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
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
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 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.
The Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship this year launches the “Impact Lab”, a one year co-curricular programme designed to enable Oxford MBA students to take a leading role in tackling the complex and pressing social and environmental challenges of our world.
The programme cultivates the knowledge, tools and personal leadership qualities needed to drive ambitious and systemic change across sectoral and organisational boundaries. Weekly workshop sessions and in-depth bootcamps with leading practitioners and thought leaders cover topics such as systems thinking, human centred design, impact measurement and impact investing. In tandem with this, through action learning and access to executive coaches, Impact Lab participants are supported in deepening their self-awareness, developing character, and understanding their own impact leadership journeys. The programme concludes with an opportunity for Lab members to create and deliver a personal talk on their own journey, how they have changed and the impact they wish to have on the world.
Building on our successful pilot “Skoll Academy” in 2017, the Impact Lab launched on October 6 this year with an inaugural cohort of 38 fantastic MBA students selected through an application process. Lab participants include students from a range of backgrounds, including:
Julie Greene, a social entrepreneur who ran bakeries across East Africa providing vocational training, employment and wellness services to women;
Sergio Navarro, a former VP at Goldman Sachs, doctor and founder of a health-tech company using augmented reality to deliver rehabilitation therapy;
Kudzai Chigiji director of a Pan-African advisory and infrastructure development company, currently operating in education and healthcare across East, West and Southern Africa;
Mridhula Sridharan, an investment strategist who has advised high net worth individuals, corporates and foundations across India and enabled investments to be directed into development initiatives.
The ethos of the Lab cultivates peer-led and peer-to-peer activities, and students are actively engaged in shaping the evolution of the Lab across the Oxford year.
In light of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, the ambitious targets in the Paris Climate Agreement and the multiple social and environmental challenges facing our world, now more than ever, we need leaders who can understand these interconnected and complex issues, design and execute effective interventions, and lead teams, organisations and movements.
For more information or if you would like to collaborate, feel free to contact us. Many of the Impact Lab presenters are also running public sessions as part of the Skoll Centre Speaker Series. More information can be found on the Saïd Business School events listing.
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.
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.
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 study group on the MBA.
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.
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:
Identification of gaps and levers of change
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
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.
MEI YINGYING, WEI YUXIANG AND LI CHENGJIA
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.
TO THE ROOTS
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.
BRIDGING THE GAP
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.
RETHINKING REFUGEE CAMP FIRE DISASTERS
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.
HEALTH BEHIND BARS
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.
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.
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: