of giving. She is the publisher of Cause Global, an acclaimed new blog about the use of digital media for social change. She also serves as moderator and producer of New Conversations for Change, Contribute’s forum series highlighting social entrepreneurs and new trends in philanthropy.