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Let’s be boring. Using Digital Innovations Unlock Partnerships to Scale Impact

Oxford’s Fierce Compassion – Series of Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2016.

1+1 MBA student and Skoll Scholar, pills Ashley Thomas gives her perspective on the Skoll World Forum seminar sessions focused on design and innovation.

As I assume is the norm for Skoll World Forum, I found myself struggling to decide between two parallel sessions. In my case they were, “Can Digital Innovation Unlock Partnerships to Scale Impact” and “Design for Action: Innovation Interventions.” The metaphor was not lost on me- in one room we have the designers talking about how to use design thinking to create solutions for complex problems and in the other room we have implementers using innovative systems to scale operations.

As a mechanical engineer, I entered international development with the perspective of design- looking for solutions to be engineered and silver-bullet products to be made. It took the experience of working on the ground, trying to scale those products to realize the clear need for context, and for an integrated systems approach, where a product is a single player in the overall design. This systems approach cannot happen if we have the implementers and the designers in different room.

While hopping between sessions, I heard the same conversation in both rooms. We need to have a systems approach to designing innovations and using those innovations to scale. How do we do that? We need to be boring and we need to be intentional.

We need to be boring. There’s a long history of social enterprises focusing on the cool app or in-vogue cause, but impact comes from unlocking how to do the boring things well. It is about creating systems, about driving institutions, and building supply chains. How it is about excellence in routine, and striving for ensuring operational effectiveness. It is through tackling the nitty-gritty details that once can design those systems for scale.

We need to be intentional.  Tim Brown said that “Design is being intentional about how you want to shape the world.” It is this long-term vision about shaping your piece of the world that’s critical. Tim’s vision doesn’t focus on the innovation, but the ecosystem around that innovation that allows practitioners like Andrew Youn from One Acre Fund to bring their projects to scale.

To truly unlock the partnerships that enable digital innovation to scale, we need to ensure we are thinking at an ecosystem level. WE need to get the designers and the practitioners in the same room, and have the system-level discussions together, intentionally, rather than in parallel. Much of this is not sexy- there is no shiny prototype, no cool digital platform. However, it is through achieving excellence in the mundane and tackling problems at a systems level that we can achieve impact at scale.

Follow Ashley: @aethomas


Challenging Global Wealth Inequality

Oxford’s Fierce Compassion – Series of Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2016.

D.Phil. of Sociology student, ampoule Jun Han gives his perspective on the Skoll World Forum seminar session ‘Challenging Global Wealth Inequality’.

“As long as poverty, injustice and gross inequality exist in our world, none of us can truly rest.” —-Nelson Mandela

Global wealth inequality is growing fast. In 2014, OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) released a report, indicating that “in OECD countries, the richest 10% of the population earn 9.6 times the income of the poorest 10%. In the 1980s, this ratio stood at 7:1 rising to 8:1 in the 1990s and 9:1 in the 2000s”. In 2015, a report from Oxfam also warned that the combined wealth of the richest 1% of world’s population will overtake that of the other 99% of people by 2016, unless the rising inequality is checked. So, what is the driver of the global wealth inequality, and how to relieve the growing trend? What can social enterprises do?

Jun Hun

The 13th Skoll World Forum organised a panel “Challenging Global Wealth Inequality” on 15 April 2016 at University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School to shed lights on this critical issue. This panel was moderated by Emily Kasriel, Head of Editorial Partnerships and Special Projects at BBC World Service Group. The five panelists, who are pioneers fighting against inequality, as shown in the photo from left to right, are: (1) Degan Ali, the executive director of Adeso (African Development solutions), an African development and humanitarian organization, (2) Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation, (3) Yves Moury, the Founder, President and CEO of Fundación Capital, and the 2014 recipient of the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship as well, (4) Nick Hanauer, the founder of Civic Ventures, and (5) Ngaire Woods, the founding and inaugural Dean of Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government.

The panel discussion kicked off with the request from the moderator to use 20 seconds by each panelist to paint the picture of inequality in terms of their personal or work experience. Degan Ali said in 2003 she saw the startling situations of hungry children in Somalia. Darren Walker described the desperation and dreams of young African Americans. Yves Moury witnessed the life of a group of mothers in slums. Nick Hanauer offered statistics of the income shift in US. Ngaire Woods highlighted the role of the government in relieving inequality by taking improving literacy as an example.

The second question for the panelists is what the drivers of inequality are. Degan Ali said, the drivers of inequality are invisible, for example, some policies from the government. Yves Moury agreed with the invisibility argument, and further discussed the relations between inequality and mobility. His words, “high inequality and high mobility is the American dream”, triggered the laughter of the audience. Nick Hanauer pointed out the wealth did not dribbled down, and the wage of middle class declined as well. Darren Walker talked about the cultural norms, not technical issues, that drive the inequality, and encouraged a more say on the economic development and tax policy.

The final question for the panelists is what social enterprises can do while other actors cannot. Yves Moury believed that all business in the future will be social enterprises, and meanwhile acknowledged the role of social enterprises should not be exaggerated. He said, in China many people’s livelihoods were improved probably not because of social enterprises. Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation, emphasised the role of rights. He said: “we believe that people, when given their rights, have the power and agency to transform their lives”. Emily Kasriel further asked how to use social enterprises when the state is weak in tackling inequality. Degan Ali claimed that civil society including social enterprises can play a key part to get the government work and change.

All of these are of course very interesting and important points. Yet, in the panel discussion, one aspect of social enterprises (SEs) is not sufficiently discussed. That is the way how SEs use profits in addressing the global wealth inequality. Social enterprises are drawing upon business techniques to address social issues and promote sustainable social change. What distinguishes social enterprises from for-profits enterprises is the way how they use profits. Social enterprises (SEs) devote a significant proportion (usually 35% or half) of their profits to pursue social and environmental causes, rather than merely transfer the profits to the people, organisations or countries located at the top of the pyramid. SEs share a significant proportion of profits with their stakeholders (including the disadvantaged people, local communities, etc.) rather than primarily among their shareholders. This approach, I think, can address the issue of global wealth inequality at its root.

Social enterprises not only can relieve the income inequality, but also are able to change government policies on some economic and social issues. My Ph.D. research has shown that, when social organisations or NGOs has transformed into social enterprises, their likelihoods of achieving positive policy change from the government become doubled, when other organisational and institutional factors are equal (this chapter was recently accepted by the journal Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly). I further use two case studies to demonstrate how two social enterprises have successfully promoted five policy changes in China to tackle the economic and social inequality (this chapter is forthcoming in July 2016 on the journal China Review).

In sum, social enterprises can play a critical role in “challenging global wealth inequality”.


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Water: Tenacious, Collaborative Responses to a Global Crisis

Oxford’s Fierce Compassion – Series of Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2016.

MBA student, malady Sean Peters gives his perspective on the Skoll World Forum seminar session ‘Water: Tenacious, sales Collaborative Responses to a Global Crisis’.

Access to water has never been more critical. The 2016 World Economic Forum Global Risks Report Water lists water as among the top 3 risks for negative global impact, and is ranked as the highest perceived risk over the next ten years. The newly minted Sustainable Development Goals list goal number 6 as to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all”.  But how do we get from where we are today to a world where everyone has access to clean water and sanitation? And what can we learn from the last twenty years of work by development organizations, foundations, and social entrepreneurs?

Starting off Day 2 of the Skoll World Forum, J. Carl Ganter (Managing Director and Co-Founder, Circle of Blue) opened our discussion with three accomplished panelists:

  • Eleanor Allen (CEO of Water For People), journalist and photographer, reports on global freshwater issues (competition between water, food and energy
  • Neil Jeffery (CEO, Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor), WSUP
  • Gary White (CEO and Co-Founder, Water.org).

Water - Sean

The discussion opened with an overview of the differences that have emerged over the past twenty years in trying to manage water globally. The first major difference is that there are many more organizations paying attention.  Gary White, who started this work in the 90’s, noted the incredible proliferation of water-focused organizations in recent years. “When we started, we were one of the only ones,” White said. ‘Today, there are hundreds.”

The tone has changed as well. Twenty years ago funders didn’t understand the problem. “We used to spend 90% of our funder meetings simply explaining the problem to them, and in the end funders just wanted magic bullets in the form of new, catchy technologies” noted Jeffery. “Today, this is no longer a technical issue. The problem now isn’t that we don’t have the technology – we do. The next hurdle is trying to stimulate the demand side.”

