Innovation is now a field of practice—not just the result of random brainstorming, says Judith Rodin, the President of the Rockefeller Foundation. At one of the panels at this week’s Clinton Global Initiative in New York, Rodin cited three new ways that Internet technology is making innovation replicable and harvestable, spurring innovation that can be applied to social problem-solving. Rodin referred to what she called “user-driven” innovation and Net-powered “collaborative competition” and crowd-sourcing. User-driven innovation, she said, is about identifying practices that work and then replicating them throughout a community. Rodin shared a story of how this type of innovation was used recently to help tackle the problem of malnourishment in a Vietnamese village:
We found three or four incredibly well-nourished kids in a completely improvised village [in Asia] over the course of several days. In those few families, we found that the mothers didn’t wash out the few small shrimp and crabs that were in the rice paddies. Their children were the only kids in an otherwise carbohydrate-based diet that were getting some protein. Once we observed that user-driven innovation, we taught people throughout the village to follow this process, and that practice spread in Southeast Asia.
Crowd-sourcing also can help, Rodin said, citing a recent effort by InnoCentive, a company with a database of more than 175,000 of the brightest minds in science, engineering, technology and business, to develop a solar-based mosquito repellent. Rodin said the repellent ended up being less expensive than bed nets and more economical to produce. She said a company in Houston posted the challenge and a company in New Zealand solved the problem. It is being taken to scale in the Dmeocratic Republic of Congo. Explained Rodin:
The solution is a small cone shaped little instrument that had para-fin wax and human sweat that at the end of the day melted and absorbed heat. People who were using it wore sweatbands around their arms during the day and took them off at night and put them on a panel close to their beds. The combination of wristband and a water-based repellent gave the scent and moisture and heat level that felt like the human body.
Third, Rodin cited Ashoka, an organization that invests in social entrepreneurs worldwide, as a leader in “collaboration innovation.” She said Ashoka’s recent global water challenge asked people to compete for the best solution; competitors openly posted their suggestions so that others could build on their ideas and offer collaboration. The winning solution, she said, did not come from one individual but through the collaboration of 54 different companies. It is now being taken to scale with a $1 million grant from Coca-Cola.
An early morning panel on social innovation agreed that the world’s antiquated education system is broken: schools, panelists agreed, are celebrating old values and teaching mostly Industrial-Age skills rather than training tomorrow’s citizens how to be entrepreneurs, innovators and global problem-solvers. Bill Drayton, CEO and founder of Ashoka, told attendees: “The skills people need now are very different from what people are getting in our schools and education system. We have a diverging society where a small elite has mastered the competencies of empathy, teamwork, and entrepreneurship, but what happens to the 98 percent of the population who has not?” In 10-15 years, he said, “everyone will need to be a change-maker and an innovator.” “Companies”, he said, won’t be able to compete unless young people have been “trained for the revolutions we’ve been looking for.”
Drayton called on CEOs and government policymakers and social advocates to “change the definition of what schools are trying to do” by persuading a small, critical mass of people to create and then evangelize new alternatives. “There are 7-10 countries in the world that are so influential, that if you can tip them, you can tip the world,” he said. “If we can get, say, 2-3 percent of influential schools in Brazil or India to start teaching people to change the way our young people are being taught—and then get 15 or more intellectual leaders, scholars, trade union people, and journalists to get excited about it, then you can tip the system.” Imagine, he said, a society 10-15 years from now “in which all people who hit the age of 21 already know that when they see a problem, they can do something about it.” Kathleen Eisenhardt, an engineering professor at Stanford University, agreed but cautioned that not everyone will, nor can be, a change-maker. “If everybody is change-making,” she said, “then companies won’t be able to scale.”
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.