Forging Common Ground – Series of Oxford Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2017.
Oxford MBA Candidate 2016-17 at the Saïd Business School, Devin Rebello, gives her perspective on the Skoll World Forum session “Designing Sustainable, Inclusive Cities of the Future”.
The story of a broken city began as a fault line of inequity and exclusion ripped apart the urban centre of Medellin, Colombia. Faced with rapid urbanisation and population growth, the city was sent into extreme economic upheaval spurred by lack of jobs, failing infrastructure, and inadequate city services. The most disenfranchised and vulnerable populations fled into the mountains where they were soon preyed upon by drug cartels and caught in cycle of violence and extreme poverty that made Medellin the most dangerous city in the world. As Liz Agbor-Tabi, Associate Director of 100 Resilient Cities, tells it, Medellin was a city with a master plan. Local leaders had gone through the exercise and set a vision. Unfortunately, they had planned for the city they had, not for the city they would need. This story, though extreme, is all too familiar to those working to design sustainable, inclusive cities of the future.
As I sat in the room and listened to the tragic impact of failing systems and the hope for a better way forward, I was struck by the conflict between formal and informal communities and the role of government in creating their own problems. The outstanding, passionate panellists drove a resounding point home: there are social structures, laws, and physical spaces within growing cities that inherently expel people to the fringes. The more a city treats the marginalised like a problem, the larger the problem becomes. A city cannot ignore the pain and suffering of those existing in informal spaces, such as slums, nor can it take a wrecking ball to these informal communities and expect them to go away. The marginalised will not disappear by being ignored or physically threatened; instead, like in the example of Medellin, they will find ways to try to survive that can be devastating to formal structures.
The big question is, how do you change this? How can cities get out ahead and build something that will grow with a surging population? The overall sentiment in the room was that we need to break through silos and take a systems approach to building more inclusive cities. This starts by bring those living in informal spaces to the table and including them in the planning process. It starts when we demand governments change arbitrary laws that lock the marginalised into poverty by disallowing them from being entrepreneurial. It starts when we recognise that natural disasters disproportionately devastate the marginalised and fight to change systems that currently make them ineligible for aide. It starts when we design cities that focus on creating easy access to education, health care, and transportation for everyone. And it continues when we constantly remember that design is not neutral – it can help or it can hurt.
What is most inspiring is that this can be done. Looking back to Medellin as our example, it is an amazing story of a phoenix rising. Liz Agbor-Tabi told us that from the ashes of violence and extreme poverty, the city was able to turn things around by bringing marginalised citizens into the planning process along with NGOs, businesses, and civil society. Medellin built infrastructure to physically connect those living in the mountains to the main city allowing easy and safe passage between locations, which led to more employment and more spending that would boost the overall economy. They also put a deliberate emphasis on creating community spaces to rebuild the connectivity and trust between and among citizen. Medellin is now a rising hub of social entrepreneurship that has an intentional focus on poverty alleviation and inclusion.
This last thought is an interesting one – with the government taking the first steps to build an inclusive foundation to alleviate violence and poverty, local businesses are emerging that are determined to take care of the community. But does it really have to get that bad for businesses to take responsibility for the communities in which they work? Do we really have to rely exclusively on NGOs and social entrepreneurs to be the ones to take action to prevent another city from falling?
I think back to the opening plenary of the Forum when Hamdi Ulukaya, Founder and CEO of Chobani spoke about employing refugees within his factories well before the current refugee crisis hit. In the process of employing those in need of a job, he built critical foundations that enabled his employees to become thriving citizens. Hamdi learned that transportation was a challenge, so he provided buses. He learned that language was a barrier, so he provided translators. He learned that factory skills were lacking, so he provided training. And in doing all of this, he removed large numbers of refugees from the fringes and helped them integrate into the formal economy. This, in turn, supports the job markets and overall health of the cities in which his factories operate. We applaud Hamdi for his work because it is truly remarkable. But we cannot simply view Hamdi as a caring heart amongst stone-cold corporates. His actions made economic sense to his business and, even with the additional expenses of transportation, training, translators, and paying his staff twice as much as what his competitors were paying, he is still making a profit. Chobani is the example that we need to point to and demand that all businesses responsibly participate in the health and safety of their communities. This is critical to the design of sustainable, inclusive cities of the future. We cannot speak about an inclusive planning process for the future of our cities and give big businesses a pass from sitting at the table side by side with those most in need of employment.
Forging Common Ground – Series of Oxford Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2017.
Daniel Stokey, MBA Candidate 2016-17 at the Saïd Business School, gives his perspective on the Skoll World Forum session “Civil Discourse in the Social Media Age”.
Panel moderator Manoush Zomorodi, Host and Managing Editor of WNYC Radio, began the session by asking the audience, roughly 100 people in Nelson Mandela Lecture Theatre, how many get their news from social media. I turn to see the vast majority of hands shoot up, well over 62%, the 2016 statistic about Americans used in the blurb introducing this session. Below are my takeaways from the lively discussion that followed, introducing the challenges we face in an increasingly polarized world where social media dominates the spread of information.
The Power of Social Media
Eli Pariser, Co-founder of Upworthy, put the issue in perspective, asserting that Facebook, as the world’s largest forum for media distribution, is in fact the biggest media company in our planet’s history. However, Facebook does not claim to be a media company, and is completely opaque to research. This is a problem, as the power and influence that Facebook wields has a profound impact on our society. Eli goes on to explain that Facebook is a system that optimizes for engagement, through algorithms that seek to maximize time spent. However, Facebook’s agnostic approach to how users spend time almost exclusively shows content that confirms what they already believe.
The other challenge with social media is the potential for spread of misinformation. Phil Howard, Professor of Sociology, Information, and International Affairs at the Oxford Internet Institute, shares results from their recent study showing that 50% of websites shared by users in Michigan prior to the US election was “junk news,” a 1-1 ratio of professional journalism to unverified sources. He also shared findings that Bots (automated internet traffic and social media accounts) played a significant role in the US election, making Trump seem more popular than in reality early on, and driving the proliferation of negative content about candidate Hillary Clinton in the weeks leading up to the election.
The Responsibility of Citizens
Matthew Segal, Founder and Editor in Chief at ATTN:, believes that trying to resist social media, like resisting automation, is futile. In addition, he argued strongly throughout the session that the responsibility to stop the spread of fake news ultimately lies with citizens. The burden is on all of us to investigate the credibility of our news sources, and not necessarily on a single entity like Facebook to stop the spread of fake news. Ultimately, he asserted that an undue amount of blame has been placed on Facebook for the Trump victory, and not enough on a genuine change in electorate views. While credible news sources need to adapt their product to social media platforms and do their best to inform the public, much of the burden lies with us to do our own fact checking.
Right vs. Left
A third unavoidable issue that arose during this session was the dichotomy of right vs. left. Eli Pariser shared results from a study conducted through web-browser plugins, which measured how often Americans visit fact checking sites versus sites deemed to be “fake news.” Findings showed that Americans on the right of the political spectrum spent more time consuming fake news. Those on the left are least exposed to fake news, and most likely to visit fact checking sites. This gap in news consumption practices poses a real challenge. However, there is an underlying assumption here that we, all of the people in this session know the facts, and that those on the left of the political spectrum have the truth on their side. The danger here is in minimizing or ridiculing those with differing political views. One disturbing trend in America today was raised by an audience question from Anne-Marie Slaughter, President and CEO of New America. More and more, she argues, we tend to demonize people on the other side of the political spectrum. Not only are they different or wrong, they are evil.
Half of the Conversation
As we sit in perhaps the most concentrated echo chamber on earth, at the University of Oxford among CEOs, celebrities, and academics, it feels somewhat disingenuous to discuss ways to “fix” this problem. A quick glance this morning at the front pages of ATTN: and Upworthy reveals exactly what I would expect – negative stories about Ivanka Trump, positive stories about Michelle Obama, the plight of refugees, and articles on gay rights and interracial harmony. Let me be clear, I am the target market for both media outlets, and agree with literally all of these sentiments. However, it doesn’t strike me as an objective panel discussing this issue. The “civil discourse” that played out on stage took place among three panelists and a moderator that clearly all lean heavily to the left of the political spectrum. Yet as we have learned in the past year, a large percentage of the US and UK population are not onboard with this narrative. What would a laid-off auto worker in a closed GM plant in Morraine, Ohio have to say on this topic?
Near the end of the session, Eli Pariser shared his belief that one of the most powerful ways to break down implicit bias is to spend time in another person’s world, and to genuinely try to understand their perspective. This is the best way to build empathy, yet unfortunately it is so often missing from our lives. This is true not just in the context of social media, but in our education systems, workplaces, and conferences.
Forging Common Ground – Series of Oxford Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2017.
MBA Candidate 2016-17, Davidson Edwards, at the Saïd Business School gives his perspective on the Skoll World Forum session “Data-Driven Models for Change”.
As I pushed open the doors of the well-lit lecture theatre and entered into the business school corridor, my mind ran busily over the last session’s insights. I’d just listened to a panel comprised of Jessi Baker, Ania Calderon, Sarah Jakiel, Oren Yakobovich and Ma Jan; moderated by Jake Porway. Each panelist was a change-maker and innovator, leading an organisation that leverages data-driven models to tackle pressing social problems. Their selected mission ranged from combatting modern-day slavery, as with Polaris, to validating the ethics of supply chains, as with Provenance, to exposing producers’ non-compliance with environmental standards, as with IPE (Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs).
The thesis behind their session was simple: without the necessary data, we cannot even begin to address these massive problems. This fact is well evidenced by Polaris, whose analysis of 33,000 cases of human trafficking in the United States has revealed 25 predominant types, each with their own business model and network of stakeholders. Furthermore, with these insights, partnering law enforcement and non-governmental organisations are now able to execute targeted interventions and more effectively save lives.
As I sat in the lecture hall, I was both excited to hear of the progress and troubled by an unsettling question: “have we only started doing this recently?” You see, an estimated “21 million people worldwide are victims of forced labour” (Unseen, 2017), so given that cluster analysis was discovered in the 1930’s (Driver & Kroeber, 1932), I’d assumed it had long been thrown at the issue. But after listening to Ania talk about Open Data Charter’s challenges getting governments and organisations to share data, or even agree on standards, I began to empathise with the systemic nature of the problem. As emphasised in Atul Gawande’s moving opening plenary speech, the problem was not discovery, but delivery.
To lend jargon from Saïd Business School’s Strategy and Innovation courses, the ‘nascent space’ that is data-driven social impact, has yet to agree on a dominant model. We have yet to figure out how to incentivise governments to share their data with organisations, or what standards social impact organisations should adhere to, or how to provide the mass of human capital necessary to make data-driven impact commonplace. But the power of viewing the problem through this lens is that we already know how to deal with nascent spaces. We prioritize collaboration over competition and share lessons learnt, we set universal standards to allow efficient transactions, we consider the landscape as a network of actors with individual motivations, and we work to build up complementary resources.
Thankfully, the panelist session highlighted efforts in this direction, Open Data Charter has gotten over 70 governments to agree on standards for publishing data (Open Data Charter, 2017), Polaris is partnering with Mexican organisations to curtail sex trafficking across the border, Videre Est Credere sources data from various actors with various motivations and factors this into its data checking process. And efforts such as Skoll’s organisation of this panel, serve to move data-driven models away from the early adopters to the mass of social impact leaders taking on today’s pressing problems. There is much left to do but these valiant efforts show significant promise.
If our ‘impact motive’ can mirror the ‘profit motive’ in capitalist markets, then our collaborative efforts should make well-thought-out, tech-enabled approached to solving social problems the norm, in coming years. I’m eager to see the development of this space and play my part.
Forging Common Ground – Series of Oxford Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2017 MBA candidate 2017, Ahmed Abu Bakr gives his perspective on the Skoll World Forum session ‘A Work Landscape in Flux for Young People’
We all know that the world is changing at an unprecedented rate, but I regularly feel that we forget, often far too easily, that these changes aren’t entirely new. Marina Gorbis, executive director at the Institute for the future, reminds us that the technological disruptions we are witnessing today, aren’t really as rapid as we make them out to be.
The internet, the proliferation of mobile technology and sensors, and the big data revolution are a result of over thirty years of consistent investment and prioritisation in the space of communication technologies. She refers to the outcome of these technologies as greater “digital coordination”; and through this, she provides a broader definition for technology. If the internet and big data allow for coordination, then institutions and organised systems (for business, government, and otherwise) are also technologies in their own right- technologies for the coordination and allocation of resources.
‘A Work Landscape in Flux for Young People’ panel.
And it is important to keep in mind that organised systems that are being disrupted today- financial markets, healthcare systems, the transportation sector, etc.- were actually major innovations in their own time that disrupted the status quo back in their day.
There is no doubt that the nature of work is being radically transformed by what Marina calls “digital coordination” technologies. But is it really a source of disruption for the nature of work?
The remaining panellists attested that young people in Egypt and Africa were choosing to delve into entrepreneurship and the growing start up culture because of two primary reasons. Firstly, there is an undoubted frustration within the youth populations where they are dissatisfied with the available economic opportunities. Fhazhil Wamalwa, managing director at Disa Energy Management, recalled how he was led to believe that a good education would result in a decent job, and how his inability to get on after his master’s degrees was a painful but necessary disillusionment.
The second factor is a deliberate and concerted effort by many to promote entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial activities as a response to the failure of the existing systems. Dina El Mofty(Injaz Egypt), and Marwa Moaz (Bamyan Media) both talked about their sustained efforts within Egypt to inspire and develop an entrepreneurial mind set.
With this context, it becomes evident that the changing nature of work, the rise of gig jobs, and the proliferation of self-employment and entrepreneurship is a response to the failure of the existing econo-political system where digital technology is less of a cause and more of an enabler.
One thing remains uncontested- the old institutions have to be reformed, and in some cases completely revised. For me personally, the key question is around the evolution of these new systems. The topic of the day seems to be around growing wealth inequality. But wealth inequality is a result of inequalities in the distribution of power- social and politcal. What’s even more troubling is the feedback effect on power from the accumulation of wealth. The 21st century has seen tremendous concentration of wealth because of a tremendous concentration in power. What can we learn from history to design new social and political institutions that distribute power rather than concentrate it?
Ahmed Abu Bakr is an MBA 2016-17, Skoll Scholar at the Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, and Co-founder ofJeeon
John Walugembe; Skoll Scholar 2016-17, social entrepreneur, and the Founder of Better Livelihoods in Uganda. John shares his candid story of how he came to Oxford to study his MBA.
“It is very painful to remember my daughter”, Maria said. “She was only five years old”. “I had a lot of hope in her”. “I wonder, what I could have done better”. “I was certainly lucky that Dr. Matovu was willing to attend to her. It was unfortunate however that it was too late!” This story by Maria – a distressed mother of two living in the Bwaise slum of Kampala, Uganda – is not very different from those of many others in Uganda and other developing countries. According to a recent report by Water Aid, only 30% of Ugandans have access to improved sanitation. The situation is even worse in urban poor communities, especially slums, where children collect water from contaminated gutters or ground water. The result of this is that at least two one million and five hundred children die annually, from diarrheal related illnesses. The contamination primarily results from lack of proper disposal for excreta.
How does an organisation set up to support poor communities, survive off the very people it is supposed to assist. Indeed, it was and still is a dilemma!
When I founded the Better livelihoods Uganda, four years ago, I recognised that there was a need for a fundamental shift in the way water and sanitation issues are handled. Were communities, expecting so much from their governments that they failed to do for themselves, what was in their means to do? Were some Non-Governmental Organisations fostering a syndrome of dependency and raising the expectations of communities for handouts, to the extent that they exacerbated these problems? Which market approaches could be employed to ensure that communities contributed more to addressing these sanitation challenges. From the onset, I thought it prudent to make the organisation lean and limit its dependency on external financing. As you can imagine, this was no mean goal. How does an organisation set up to support poor communities, survive off the very people it is supposed to assist. Indeed, it was and still is a dilemma! However, we resolved that unlike the traditional NGO, we would seek to play a more facilitating role among the key stakeholders in the sanitation ecosystem.
We piloted our work in the Rwenzori region in western Uganda, particularly in the Municipalities of Fort-Portal, Kawenge, Kyegegwa and Kyenjojo. Using the diamond approach (a model first piloted by Waste Advisors in the Netherlands) we have been able to accelerate access to clean water and sanitation facilitating a well-functioning system of local stakeholders that facilitate the delivery of sustainable sanitation services. The bulk of our work has involved supporting entrepreneurs and other sanitation stakeholders to build more hygienic pit-latrines. As of last year, over 1400 direct jobs have been created in the region, the amount of fecal sludge collected had increased tenfold to 4,000,000 kilograms, the costs of accessing sanitation services have reduced from $30 to $5 and over 4,000 people have directly accessed sanitation services.
I thought it prudent that I acquire the skills to build and grow an organisation with a great vision, such as ours.
It would be great if I told you that after this, everything worked just fine and we have simply encountered success, upon success. Unfortunately, as someone whose academic background was not in business management, I thought it prudent that I acquire the skills to build and grow an organisation with a great vision, such as ours. An MBA looked an attractive option. The more I thought about it, the more counterintuitive it seemed. If I desire to engineer, social change, why not pursue a qualification in development? In the end, it only seemed logical that if our approach seeks to use market based approaches to tackle the sanitation challenge, there is no better preparation than an MBA from a business school with a focus on social entrepreneurship. In the end, the Oxford MBA looked the best fit for me.
Did I look at other business schools? Certainly! So, why the Oxford MBA? Well, the Oxford MBA was unique in a number of respects: First, the Oxford MBA is a rigorous one year programme. This was particularly attractive for me, as it would ensure that I get back to Uganda, in the shortest possible time to continue with my work. Second, the Saïd Business School through the Skoll Centre, places a lot of emphasis on social entrepreneurship. For me, this was the ultimate attraction. Additionally, the possibility of social entrepreneurs, like myself, benefitting from the generous Skoll Scholarship, set the Oxford MBA apart.
Going forward, Better Livelihoods like other nonprofit organisations must look for new models of generating revenue streams while fulfilling its expanding mission. One possible strategy could be to set-up a social purpose business as an innovation for both the financial and operational sustainability of the organisation. The mission of this social venture could be to offer clean water, sanitation, health and hygiene solutions throughout Uganda, on a commercial basis.
In conclusion, I look forward to this year and taking advantage of all the opportunities that Oxford has to offer!
John was recently featured on the BBC World Service, Business Daily Show, where he sat on a panel discussion on Africa’s Social Entrepreneurs. Listen to the iPlayer recording.
Skoll Scholar, MBA and above all, Engineer, Ashley Thomas, shares her story, not of HOW she got to be at Oxford, but WHO.