So how do we stimulate demand? Part of the problem is access to financing. Currently low income people around the world pay a premium for water or sanitation services, but don’t have access to financing that could make these costs lower for higher quality access. By opening up financing and providing access to high-quality technology (water pumps, toilets, etc) at affordable prices, the short run benefit is healthier communities that are spending less of their time and money on getting access to water and sanitation. The hope is that over the long run these kinds of models will “pull” future financing and greater impact. “At this point we know what works and what doesn’t on the technology side”, said Allen. “We need to build these markets so that access can persist beyond the engagement with NGOs.“

While much progress has been made, there’s a long way to go. The session concluded with a universal message that is important for all of us to remember:  The importance of collaboration between people, between organizations, and between institutions. “At Skoll, we build relationships,” White said. “We’re all in this together. It is critical that we work together to solve these problems.”

Follow Sean: @sean_robert

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Empathetic Storytelling and the Moral Imagination

 Oxford’s Fierce Compassion – Series of Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2016.

MBA student Yasmin Kumi gives her perspective on the Skoll World Forum seminar session ‘Empathetic Storytelling and the Moral Imagination’.

“There is emergency and pain everywhere – but there also is the consistent possibility of solution”, says Gary Gottlieb, Chief Executive Officer of Partners in Health. Each year the Skoll World Forum brings together an array of social change makers from around the world who have a compelling vision to make it a better, more equal and more moral place. But how can we make sure that every single citizen on the planet has the same ambition?

It is important that we tell our stories and engage the people around us on uncomfortable truths. Artists such as Cori Shepherd Stern (Producer, Bend the Arc) do wonderful work to achieve just that – her touching piece about Partners in Health tells the story of a young Peruvian who nearly dies because of year-long treatment with the wrong medication. Even in the 2min-truncated version of the film shown during the session, many of us in the audience had tears in our eyes.

Moral imagination, in a way, means that we constantly need to find our own avenue back to our moral selves and open up to our own emotions. Even more importantly, we need to ensure that we help others to do so by telling “stories that have the power to shift people’s thinking”, as Lynette Wallworth of Sundance/Stories of Change puts it. What becomes clear from listening to her and the other panelists is that we probably all do great work in our own organizations, manage to change the lives of people who need our support and find self-fulfillment in that. But if we do not become multipliers of the vision behind social change making by telling our stories, how will we touch others outside of our own microcosm?

How do you tell your own story to engage others on social change, the world’s most important endeavor? How do you find a way to make it real? Without doubt, Sonita Alizadeh, who is 19-years old although seeming to have the wisdom of a 90-year old, has found the answer to this. Having escaped to be sold off to child marriage at the age of 16, she became a rapper telling her story in the local language of her country. After the session I watched the video on youtube that eventually helped her to be invited to the US and go to school – and even though I do not understand a word of what she raps about, I immediately felt captured and engaged by just watching it. I wondered how she managed to do that.

Luckily, Sonita was kind enough to share her secrets with us – most importantly, she told us about her dream book. The dream book is “her map on how to achieve her goals” – anything that is captured in this book has to be thought about, believed in, spoken about and worked on. In a way it seems that anything written in that book becomes a commitment. It seems that the dream book is the source of Sonita’s incredible authenticity.

And that, after all, is what counts. There arguably is a wide range of possibilities of how to tell your story to be a multiplier of social change – and we all have to figure out which option is best. But if we really want to capture the people around us, then the source of all that will be to have the authenticity of Sonita. And for that to be possible, we need to learn to be as disciplined as she is with one thing: internalizing our vision and our values again and again. It can be through a dream book that we look at every day, it can be the frequent active memory of an experience that led us to do what we are doing, it can be a place where we find peace and feel closer to our own social vision again.

Whatever you choose, have the trust that regularly revisiting that source of your drive and energy for social change will help you to be authentic; and that will enable you to captivate each and every single person around you when you tell them your story, no matter how you tell it.



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Leapfrogging Development: How New Technologies will Accelerate Change

 Oxford’s Fierce Compassion – Series of Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2016.

MBA student and Rotary International Foundation Scholar, Mariko Nakayama gives her perspective on the Skoll World Forum seminar session ‘Leapfrogging Development: How New Technologies will Accelerate Change’.

