An invitation: University of Oxford’s response to COVID-19

Written by Mark Mann, Social Enterprise Lead & Innovation Lead for Humanities & Social Sciences at Oxford University Innovation and Chris Blues, Programme Manager for Social Ventures at the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship.

The University of Oxford’s response to COVID-19 has been quite simply, remarkable. New ventures have been created, established and new ventures are pivoting, and new initiatives have been set up.

The Oxford Vaccine Group is leading the search for a vaccine. New ventures such as, OxSed and OxVent, are working across testing, diagnostics and ventilation. The Liber Project, CDL recovery, Oxford Foundry, OUI’s EMBA Mentorship Scheme and Oxford Together are supporting start-ups, scale-ups and projects to address the numerous challenges brought on by COVID-19.

Organisations have also pivoted. This includes OxLOD which enables the linking of open data to determine patterns and inform the most appropriate response, COVID-19 was the perfect opportunity to expand their technology for the healthcare sector. Another venture, OpenClinical, has pivoted by using their technology to get best practice to the medical front line as quickly as possible.

These responses and the behaviours of the University of Oxford to COVID-19 have revealed the latent structures, processes, and mental models we all use. COVID-19 showcased to the world our incredible and continuing ability to respond to such a crisis. But it has also highlighted a momentary peak in willingness to be malleable, adaptable, and entrepreneurial. An invigorating psychological willingness has emerged in Oxford which has expressed itself as a bias towards action, a sense of urgency when working towards a common goal, and an openness to challenge current structures, processes, and possibilities.

Frustratingly, many of these responses cannot scale soon enough to significantly reduce the short-term negative impacts of our current crisis. It can take a long time to create, build and scale many ventures. But we can also see the potential power of the ideas generated across our ecosystem to accelerate positive impact across the world; we must equip ourselves with the ability to do more, faster. We now have the opportunity to unpack these latent behaviours and collectively ask a question:

What structural changes can we make today to improve our nature of response to future challenges?

If a similar challenge appears in 2030, what can we do in the next 10 years to nurture different mental models and approaches to solving world problems, reconfigure relationships and build a smorgasbord of assets and tools to respond better and faster? Under duress, an individual, organisation and ecosystem often reaches for assets and tools that are readily available. Oxford’s response to COVID-19 follows this pattern.  It is very hard to build new things when under pressure to respond to an immediate challenge.

Looking towards 2030, COVID-19 has emphasized the interdependence of actors in our Oxford impact system. We believe there are a couple of transitions that need to occur by 2030. First is to move away from siloes and towards mobilising and capturing the value of our interdependence. Secondly, we need to create the appropriate structures, processes, mental models, and funding structures to incentivise collaboration, not competition. When Oxford is under pressure to respond to another crisis we need to have built new tools to overcome transactional partnerships. This is a long, but worthwhile, process. Three simple questions might get us started:

1) Who cares?

Which actors in Oxford are going to commit to the aim of doing better next time? What underlying assumptions, values and principles are unnecessarily holding us back?

2) How do we organise and fund?

What infrastructure and assets do we need to build or leverage? What data are missing to understand the underlying system structure?

3) What should we prioritise?

What does success look like in 2030? What is the roadmap towards achieving structural changes in Oxford by 2030?

Societal and environmental problems are not going away. Oxford’s knowledge and research is a stable foundation that we can leverage. For example, innovations developed through social sciences research have been particularly useful when building social ventures. The understanding of people and their behaviours is so important to bringing people out of poverty, upskilling them and working to improve social and environmental outcome.

Nevertheless, it is important not just to put efforts into developing the knowledge. Let us build up our capability to rapidly deploy these findings through new technologies, new ventures and new scaling pathways.

We do not seek to create yet another governance or oversight committee. We are seeking coordination without control, to create a platform for actors in Oxford that wish to embrace interdependence, long termism, to continuously improve and to maximise the positive impact the ideas and knowledge generated in Oxford can have on the world. The only questions remaining are – who cares? Do you?