As I sit in a 150-year-old book shop (very new by Oxford standards) listening to Duncan Green, Oxfam GB’s chief strategic advisor, discuss his book How Change Happens, I’m again struck by how lucky I am to have ended up here, at Oxford, and as Skoll Scholar. In thinking through how I have managed to arrive at this moment, my instinct is to create a neat narrative: In 2008, as a freshly minted mechanical engineer, I moved to Ethiopia to work as a product designer at iDE, a NGO building social enterprises and agriculture value chains in Africa and Asia. Since then I have worked as an engineer and innovation project manager for some of the best (in my humble opinion) social enterprises: Evidence Action and MKOPA solar, and dabbled in some policy work managing the DFID resource centre on climate and environment. Building on my experience in the water sector, I then read for an MSc in Water Science, Policy and Management prior to my MBA as part of the 1+1 programme at Oxford, in theory preparing me to solve the worlds’ water problems through my own social enterprise.
However, after listening to Green’s view of the non-linearity of change, I am tempted to reframe my story not as a narrative but as the summation of ripples in a web of complex relationships and interactions. If you can forgive my ramblings in non-linear narrative, I want to tell the story of my path here framed through the relationships that don’t make it onto a CV, and instead focus on the cast of characters that sent the right ripples into the network that guided me to this fantastic place.
Katherine McIntyre: My grandmother is the embodiment of tenacity. She was a flight controller in the Canadian Air Force during World War II, a travel writer in the USSR during the 1980’s, current record holder for the oldest person to do a zip line, and in few days, at 93 years old, will be travelling from Toronto to Oxford to see my MSc graduation. She has traveled to more than 45 countries, published in over 30 newspapers and journals and has founded 3 companies. I can only aspire to emulate her singular focus, fearless independence, and her lifelong curiosity.
Left: Ashley Thomas, Right: Katherine McIntyre
Left: a young Katherine McIntyre, Right: Katherine McIntyre holds the current record holder for the oldest person to do a zip line
Paul’s enabling, entrepreneurial approach strongly resonated and has become central to my own philosophy.
Paul Polak: I met Paul when I was nineteen, naïvely aspiring to fight global poverty, but I only knew about top-down traditional development organisations. From attending his lectures, receiving his mentorship through the Intentional Development Design Summit (IDDS), and ultimately collaborating at iDE, Paul introduced me to a new way of thinking. Instead of a charity approach, Paul showed me an untapped market of 1 billion people seeking to lift themselves out of poverty. Paul’s enabling, entrepreneurial approach strongly resonated and has become central to my own philosophy.
Carlos Machan: Carlos is one of the most creative product designers I have ever met. Born in rural Guatemala, his engineering knowledge is all self-taught. I met Carols in 2007 while he was an instructor on the International Development Design Summit at MIT and continued to work with him in Guatemala, where he taught me how to weld, design, and build my first water pump, the very skills that landed me my first job at iDE.
It was here, in front of this bonfire, where I first heard about the Skoll Scholarship, and began dreaming of becoming a Skoll Scholar
iDE Workshop and Engineering Team in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: In Addis, our engineering team founded a workshop/office/guest house that was the backbone of our product development. It was also the location of many bonfires, beers, and late night pontification. It was here, in front of this bonfire, where I first heard about the Skoll Scholarship, and began dreaming of becoming a Skoll Scholar. It took 8 years of indecision, dreaming, and three failed attempts at the application before it became a reality.
iDE Workshop and Engineering Team in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
MKOPA Engineering Team: This crew is one of the brightest, most driven, and friendliest teams I have ever worked with. From Eric, standing at 6’2” and with a sense of humor to match, to Berita, easily a foot shorter in stature, but making no compromises in heart or brains, this group of people embodies the types of teams I hope to continue to work with. They also solidified my desire to get an MBA. While they were begrudging the fact I’d “no longer be an engineer”, working with them made me realise that if I hope to run a company like MKOPA and a team like this one, I have a lot of learning left to do.
While this is absolutely not an exclusive list, these are some of the threads in fabric of the story of my path here. From the nascent daydreams over Ethiopian bonfires to making the decision to come to Oxford after working on a manufacturing line in Dongguan, China, studying an MBA at Oxford through the Skoll Scholarship is the realisation of the network of friends, colleagues, places, and events that have guided me to this fantastic place.