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Vanilla, blockchain and the circular economy – one year on the Oxford MBA

Skoll Scholar and circular economy entrepreneur, Nikhil Dugal, highlights the best part of his year at Oxford on the MBA programme. 

The Oxford MBA is quite a unique experience in the world of business education. The extent to which our class discussions and interests differ from other business schools is apparent when I travel to London to meet friends enrolled in other MBAs.

Over the course of the past year, the MBA has helped me keep pace with many issues of recent development, including emerging technologies, climate change mitigation and the circular economy, all while keeping one foot firmly in the business world.

Sustainable Vanilla

Another opportunity to undertake learning was the entrepreneurship project (EP) in Trinity term. In addition to encouraging novel business ideas, Oxford Saïd also invites external collaborators to come pitch live projects to the MBAs for the EP. This offers individuals in Oxford the opportunity to work with MBAs on their project for a semester, while the students get the opportunity to work on a live project and contribute to real-world impact.

My team used the opportunity to work with an agro-ecologist from Oxford who is working on preventing deforestation in Indonesia by encouraging local farmers to grow Vanilla in the rainforests. Vanilla is the second-most expensive cash crop in the world. However, only 1% of the world’s supply comes from natural sources, while the majority comes from synthetic vanilla manufactured from petrochemicals. Natural vanilla grows as an orchid and can be planted in degraded rainforests to help restore the natural ecosystem in a polyculture system. Establishing a larger market for forest-grown organic Vanilla from Indonesia can help restore degraded rainforests and provide smallholder farmers a more lucrative alternative to engaging in unsustainable palm oil farming. We spent a semester working on their business models, financial projections and market entry strategy. Meanwhile, they have started a pilot in Kalimantan and planted 18000 saplings on 500 hectares of land leased from the government. Moving forward, their team will be using our research and projections to scale the project, raise funding and enter the market.

Nikhil debating at the Responsible Business Forum.

Nikhil debating at the Responsible Business Forum.

Circular Economy

Before joining Oxford Saïd, I was working on a circular business in India, making eco-friendly infrastructure for development sector organizations. The circular economy elective in Trinity term gave me the opportunity to interact with a diverse set of stakeholders working to establish the circular economy in the UK. This included entrepreneurs from companies such as Toast Ale and Elvis & Kresse, investors such as LWARB and Circularity Capital as well as practitioners from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. This gave us a broader view of how the ecosystem works in the UK and provided opportunities to network with people working on the front-lines of the problem.

Blockchain for Impact

Over the course of  ‘Strategy and Innovation’, we were given the chance to apply concepts learned in class to an emerging field. I took the opportunity to research the use of blockchain technology for sustainable supply chain tracking. After learning more about this topic for my final coursework, I was given the opportunity to interact with two practitioners working on applying the technology on the ground and hear their perspective on it as well. Hugh Locke, the president and co-founder of the Smallholder Farmers Alliance in Haiti visited to speak at the Responsible Business Forum 2018. Their partnership with Timberland is using blockchain technology, built from the ground up with beneficiaries in mind, to help source sustainably grown cotton and revive the Haitian Cotton Industry. At the same forum, we were also visited by David Davies, the founder of AgUnity, which is using blockchain to increase the transparency of financial transactions in farmer cooperatives and increase farmer’s trust in the institution.  During Trinity Term, our Tech for Impact class hosted one of the founders of Alice, which is using blockchain technology to undertake social impact tracking to help create a new type of cryptocurrency based social impact bonds. At Saïd Business School, what I’ve appreciated about the learning style is the ability to balance both theory and practice.

Nikhil and his peers in traditional Oxford exam attire.

Nikhil and his study group on the MBA.

Systems Change

The issues social entrepreneurs work on are extremely complex and involve many stakeholders with diver interests. Tackling complex problems like climate change can seem overwhelming because of the complexity of the problem itself. Systems change constitutes studying how systems work, identifying stakeholders that are part of a system, understanding their preferences and identifying inflection points in the system where an intervention can lead to a significant impact. At the Skoll World Forum, I had the opportunity to also meet system entrepreneurs who are working in the field of systems change, in organizations such as Participatory Cities and Forum for the Future.

Moving forward, I will be spending the summer researching systems change and meeting practitioners to undertake landscaping research with the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship.

