Accelerating Systems Change: Making Possibility Real

Each year the Skoll Centre invites a small number of Oxford students to the annual Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship. Each year they share their unique perspectives of the sessions and events that unfold during this magical time in Oxford.

It’s hard to deny that social issues are becoming ever more global, complex, and interdependent—‘systems change’ embraces this.  As Peter Drobac (Director of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship) explained in the Skoll World Forum’s Opening Plenary: ‘social entrepreneurs treat the system, not the symptom’. 

Expanding on this, the panel moderated by Sally Osberg (Past President and CEO, Skoll Foundation) explored the theme ‘Accelerating Systems Change: Making Possibility Real’.

For those of us still confused about what systems change actually means, Marc Freedman (CEO and Founder of Encore.org) probably nailed it, responding with a laugh: ‘I didn’t realise I was working on systems change before arriving at the Forum’.  Freedman’s organisation addresses the societal shift—more people over 60 than under 18 now than ever before—as a systems problem.  He describes that ‘the needs and the assets of the young and old fit together like the pieces of a jig-saw puzzle’. 

Social entrepreneurship may not try and complete the whole puzzle, but it fits some key pieces together with a view of what the puzzle or system itself may look like.

This systems approach, however, doesn’t come without risks.  As social entrepreneurs and philanthropists engage with problems where government was once the only actor struggling to achieve change, at least one risk is clear.  How do independent actors engage in systems change without being accountable to, or representative of, the people? 

Safeena Hussain (Founder and Executive Director, Educate Girls Foundation) noted with reference to development impact bonds, ‘these are sharp tools’, ‘ceramic knives’ even.  Their design and use can lead to unintended and potentially cutting consequences.  Becoming divorced from ideas of social justice and equity in the sole pursuit of easily measurable objectives is one of them.  As Hussain continued, ‘who decides what is important?’

Olivia Leland (Founder and CEO, Co-Impact) commented that the key, for philanthropy at least, is to listen.  To work with all other participants in the system to ensure that these developing tools of social intervention have only positive impact.

But social entrepreneurship can also create accountability as Ma Jun (Director, Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs) exemplifies. 

China’s economic advancement over the past forty years has come at a cost to the environment in particular (and the environment’s effect on health).  Identifying a piece of the puzzle, Ma Jun developed a way of substituting China’s limited ability to enforce environmental regulations with disruptive transparency.  The Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs believes that although ‘transparency seems subordinate to regulation, it is of greater importance’. 

Sourcing and reporting pollution data from almost 1 million factories Ma Jun’s Institute has engaged with thousands of factories and changed behaviour through replacing regulatory enforcement with shame and blame. 

Most excitingly, this approach is globally (and cheaply) transferable.  Data monitoring (even in real time) and transparent reporting of pollution is low cost and can be expanded across the world with ease.  As manufacturing shifts from China to less regulated countries with more limited enforcement capacity, protecting health and the environment through disruptive transparency can follow.  This solution, even if inadvertent, can apply across a global system to prevent continued environmental damage.

Mr Freedman spoke for many of us – we didn’t realise we were working on systems change until now.

About the author

Christian Habla

Christian Habla is currently undertaking the Master of Public Policy (MPP) at Oxford to pursue his interests in people, complex societal problems and the systems they exist in. Upon completing the MPP, Christian intends to apply his studies and his professional experiences – advising and investigating major global companies and governments as a lawyer, and co-founding youth suicide prevention initiatives in community building, investments, education and strategic advocacy – to social impact.

Photo credit: Skoll Foundation

The Art of Co-Creation

Closing the Gap – a series of Oxford University postgraduate student insights to the Skoll World Forum 2018

Katia Dumont, MSc in Social Anthropology at the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, reports on the Skoll World Forum session ‘The Art of Co-Creation: A Storytelling Model for Impact and Engagement’

Does the way we tell stories resemble a colonized past? Whose voices are we amplifying in the social entrepreneurship field and under what circumstances? What is the end message of these stories and to whom are we addressing them? These are some of the questions and reflections of the inspiring panel “The Art of Co-Creation: A Storytelling Model for Impact and Engagement” that left spectators in awe.

Storytelling has had an upswing within the impact sector in the last years. Not surprisingly, as the sector grows, practitioners and communicators are actively analyzing and reassessing the formats used while seeking better ways and avenues to communicate inclusively. Yesterday, at the Skoll World Forum, we presence a terrific account of various journeys in search for co-creation and collaboration of storytelling. Facilitated by Tabitha Jackson from the Sundance Institute, the session proved to be a magical account of co-creating stories of impact in collaboration with a diversity of actors.

Fred Dust, global managing partner of IDEO, and Katerina Cizek, lead at the MIT Co-Creation Studio, framed the concept and art, rather then science, of the co-creation process. It takes time, patience, active listening and constant reflexivity from those participating, while it brings forward to question the traditional recognition of individual author and merits. These processes often arise tensions between diverse view points and cosmologies, however as Dust remarks, tension is not a negative state. Understanding that we share this world and that we need to work together through networks and connections in order to build upon those, is a powerful way to create stories. In order to make this process fluid a draft manifesto, which can be seen below, was created.

Two concrete and inspiring case studies joined the scenario. Megan Chapman and Bisole Temitope Akinmuyiwa from Justice & Empowerment Initiatives in Nigeria co-created a documentary on the injustice residents of Lagos informal settlements have gone through and their needs. The second case study, a spectacular virtual reality experience, Awavena. Constructed in collaboration by Lynette Wallworth and Tashka Yawanawa chief of the Yawananwá people in Brasil, recounts the story of a female shaman. Both of the accounts are voices of the local population and collaborations on the method through which the message is being communicated to the broader audience. Both terms co-creation and collaboration, one in which there is an iteration process while the other implies forming partnerships that compliment each others strengthens.

With several laughs and many smiles, the panel itself was a beautiful storytelling experience ending on a co-created and improvised note. Encouraging participants to seek co-creation not only for storytelling, but in everything we do and with the call to action lead by Bisola stating “Our strength” and spectators responding “Unity.”

The session was a call for reflection and action, to co-create with others in order to build an inclusive world. Recognizing each others strengthens and weaknesses in order to complement them, and to feel comfortable with some transitional tension.  These processes are necessary to create new structures and systems and we need to be constantly striving to build them. Like the anthropologist Margaret Mead once said “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Draft Manifesto

  1. Make media with people and within communities rather than for or about
  2. Focus on process rather than just product.
  3. Reframe who gets to tell and represent which story and why
  4. Starting point is relationship rather than defining partnership by form or end-product
  5. Media-makers working with citizens, communities, scholars, across institutions, multi-disciplinary teams, and/or with machines/algorithms in a shared, parallel discovery
  6. Respect each others’ expertise including first-lived experience
  7. Create and use new technology, new workflows, new tools, new kinds of teams, and new language of storytelling that shifts narrative paradigms
  8. Develop and use new protocols, new forms of leadership, new forms of decision-making, new models of ownership
  9. Not only interpret the world, but change it
  10. Share and learn, be open, contribute to transparent, open and public knowledge frameworks.

The Role of Universities in Creating Social Innovation

Closing the Gap – a series of Oxford University postgraduate student insights to the Skoll World Forum 2018

Natalie Wong, 2017-18 MBA at Saïd Business School, reports on the Skoll World Forum’s Oxford Union Debate.

Yesterday, the Oxford Union Debating Chamber opened its doors to Skoll World Forum delegates, Oxford students, and the public to host the first ever debate during the Skoll World Forum. With spontaneous outbursts of stomping, snapping, applause and hooting, by-passers may have wondered what was going on inside the Chamber. The lively audience had come to watch six global leaders from the public, private, and academic sectors engage in a debate on the following Proposition: “This House believes that universities lack the necessary ‘proximity’ to be effective agents of social innovation in the 21st Century.”

Over the past week, I learned from creative entrepreneurs dedicated to innovating for the benefit of the users they served. Alloysius Attah, Founder of Farmerline, shared in the Farmer-Centered Design session that by staying proximate to his farmer-users, the venture expanded their information delivery mechanism from text to voice in local languages. Coupled with my own experience of venture investing in East Africa, I was in support of the proposition at the start of the debate—how can aspiring changemakers possibly conjure up effective social innovations while being literally and/or figuratively thousands of miles away from the problems they aim to solve?