Solving the problems that matter – this session was definitely one of the most inspiring and full of “Wow!” and “Ah-ha!” moments for many of the audience, at least for me! The session really showcased the new technology and applications that had the potential to better reach underserved populations, navigate market gaps, and allow developing countries to leapfrog outdated models in ways that I never could imagined.

The session kicked off by Obi Felten, director of Google X introducing the new technology such as Google Glass, a self-driving car and Project Loon – the Internet-blasting balloon initiative. The wow moments continued with the five presentation that followed – namely; a remote sensing technology presented by Jim Taylor, the chief executive of Proximity Designs, a self-powered mobile WiFi presented by Juliana Rotich, the executive director of BRACK.org, a drone delivery and logistic system presented by Andreas Raptopoulos, CEO and Co-founder of Matternet, Inc. a 3D-mapping of oceans presented by Sly Lee, founder and president of The Hydrous, and  digital currencies presented by Sarah Martin, the vice president of Digital Currency Council.

At the beginning of the session, Obi Felthen addressed three critical tips in order to accelerate the change we hope to see through new technology and its application. The first tip; start with the problem, not the technology. The second; think from a customer’s perspective so that one can ensure that he or she was able to solve the problem that matters to the users. And finally the third tip; partner with the experts in order to introduce the product to the market.

Personally, the story behind the development of the self-driving car gave me the “ah-ha” moment with regard to the first tip that Obi Felthen mentioned. It illustrated an example of thinking through the root cause of the problem. The thought process behind the innovation was not how Artificial Intelligence can be applied in day to day life (which I initially thought it would be the case) but it rather started with the thinking of the problem; how car accidents could be reduced. As a result, the emerged radical idea was to remove people, who were identified as the major cause of the car accidents!

In addition, it was interesting to hear that public organizations are part of this journey. The usage of drones in order to deliver medical equipment in collaboration with World Health Organization and the 3D mapping of oceans in order to support Maldives, the lowest-lying country in the world built on the planet’s most endangered ecosystem, coral reefs, illustrated how the problems would meet the new potential solution with a partnership with the public sector.

Having worked in the international development agency, I really enjoyed the session and I was inspired by how the new technology and its applications have already or were going to solve the problems that I had not imagined before.

One audience member asked whether any of the presenters had an idea of an effective way to connect the radical technology with people who were tackling the problems on the ground. The answer to this question was yet to be discovered, but after having such “wow” moments, I was left with an optimistic thinking that someone will be able to answer this question at the next year’s Skoll World Forum, or if not then, in a few year time…!


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Higher Ground: Faith and Spirituality as Levers for Change

Oxford’s Fierce Compassion – Series of Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2016.

MBA Student Frank Fredericks gives his perspective on the Skoll World Forum seminar session ‘Higher Ground: Faith and Spirituality as Levers for Change’.

“Our biggest struggle isn’t of action, sildenafil but in action,” Father Czerny thoughtfully shared.  Among the rooms of social change agents, we gathered in the session “Higher Ground: Faith and Spirituality as Levers for Change” to explore how what we can achieve together.  Father Czerny captured the challenge…inaction is hurting us as much as the terrible acts of few.

I’ve been to countless panels on faith, spirituality, and interfaith dialogue.  Honestly, many of left me hungry for more, after a series of exclusively male religious leaders calling for peace, harmony, dialogue, understanding, tolerance, and other interfaith buzzwords.

That is why I found this conversation so rewarding.  Our gender-balanced panel included clergy and liety, activists and media minds.  But most importantly, it was illuminated by stories of engaging faith, from institutions to narratives, to making real, measurable change, tackling issues from public health to education.

For instance, Sakena Yacobi is a Afghan activist who has not only fought for women’s education and rights.  She has advocated for this change from an Islamic point of view.  Even when faced with threats of violence, dissenters become advocates once they hear her case for women’s literacy based on the Quran.

Molly Melching spoke of her work with Imam Muhammad Hussaini Bagnya in engaging community leaders, especially faith leaders, to begin deconstructing culture and religious traditions in the context of health practices.  The effect was profound.  Whole communities would, by their own motivation, commit to abandoning the practice of female genital cutting all across Senegal.  The reverberations of these transformational efforts are still continuing to ripple across the country and beyond.

At its core, the conversation was richly focused on faith’s role in progress, and not of conflict.  About how faith can inform work for positive social change.

Follow Frank: @frankiefreds