I just returned from Ashoka’s remarkable Change Nation event in Dublin. It was all the more remarkable for me because it came on the heels of ten days in Serbia, Bosnia, and Romania, where I met with U.S. Ambassadors, the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), and the feistiest of grassroots technology activists.
An overarching theme emerged from my trip, a theme of possibility and tension.
The possibility is quite apparent: New technologies enable innovators and change on a whole new order of magnitude.
The tension is more nuanced. We need to reconcile the sense of immediacy that animates new, innovative technologists with the need to create solutions at scale.
You can think of it as scrappy vs. strategic. Or scrappy and strategic, which is really tough.
My own organization, TechSoup Global, is feeling both the possibility and the tension. In Romania, led by our local partner, we ran a hugely successful open government, anti-corruption challenge, with the highest level of support from U.S. Ambassador Mark Gitenstein. Amb. Gitenstein has energetically motivated U.S. ambassadors all over Central and Eastern Europe to request such challenges in their own countries and has motivated the U.S. State Department to offer financial assistance as well.
But I may have somewhat disappointed him. Hearing his enthusiasm and the enthusiasm of the Ambassador to Slovakia, Tod Sedgwick, I had to respond that in our strategic considerations in San Francisco, Calif., we see the need to build a solid technological infrastructure on which, eventually, we can base hundreds of challenges. So the ambassadors were saying, “Be scrappy,” and I was the one saying, “But wait…” Not a position I’m accustomed to. I felt a bit like the dog that caught the school bus.
Then I spent about six hours with Nick McKinlay, who directs the civil society division of AKDN and who was kind enough to travel to Bucharest to meet up. AKDN is all about creating a cohesive approach to development, spanning all relevant players to optimize long-term outcomes. It’s impossible to overstate its assets in terms of relationships, experience, comprehensive theory of change, and resources. The network has a majority stake in the company that built the Seacom Cable! Do you think that relationship might possibly be relevant to developing capacity in Africa?
So I’d put Nick and AKDN over on the strategic side of the spectrum. After Nick and I finished our second long discussion, we strolled back to his hotel by way of the office of TechSoup Romania, where our partner, Chris Worman, introduced us to Vlad Atanasiu. Vlad represents the tension side of the spectrum. He is part of the collective that runs the Resource Center for Student Organizations (CROS) and that partners with TechSoup Romania on Restart Education, a challenge that aims to blow up Romania’s higher education system, which people like Vlad perceive as sclerotic and stifling of imagination, talent, innovation, and real learning. The collective supports itself through contracts with companies, such as Kraft, that recognize they are much more likely to find innovative talent among participants in Vlad’s program.
Vlad is waaaaaaaay beyond scrappy; he is living the change, as they say. I’d compare his ethos to that of the Occupy movement, with the difference that Vlad’s group is much more focused and results-oriented. He reads management theory, but he works long hours for low pay to make a difference today. And in that way, he is on the same wavelength as the Bosnian organization ZastoNe (“Why Not?”), which just organized the remarkable Point Conference, as well as DokuKino in Serbia, which partners with NGOs throughout the Western Balkans on social media projects.
He is also on the same wavelength as many of the Ashoka innovators who gathered in Dublin for Change Nation. What a great event this was! Ashoka gathered 50 of its very smart fellows—and their social innovations—in one place: Ireland. As it happens, Ireland is home to a lot of brilliant Irish people, and in this moment of national financial struggle, Ashoka used its considerable cachet to organize all levels of Irish society around the concept of working with the visiting innovators.
A few of the innovators, including TechSoup Global, have already been working with Irish partners—in our case, the tech organization Enclude. At Change Nation, Enclude found new allies like venture capitalist Bryan Caulfield, who offered to help add broadband access to Enclude’s donations menu. Other innovators, such as Gregor Hackmack of the German political watchdog project Candidate Watch, gained entry into a new environment. Candidate Watch left with various commitments of support, including one from a young and very competent Ashoka volunteer committed to organizing their presence in the next Irish election.
But back to the tension. There are 3,000 Ashoka fellows, innovators all. The 50 in Dublin were selected and presented by Ashoka as the most advanced, most able to instill their innovations in Ireland. I talked to enough of them in Dublin to know that many of them feel a real urgency about moving forward. The 2,950 others are, by and large, like Vlad: brilliant, passionate, and not necessarily thinking about integrated development strategies.
It is possible to say that’s “just like it ever was.” The young want change now, while their elders see the need for strategy and integration. But I would argue that it is not at all like it ever was. What has changed is that our beleaguered species now has a vast and necessary resource available to it, a resource that, arguably, is the single great hope we have to save ourselves. This resource is youth, enabled by technology and determined to get past the nationalistic, fundamentalist crises that ensnare us and threaten our survival.
So the question becomes: How do the AKDNs and TechSoup Globals manage to work at scale while integrating, serving, growing, and learning from this important constituency? And there’s one point I can’t emphasize too strongly: It’s not about internships! It’s not about letting this constituency into our midst. The new constituency of “changemakers” (to use Ashoka’s term) doesn’t feel like it needs the previous generation of social change organizations. The new people will work with the previous generation under certain circumstances, but they will insist on autonomy, and they are impatient.
If we lose them, the battle is lost. If we listen to them, we might have a chance.