Meagan Fallone, CEO of Barefoot College, delivers her speech for the proposition.

Bill Drayton, the CEO and Chair of Ashoka, kicked the debate off with a challenging assertion, one that was reinforced and developed by Meagan Fallone, the CEO of Barefoot College, and Nicola Steuer, the Managing Director of the School for Social Entrepreneurs. Mr. Drayton proposed that universities as a system is structurally—and perhaps dangerously—broken. Their culture, organizational arrangements, and systems reinforce one another, driving them away from the capacity to contribute to innovation. Ms. Fallone added that the universities’ system prize literacy above experiential learning, which hinders the responsive thought process necessary to be a truly social innovation organization. Using the example of Bright Simon, who germinated mPedigree to leverage mobile and web technologies in securing products against faking, counterfeiting, and diversion first in Ghana and now globally, the debaters suggested developing real solutions demands that we deal with the messiness of human beings and assume real risks. Yet, in a system where the perceived success and legitimacy of universities are reflected by rankings tied to the financial earnings of its graduates, their individual academic success, and other indicators, there is little room to promote risk-taking associated with innovation. This is particularly limiting in an age where the rate of change in innovations and global issues is increasing exponentially. Finally, Ms. Steuer concluded that universities systematically exclude far too many individuals with direct social inequities experience and are unable to connect to the people facing the greatest injustices in society. Indeed, as Ms. Fallone noted, the largest movement of real social innovation of the past came from individuals who lost themselves to be in close proximity to those they served.

Ben Nelson, Founder and CEO of Minerva Project, closes the arguement against the proposition.

In rebuttal, the opposing team, composed of Agnes Binagwaho, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Global Health Equity, Keith Magee, Senior Researcher Fellow of Culture and Justice at UCL, and Ben Nelson, Founder, Chairman, and CEO of Minerva Project, wove an argument that illustrated how universities have adapted to the changing landscape through innovation, and the vital roles universities have played and will continue to play despite their shortcomings. Using her own university as an example, Ms. Binagwaho argued that more universities are embracing pedagogies that engage students where they live, solving problems through the necessary proximity. Mr. Magee asserted that universities have blended creativity, compassion, and culture to remain as relevant agents of social change and innovation. Mr. Nelson solidified that assertion by highlighting that proximity is necessary but not sufficient—it enables students and individuals to contextualize the systematic knowledge that must be learned through institutions of higher education. Furthermore, he suggested that the proposition only required universities to be effective catalysts of change. The audience would be mistaken to confuse Oxford University, where the debate was held, as a prototypical university. In the United States, at least, the majority of students live at home, attending colleges or universities in their communities and remain proximate to the these communities’issues.

In the end, the audience decided the opposition team presented a more convincing argument, and voted against the proposition. Personally, I remain unconvinced and believe that universities indeed lack the proximity needed to be effective agents of social innovation. However, I stand with the opposition team in acknowledging the crucial roles universities play in convening and inspiring students and experts alike, holding their ideas to the highest academic integrity, and teaching skills such as systemic thinking that supplement the insufficient beneficial condition of proximity in solving world-scale problems. As Ms. Fallone quoted, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”[1] Universities must commit to equipping their students to be lifelong learners and critical thinkers to understand the kaleidoscope of a rapidly evolving context or risk becoming irrelevant as social innovation flourishes elsewhere.

Watch the recording of the debate

[1] Alvin Toffle


Role of Women and Girls in Climate Change

Closing the Gap – a series of Oxford University postgraduate student insights to the Skoll World Forum 2018

Gladys Ngetich, Rhodes Scholar and DPhil in Engineering Science at the Department of Engineering Science, reports on the Skoll World Forum session ‘Women and Girls: Catalysing Change in the Climate Crisis’.


The panel - Women and Girls: Catalysing change in the climate crisis

The panel – Women and Girls: Catalysing change in the climate crisis

Climate change is without a doubt one of this 21st century’s leading global challenges. Climate change-related disasters like serious floods, mudslides, droughts and severe heat waves continue to ripple across the world causing a staggering number of deaths and losses due to infrastructure damages. Organisations, governments and individuals have realised that there is an inevitable need to address climate change. Thus, they are working around the clock to mitigate climate change-related disasters.

Even as world leaders deliberate on how to counter climate change, it is essential for such discussions to recognise the strong link between gender equality and climate change. In fact, the recent UN Paris Agreement (1/CP.21) acknowledges the necessity for equal representation of both men and women in order to make further progress in the ongoing fight against the negative effects of climate change. Despite the clear link between gender equality and climate change, women in most parts of the world have been barely involved in addressing this grave issue.

The panel – Women and Girls: Catalysing change in the climate crisis

Why is women’s involvement essential in climate change deliberations?

There are obvious gendered impacts of climate change-related disasters, particularly where women, owing to their role as primary carers, are in charge of food, water and cooking fuel. This role and the disproportionately low socioeconomic power of women as compared to men globally, make women more vulnerable when disasters like floods, hurricanes and droughts strike. Indeed, it has been reported that women are more vulnerable than men in cases of climate change-related catastrophes.

Effects of disasters like droughts on women

Droughts affect women in many ways. Water scarcity forces women, especially those in rural areas, to walk long distances in search of water. The scarcity of vegetation and trees as a result of a drought causes women, most especially in developing countries, to spend a lot of time searching for firewood which is the primary source of cooking fuel. This particularly applies to rural women in most low-income countries. All these eat into the time women could be spending for education or starting and running a business. In addition, decreased crop production adversely affects women in rural areas who are largely depended upon for food production. According to recent statistics, women produce 60-80% of the food in most developing countries. Also, in pastoralist communities in Kenya, droughts have been reported as causing an increase in cases of early child marriages.

Women make up approximately half of the world’s population

According to research done by the Brookings Institution, women’s representation in climate change only amounts to ‘24 percent of the 173 focal points to the U.N. Forum on Forests; 12 percent of the heads of 881 national environmental sector ministries; and 4 percent of 92 national member committee chairs to the World Energy Council’. Yet, as highlighted above, women are disproportionately affected by climate change-disasters. Moreover, women constitute over 50% of the world’s population. So far, there has been good progress in terms of efforts to tackle climate change. However, this progress cannot be truly effective and cover all blind spots in addressing climate change, if women are only minimally involved in such deliberations. Efforts to address climate change will only double if women from different backgrounds are brought on board. This will largely be as a result of the value of including their lived experience and the diversity of thought they bring to the table.

Women can take control of family planning—a population-based climate change mitigation strategy

The world’s population continues to soar. The United Nation predicts that the current world’s population of 7.6 billion will shoot to 9.8 by the year 2050 with the largest growth coming from developing countries. Investing in women and girls’ empowerment and quality education will enable them to make informed choices about their sexual and reproductive health. Consequently, this will reduce the unsustainable population growth which accelerates climate change and its effects.

Importance of women’s participation in climate change deliberations

Owing to women’s unique lived experiences and the fact that they are disproportionately affected by climate change-related disasters, they have rich and diverse ground-based experiences, perspectives and knowledge that are essential for identifying and implementing potential sustainable solutions to address climate change. In addition, studies have shown that women play a crucial role in environmental conservation efforts.

In conclusion, climate change is no doubt the world’s greatest challenge which calls for an urgent and sustainable solution. There is a clear gender imbalance where women and girls are barely involved in efforts to address climate change. Going forward there is a dire need to bring them on board as they can be the much-needed agents who can contribute to sustainable climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts.

The generation that destroys the environment is not the generation that pays the price. That is the problem.

Prof. Wangari Maathai – 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Winner and Founder of the Green Belt Movement that has planted over 51 million trees in Kenya.

Dismantling Invisible Barriers to Capital

Closing the Gap – a series of Oxford University postgraduate student insights to the Skoll World Forum 2018

Emily Durfee, 2017-18 MBA at Saïd Business School, reports on the Skoll World Forum session ‘Dismantling Invisible Barriers to Capital’.

The evidence is clear and condemning: investments of resources and support flow unevenly towards entrepreneurs who are white, male, and from wealthy countries.  These entrepreneurs have the “invisible capital,” the right skin color, gender, and nationality, to garner attention and resources from investors.  This inequity to capital perpetuates limits  to the financed perspectives and innovations within social impact, and perpetuates current inequalities and stereotypes.  The panelists in the Skoll World Forum session, “Dismantling Invisible Barriers to Capital,” posited that these disparities in investment are caused by a toxic “sameness,” and suggested three action steps to increase fairness in access to capital.

The detrimental effect of “sameness” permeated the stories of the diverse panel.  Chaired by Kathleen Kelly Janus, author of Social Startup Success, the panel included Cheryl Dorsey from Echoing Green, Marco A. Davis from New Profit, Vedika Bhandarkar from Water.org, and Halla Tomasdottir from Sisters Capital.  These speakers each focused on different issues, from incubating talented global entrepreneurs, entrepreneurs of color, or promoting female leaders.  Despite these different geographical and issue focuses, every panelist highlighted that the current system passes capital and support between people who are the “same,” either through the visible characteristics of race and gender, or through family privilege, education, or nationality.

The panel suggested that “sameness” manifests in the incubation, sourcing, and funding of entrepreneurs.  First, many entrepreneurs cannot pilot new innovations, because their families and communities lack the saved capital necessary to fund pre-investment experimentation.  Second, investors often use networks to source new investees.  However, these networks are usually homogenous, and investments based on existing networks perpetuate the power and resources of those already connected to funders and investors.  Finally, the processes for selecting entrepreneurs surface existing biases, whether for certain native language speakers, or names on resumes and pitches.  This is exacerbated by the “sameness” of internal funding structures.  For example, 94% of foundation presidents are white, 85% of their trustees are white, and 74% of their staff are white.

This “sameness” maintains and increases inequity across entrepreneurial systems, and blocks innovative solutions. To overcome it, and open investments and resources to a diverse entrepreneurship panel, the Skoll World Forum panel advocated for a multi-pronged approach of awareness, assimilation, and transformation.

First, funders must acknowledge and measure the types of inequality in their current systems.  Marco suggested that funders collect and publish data on the currently invisible biases in their systems, such as the diversity of their investment pipelines, the barriers faced by “un-same” applicants, and their own internal diversity metrics of the board, leadership, and staff.

Second, we must assimilate underrepresented groups into the current systems of funding and investment, breaking the cycle of “sameness”. Funders, incubators, and other ecosystem players must diversify the players in the room.  To do this, Hella suggested government bills to enforce diversity standards in board and leadership composition.  Hella and Marco also advocated for investor actions, such as simplifying language and requirements, providing unrestricted funding, and extending funding timelines, to improve accessibility of investments to diverse applicants.  Finally, Marco and Vedika promoted intermediary roles and events, such as “serendipity meetings” or pitch coaching, to introduce diverse entrepreneurs to existing funders.

Finally, we must transform the current systems by removing biases of “sameness”. This is a very challenging task, and there are no final or proven solutions.  However, Cheryl recommended some emerging opportunities, such as blind screening of initial applications, mindfulness training for investing staff, and leveraging AI and machine-learning algorithms to further decrease human biases.

The current invisible barriers to capital for entrepreneurs, driven by a pernicious bias towards “sameness,” prevent talented entrepreneurs from accessing critical capital and support, and limit the generation of creative and effective solutions.  The panel highlighted that the solutions to these underlying biases are multi-faceted, and evolving, and called each of us to act on the above steps, and to innovate new opportunities to overcome “sameness” and promote investment equality.

Emerging Technologies: Shifting the Path from Poverty to Prosperity?

Closing the Gap – a series of Oxford University postgraduate student insights to the Skoll World Forum 2018

Hugh Courtney 2018 EMBA student at the Saïd Business School, reports on the Skoll World Forum session ‘Emerging Technologies: Shifting the Path from Poverty to Prosperity?’

Whilst Silicon Valley pundits are quick to espouse the benefits of a world transformed by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, many detractors worry about the impact that Automation and Artificial Intelligence (AI) will have on jobs, inequality and livelihoods. Whilst this debate centres on the developed world of the USA, EU and UK, are we considering the impact this will have on low and middle-income developing countries where the majority of the world’s population live? On a gloomy Thursday morning in Oxford, this was the question raised by Stefan Dercon (Professor of Economic Policy, Blavatnik School of Government).

Many of the benefits of Automation and AI are well known and frequently cited by their proponents. It will increase efficiency and throughput, allocating available resources more effectively and freeing humans up to think and be creative, removing the need for humans to perform repetitive tasks. What about opportunities for poor people? Terah Lyons (Executive Director, Partnership on AI) and Gargee Ghosh (Director, Development Policy and Finance, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) see healthcare and precision agriculture as possible early beneficiaries. Vaccines designed to stimulate the bodies own antibodies show promise in leading to a reduction in communicable diseases. In agriculture developing more resilient crops (such as green super rice), mapping regional soil composition and remote image mapping could generate significant benefits for yield, sustainability and planning for 75% of the world’s poor who are farmers. Ghosh is quick to point out however solutions need to contain a bundle of different technologies to be effective. She also notes that engaging with the correct end user of the solution is very important to avoid designing technologies what people are unlikely to adopt (one such example was an innovative seed planter which had to be redesigned because the it was too heavy for the end user, primarily women, because only men had been consulted in the early design stages).

Maryanna Iskander (CEO, Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator) has a counterintuitive view on job losses and job creation in Africa. Through her work in South Africa, which has the second highest youth unemployment rate in the world at 54.2%[1], she has found that young job seekers do not have an expectation of a linear career path, but rather they expect to “hustle”, which she asserts will enable them to adapt more easily to a changing world. In fact a country like South Africa may actually be less susceptible to job displacement than a developed country, an assertion supported by a report conducted by the World Bank which found that the automatable share of employment (adjusted for adoption time lag) was lower than the average for an OECD country (57.0%) at 47.9%[2]. In an automated world, humans will naturally occupy positions where empathy and emotive abilities are required, which may mean less disruption of jobs in countries like South Africa, where STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) jobs make up a small proportion of existing jobs.

Job seekers developing skills at Harambee Youth Accelerator.

Job seekers developing skills at Harambee Youth Accelerator. Picture Credit: Fred Swaniker (Facebook)

Creating solutions that are not exclusionary or ignorant of the needs of the poor is an important challenge to overcome. Lyons believes the onus is on technology companies to ensure this does not happen. Her organisation formed a board consisting of a balance of NPOs and private sector stakeholders. In addition, she points to engaging early with constituencies which may traditionally not have been represented or only engaged at a late stage. Given that regulation tends to lag innovation, Lyons asserts that the actors in technology need to hold each other to account, pointing to her previous findings whilst working for the Obama government that the private sector was spending on average eight times as much on research into AI than the government (as at 2016).

For Iskander ensuring solutions are not exclusionary is not only about regulation but also getting to grips with the realities and dispelling myths. Understanding the root of the problem is key and as Iskander points out, this is not always as simple as one might expect. Her organisation makes use of data in many cases to confirm what they already know. Despite the much-publicised penetration of mobile phones across Africa this does not always translate into usable information. In Iskander’s experience, people may have access to phones but are not as likely to have access to data (air time). Counterintuitively this increases the importance of using multiple channels to communicate including traditional print.

In closing Dercon pointed out that the session raised more questions than it answered. One aspect is however clear: the fourth industrial revolution will have a revolutionary impact on how we live, but path from poverty to prosperity will remain the responsibility of humans.

[1] World Bank, Unemployment, youth total (% of total labor force ages 15-24) (modeled ILO estimate). Unemployment, youth total (% of total labor force ages 15-24) (modeled ILO estimate) | Data. Available here [Accessed April 12, 2018].

[2] World Wide Web Foundation, 2017. A SMART WEB FOR A MORE EQUAL FUTURE. Webfoundation.org. Available here [Accessed April 12, 2018].