Finding calm amidst chaos

Rangan Srikhanta is a 2019-20 Skoll Scholar and MBA. In this blog, Rangan reflects on completing his final term at Oxford Saïd during the pandemic.

My last post was an opportunity for me to reflect on what brought me to Oxford and the transformative experience it was having in the space of just one term. This post has taken much longer to marinate than usual, but COVID-19 has provided many an opportunity to stop and reflect.

The Oxford Bubble

As the pandemic infiltrated our Oxford bubble, it become a transformative experience in understanding the human condition. From being dismayed at the frays in our social fabric perfectly encapsulated with panic buying of everyday items, to being inspired by thousands of frontline workers who have put their lives at risk when the long-term effects of exposure to the pandemic are still unknown. The Oxford bubble became a sanctuary for reflection, away from the many distractions that make us yearn for the next thing, without appreciating what we have now.

On a personal level, it was overwhelming to see the town clear out in a matter of weeks, many blossoming friendships that thrived on in-person chance meetings would be tested by a shift across multiple time zones, an artefact of participating in one of the most diverse MBA programmes in the world. Experiencing a deserted Oxford seemed somewhat post-apocalyptic and surreal, when considering that the city had unlikely been this quiet in a very long time.

Spring provided a welcome respite from months of cold, and bike rides an opportunity to take in the fresh air and find calm amidst chaos.

Crises as a Catalyst for Innovation

“The tragedy of life is often not in our failure, but rather in our complacency; not in our doing too much, but rather in our doing too little; not in our living above our ability, but rather in our living below our capacities.”

Benjamin E Mays

The pandemic has exposed our misplaced priorities and helped amplify society’s inequalities to breaking point. I see many similarities between the bushfires that often ravage Australia and the pandemic. The most prophetic is that tragedy always precedes re-birth and re-growth – that they are two sides of the same coin.

Whilst early indications suggest society has become more unjust and more unequal through the pandemic, another perspective is that the pandemic has brought to a head deep structural issues that need revisiting.

I am not sure if the worst is yet to come, but I am certain that these trying times are providing society the space to have those uncomfortable confrontations to build back better.

Author: Rangan Srikhanta, 2019-20 Skoll Scholar and Oxford MBA.

Four things I learned from taking part in Map the System

On 15-17 June 2020, the Skoll Centre’s Map the System Competition held its Global Final virtually. The team from Mount Royal University competed against 30 other finalists from institutions around the world at the event. Team member Jillian Mah shares her learnings from the process of mapping the Canadian charity system for the competition.

Over the past 10 months, I joined a team at Mount Royal University to compete in the Map the System Competition alongside two wonderful people, Ashley Dion and Matthew Taburadaf for whom I am incredibly grateful to have worked with. 

I won’t speak for them, but here are a few of the many things I’ve learned over the course of the project.  

1. You don’t know complexity until you’re sucked into 100 holes, but it’s good learning!

When we started this project, we had no idea how big it would grow into. What began as a small curiosity about a trend quickly grew into a massive exploration of human psychology and behaviour, feedback loops, organizational dynamics, funding models, ideologies, statistics, data, policy, and philosophy. Being a beginner in most of these areas, it was a lot to take on, but in a way, it was an advantage to take a birds-eye view of these things and make connections between them. Because of the freedom we allowed ourselves to explore, Map the System was one of the best educational experiences I’ve had. 

2. Systems maps mean nothing unless they tell a story.

Speaking of complexity, making sense of the complexity is a challenge on its own. Language and representation are powerful, and the smallest details make such a difference. The implications of representation, narrative, language, visuals, hierarchy, centering, and production are many. Further, representation cannot be done without bias, and I’ll be the first to say my biases were challenged during this project. Turning complex research into a clear, simple story is an act that requires careful attention. 

3. Systems and human experiences cannot be separated. 

Systems are created and maintained by people. Our ideas, histories, and values inform every part of our systems. Systems also affect people, and understanding people needs to be at the centre of the conversation. Consequently, within Canada, there are many different ways of thinking about social good, and even ways more globally. Questions like whose job it is to create social good, how to go about it, and what our expectations are of each other and ourselves have no single answer.

4. Building on this, there is no single way of creating change

A question that we were asked multiple times throughout the course of the project was, unsurprisingly, “so what?” What should we do to make sure people are taken care of? What do we need to fix? 

Fair enough, that’s a good question. And our answer? Well, there is no simple answer, since there is no single definition of social good. What we do know is that meaningful, sustainable change comes from systemic change, and the part of the system that change comes from is our people and their mental models. The systems we design and our fundamental ways of knowing are closely intertwined.

Change is not a one-way street. Shifts in the system require a shift in mental models, just as shifts in mental models require a shift in the system. It’s not enough to just focus on local or systems levels; both are necessary.

Importantly, however, this leads me right back to my first point about complexity. The complexity of systems is what makes them so wicked, yet so intriguing to explore. Systems will always be hard to fully understand, and even harder to change. Systems mapping is nothing short of a challenge, but one of the most worthwhile challenges to take on. Awareness, intent, learning, and finding wonder are values I hold close to my heart, and the Map the System challenge offered me every opportunity to embrace these values.

If you are interested in learning more about our project or otherwise, please feel free to reach out to me.

Map the System: adolescent pregnancy in Peru

On 15-17 June 2020, the Skoll Centre’s Map the System Competition held its Global Final virtually. The team from University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy competed against 30 other finalists from institutions around the world, making it to the final six and presenting their work to a public audience. Sara Surani and Annie Kuster entered the Map the System competition as an excuse to dive deeper into a topic and a community they had been interested in working alongside for years, and here they share how they mapped the system to address adolescent pregnancy in Peru.

Sara and Annie met in November of 2018 in Lima, the capital city of Peru. They were both on a Fulbright fellowship studying similar topics in different regions of the country: Annie was researching the efficacy of storytelling methodology among teenage mothers in Cusco (mountain region); Sara was researching barriers to access health and education in Lima (urban region) and communities along the Amazon and Marañón Rivers in northern Peru (jungle region).

Over a combined nearly 30 months in Peru, Annie and Sara formed deep connections with the young women they were working with, and found themselves inspired by their stories of empathy, resilience, and strength. Structural issues in Peruvian society became more personal as challenges like “health care access” were explained through the eyes of Joanna, the 15-year-old mother who had experienced human trafficking while searching for an illegal abortion, and Maria, who had to travel a full day in canoe to reach the nearest clinic before dark, only to have the clinic refuse health services.

While listening to stories of girls and their communities, Sara and Annie realized that their journey supporting and amplifying the voices of these girls had just begun. After her grant finished, Sara stayed in Peru to continue working with youth in the northern Amazon, and Annie pursued a Master’s degree in International Development & Policy at the Harris School of Public Policy.

Through Harris, Annie was introduced to the Oxford “Map the System” competition and immediately reached out to Sara. They were still intent on finding the best way to support community development efforts targeting the health and well-being of these girls, and Annie saw the Oxford competition as an opportunity to leverage their existing contacts and dive deeper before attempting their ultimate goal: founding a community-based organization focused on promoting reproductive health and youth empowerment. They decided to name their organization “Nayaraq”, or “one with many dreams” in the Peruvian native language of Quechua.

To formulate their ideas, systems map, and final report, Annie and Sara read through secondary reports in English and Spanish, published by internal entities like the Peruvian government and local think tanks, as well as external organizations criticizing and comparing the Peruvian handling of the issue, including UNFPA and Oxfam. Annie and Sara also reached out to contacts across Peru, including healthcare workers and midwives, stakeholders in the Ministries of Health and Education, local NGOs, and thought leadership at women’s rights organizations like Promsex, Plan International, and APROPO.