This past year has given me the opportunity to step back, reconsider the impact of my work, and inform my opinion by giving me a broad exposure to topics that are interrelated to my work. Although the year has gone by unbelievably fast, it has also reformed my perception of the world. There are an uncountable number of people of all ages and professions, who are working to help realize the world of the future. It’s a world that includes autonomous electric vehicles, distributed ledger technology and a global shift towards renewable energy.

The opportunity for me to be at the center of this transition has been made possible with a Skoll Scholarship and it will continue to shape my thinking as I transition out of Oxford, back into the world.


Meet the Finalists – Map the System Global Final

Montage of all the finalist's institutions

In its third year, the Map the System competition’s Global Final is set to be the biggest yet; with 15 competing teams arriving here in Oxford from six continents.

This competition is a chance for students and recent graduates, of participating educational institutions, to learn more about the issues they care about and present their findings to the world.

We believe that tackling global challenges starts with understanding a problem and its wider context, rather than jumping straight into a business plan or an idea for a quick fix. Participants are asked to demonstrate a deep understanding of a pressing social or environmental issue by mapping out the landscape of the current solutions and identifying missing opportunities for positive change.

27 educational institutions took part in the 2018 competition, with over 470 applications from teams within them. Australia, Canada, Chile, China, South Africa, U.K, and U.S.A are the seven countries represented in the Global Final from 1-3 June.

How will it work?

Each finalist team is made up of students or recent graduates working in teams of up to five, who have chosen a social or environmental issue to “map”. Prior to the presentations, finalists have each submitted three documents as part of the competition: a visual map or chart, a report summarising their research analysis, and a bibliography. Each of these has been reviewed by the judges.

On the day, students will have 10 minutes to deliver their presentation, followed by approximately 5-10 minutes of Q&A from a panel of judges. The purpose of the presentation is to highlight the key insights and learnings from the students’ research of their chosen issue. Each presentation will focus on four key areas:

  • Problem landscape
  • Solutions landscape
  • Identification of gaps and levers of change
  • Lessons learned

After all 15 finalists have presented on Saturday, the judges will select just six to present again in front of an audience on the Sunday afternoon. Then from those final six teams, just three winners will be selected as the 2018 winners, with each team awarded cash prizes of £4,000, £3,000 and £2,000. .

Meet the finalists

Hainan University EYE OF THE AUTISM


Hainan University, China

Humanistic Concern. The team from Hainan University have focused their research on the current situation of social workers involved in autistic families, specifically those living in Haikou City. Their research investigates how to have a positive impact on them, for example, how to improve the child’s condition and family’s economic situation.



Henan University of Urban Construction, China

Environmental Sustainability. This team have researched the urgent needs of mining area reconstruction and urban transformation in Pingdingshan, Henan Province. Pingdingshan is the third largest coal producing base and coking coal production base in China, and hence is causing mass pollution and damage in the surrounding areas.



Mount Royal University, Canada

Healthcare. Roisin has focused her research on the opioid epidemic in Canada, with a particular focus on fentanyl. Many Canadians have passed away as a result of taking illicit substances whilst unaware they are laced with fentanyl, and this research investigates solutions aimed at educating and disseminating information on this topic.



Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University USA

Peace & Human Rights. The Kellogg-Northwestern team have conducted their research about Colombian child soldier reintegration. Several team members are connected with Colombia or have attended an entrepreneurship course there, and are passionate about children’s rights and the implications on similar global uses of child soldiers.



Royal Roads University, Canada

Environmental Sustainability. Canada has one of the highest rates of food waste annually, and while other countries make policies to prevent and combat food waste issue, Canada remains complacent. The Royal Roads team’s presentation will shed light on these inadequacies and outline the opportunities for impact in this area.



Shanghai Institute of Visual Arts, China

Environmental Sustainability. Team IDEAL have explored ecological co-living residential design in Shanghai. Due to the close proximity of the residential properties to the main industrial area, problems with the environment and health issues in this area are prominent, and so IDEAL have mapped and designed a ventilation solution to help with this problem.



Simon Fraser University, Canada

Healthcare. Bridging the Gap has explored the mental health and mental wellness outcomes of Second-generation Asian immigrant youth aged 14-25 in the Greater Vancouver region. This group experience unique mental health challenges due to the mental stressors imposed by processes of acculturation.


+Chilenas en STEM

Teach for All, Chile

Education and Gender. Evidence has shown significant gender disparities in maths subjects at school where girls tend to get lower results, leading to fewer women participating in STEM careers. The +Chilenas en STEM team posit that part of this gap is produced by gender stereotypes, which can be unconsciously reproduced in the household and in the classroom. This team have therefore investigated a new initiative to work with teachers on gender-stereotype awareness.



Graduate School of Business, University of Cape Town, South Africa

Water and Sanitation. FemWash have looked at menstrual hygiene management and the barriers that women face with respect to water, hygiene and sanitation. They have focused their research on South Africa, particularly the rural areas, such as townships that often lack infrastructure, sanitation and water – but have also examined developing countries with similar geographies to the South African landscape.



The University of Melbourne, Australia

Healthcare. Team Luna Baby have researched the issue of premature birth, specifically looking into supporting parent and infant well-being in Australia. Due to the powerful role that parents play in the development of their premature infants, the team have focused their research on the support given to these parents in neonatal nurseries and how it can be improved.



University of Oxford, UK

Gender Equality. Team Daughters has focused on gender inequality in the U.S. State of Utah. With a team that have deep Utah roots, they have witnessed first hand the impact on gender disparity in their own families and in the community. Their research maps solutions to educate communities and reduce the impact of gender inequalities in this state.



University of San Diego, USA

Emergency Response, Health and Wellbeing. After one team member’s direct experience of working in Thai refugee camps, the University of San Diego team were motivated to examine the issue of fire disasters in Thailand’s refugee camps. Based on their frustration at this seemingly intractable issue, they have endeavoured to understand the system so that potential solutions come from an informed perspective.



Utah Valley University, USA

Environmental Sustainability and Healthcare. Team Lakeridge has researched Utah’s Ogden-Salt Lake-Provo area (the Wasatch Front), and its unique geography that creates ‘inversion’ –  a lid that traps cooler air in the valleys. This layer traps toxic air particles released by natural sources and human activity, which leads to health issues, stifled economic growth, and the general deterioration of quality of life in the region.



Vanderbilt University, USA

Healthcare. The team from Vanderbilt University have focused their research on the healthcare provided to incarcerated persons in Tennessee, United States. The team’s mix of disciplinary backgrounds in law, business, and community psychology has enabled them to recognise the need for a better understanding of the correctional healthcare system, in the hopes of increasing the health of incarcerated individuals and benefitting the overall state of health in the United States.



Watson University, USA

Mental Health. This team has researched the issue of depression and anxiety in American colleges. Motivated by first hand personal experiences of this issue, the team has examined the lack of resources in the current system and has mapped the solutions landscape with a view to positively impact this area.

On the judging panel will be;

Jasmine Lau, a social entrepreneur and educator from Hong Kong, Jasmine is also the Founder and Executive Director of Philanthropy In Motion (PIM).

Odin Mühlenbein, a Partner at Ashoka Germany and Lead of Advisory at Ashoka Globalizer.

Daniela Papi-Thornton, former Deputy Director of the Skoll Centre, and thought-leader in systems change education.

Darian Stibbe, Executive Director, The Partnering Initiative.

Annelies Tjebbes, a biomedical engineer and social innovator.

Chintal Barot, Founder and Director of CoSustain Consulting Limited.

Please join us if you would like to watch the concluding part of our Global Final to Map the System, on Sunday, 3 June. Learn about complex issues facing people and planet, and understand how taking a systems approach to tackling them can identify gaps and levers for positive change.

Register for the Global Final on Sunday, 3 June 12:00 – 5:30pm mapthesystemfinal2018.eventbrite.com

Combining Design and System Thinking for Social Impact

How can Design and Systems Thinking really help when looking at a large complex issue you want to tackle? Our current Early Career Research Fellow, Tanja Collavo, breaks it down in the true meaning of the process. If you’re not convinced by this methodology now, you will be after reading this!

I recently joined a webinar organized by Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) on how to employ Design and Systems Thinking to produce social impact. It consisted in a recap of both techniques and in a key message: although Design and Systems Thinking have been used to deal with social issues for some time, it is their combination that can really foster innovative and creative ideas for lasting social impact. So, I thought it might be relevant to share how the two techniques can be combined in an effective way.

Design Thinking is the process of analyzing an existing situation through the perspective of different people who are involved in it, understanding how it could be improved and quickly prototyping designed solutions in order to adopt the most effective one. One of its benefits is the in-depth analysis of the issues of key stakeholders and the inclusion of their opinions and suggestions in the creation of a solution.

Systems Thinking revolves around the creation of a map of all the individuals and organizations involved in a system of reference (e.g. social innovation in the U.K.), representing all the interconnections among the stakeholders, their relative power, resources and concentration, and the critical hubs and connections. This technique is fundamental to keep in mind all the stakeholders that are affected or contributing to a given project and to reflect on possible unintended consequences that might arise from the designed solution.

Both Design and Systems Thinking have the explicit goal of helping people to think outside of the box, to deal with large change projects, and to enable the co-creation of innovative solutions. Additionally, they tend to be complementary, given that one favors an in-depth understanding of a situation, focusing on the thoughts and feelings of individuals and groups, while the other helps to keep in mind the bigger picture and the ways different groups relate to and affect one another. When combined, Design and Systems Thinking can be deployed through a four-stage process, named by the webinar speakers as: Information, Insight, Opportunities and Solutions.

Information: In this phase, Design and Systems Thinking have the goal of understanding, respectively, the core issue(s) to be solved, and the system at hand. This is best done through interviews and ethnographic observations and, in the case of Systems Thinking only, through the drawing of a map of all the stakeholders present in the system. Ideally, in the Information Phase, the collection of primary data should be supported through the analysis of information that is already available, such as expert reports, articles, or news of relevant best practice adopted by players in this or in another system.

Insight: In this second phase the information gathered through primary and secondary sources should be analyzed in order to identify what the key problems are and where enablers and inhibitors lie within the system. Enablers are people, organizations and processes that might favor the creation of social impact or the solution of a problem; whereas inhibitors are issues, people and organizations that might hamper the creation of the desired impact or solution. This phase mostly involves an in-depth analysis of all the information at disposal, the sharing of impressions and ideas, the selection of core problems to tackle, and the identification of where these are originated within the system.

Opportunity: This phase requires a switch from analyzing the situation to creatively elaborating potential solutions and revolves around the repeated asking of the following question: “How might we do something…to solve X…?” This question helps to spur as many potential solutions as possible for the chosen problem, in a brainstorming process. During this process, in order to keep creativity and innovation at a high level, it is necessary to avoid any criticism of emerging ideas. This should be left for the very end of the phase, when solutions should be combined with the map of the system. Such a combination will allow the identification of ‘leverage points’ – components of the system that, when modified, have the potential to trigger change in the entire system.

Solution: In this phase, the ideas identified should be prototyped and tested. Ideally, it will be possible to prototype all chosen solutions as well as multiple variants thereof. Prototypes can range from very simple, DIY solutions that can be created in a couple of hours to full pilot projects coordinated with the necessary stakeholders. Each prototype that is tested should be backed by a specific theory of change and target, and should be modified according to the feedback received. The testing should involve representatives of as many groups of stakeholders as possible from amongst those that will be involved in the delivery of the final project, or that will be affected by it.

The combination of Design and Systems Thinking summarized above is a promising technique to create social impact that takes into consideration the existing situation, its strengths, and the points of view of multiple stakeholders. However, it is also still in its infancy. The effectiveness of this approach is yet to be fully evaluated and what might seem a straightforward process in words is actually very difficult to implement. Indeed, coming up with an innovative idea, that minimizes the harm done while maximizing the social impact created, requires a significant amount of time and resources in data collection and analysis, the involvement of multiple stakeholders, and the contribution of many players for its implementation.

If these downsides do not frighten you, I hope this will represent a starting point to consider a new way of solving social issues or creating social impact. The following resources may be useful if you are interested in looking deeper at the combination of Design and Systems Thinking:

Open book of the IDEO Design Kit book

Design Thinking – IDEO guide to Human Centered Design



Omidyar Systems Practice Workbook Front Cover

Systems Thinking – The Omidyar Group Systems Practice Workbook