Although they spoke to over 130 stakeholders in the public and private sectors, Sara and Annie prioritized understanding adolescent perspectives. In what ways is the current system failing them? How can we collaborate with and empower youth to address their needs in order to improve reproductive health agency? How can the Nayaraq team help support catalytic change?

Sara and Annie realized that existing solutions were not efficiently collaborating across sectors and geographies. There is currently a deep divide between resource access in rural and urban regions, and strong communication gaps between the public and private sector. Existing programming relies heavily on eliminating financial barriers to healthcare access and nominally promoting comprehensive sex education without adapting to the diverse cultural contexts of each region. Furthermore, the majority of existing solutions are targeted specifically and exclusively for adolescent girls without consideration of boys’ roles in the reproductive health of their communities.

Therefore, Annie and Sara identified the following critical gaps in existing programming, leading to what they believe to be important levers of change: 

Critical gaps in programming are limited access to healthcare, limited female labor market participation, Machista power dynamics, lack of comprehensive sex education and oversimplification and centralisation of programming.
Click to enlarge the image and explore the identified levers of change

Participating in Map the System not only deepened their understanding of a topic that they hope to devote their lives to, but also allowed them to share that understanding and passion with people from all over the world. It has opened opportunities to collaborate across countries and communities with others who are similarly excited about empowerment and community health. The opportunity and conversations that have come from these connections have reignited the spark that inspired them to begin this work in the first place. As they look ahead to what the future holds, they will strive to remember what participating in this competition has taught them: that focusing on amplifying voices and supporting community-lead efforts is the only way to truly achieve systemic change.

Authors: Annie Kuster and Sara Surani

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Map the System: Using Systems Science to Advance Health Equity in Tobacco Control

On 15-17 June 2020, the Skoll Centre’s Map the System Competition held its Global Final virtually. The team from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill competed against 30 other finalists from institutions around the world at the event, coming in third place in the competition. Team members Meghan O’Leary, Paige Logan, Sarah Mills, Shelley Golden and Kristen Hassmiller Lich tell us how they mapped the system to explore inequities in tobacco control.

Smoking rates have declined considerably over the last five decades in the United States. However, this progress has not been shared equally. Many lower-income and racial/ethnic minority populations are more likely to smoke than their counterparts and disproportionately shoulder the burden of tobacco-related disease.

We created a team focused on understanding socioeconomic and racial/ethnic disparities in smoking from a systems perspective. Members of our team represent the fields of health behavior, health policy, and systems science. Building on these backgrounds, we developed a model that captures the multilevel factors affecting smoking. Processes of marginalization and segregation, as well as employment and housing factors that may produce financial strain, are included as key contributors to smoking in our model. By documenting these structural reasons for smoking disparities and lived experiences of people of color and lower-income groups, we hope our model can help to effectively engage communities and relevant stakeholders and to design tobacco control policies and programs capable of reducing smoking in priority populations.

Developing our model

Our model of smoking is informed by tobacco control literature and interviews with key stakeholders. We consulted prior research to identify factors associated with smoking. This included a close review of 12 prior smoking models – none of which addressed the specific factors contributing to higher smoking rates in priority populations. We turned to fundamental cause and social stress theories to identify these root causes of smoking among racial/ethnic minorities and lower-income groups.

We shared a model draft with nine stakeholders, who provided insightful feedback about our model, allowing us to consider new factors that should be included and challenging us to carefully consider the relationships between variables. They provided the perspectives of smokers, mental health professionals, health equity advocates, and community-based organizations.

Our Smoking Model

  • Green = individual-level factors associated with smoking
  • Blue = environmental-level factors associated with smoking
  • Red = root causes of smoking among racial/ethnic minority and low-income populations
  • + indicates the variables move in the same direction (e.g., as stress increases, tobacco use increases)
  • – indicates the variables move in the opposite direction (e.g., as access to cessation services increases, tobacco use decreases)

Policy Implications

We applied our model to tobacco control policies designed to improve equity in tobacco control, revealing how the policies are intended to address disparities, as well as their potential unintended effects that may sustain or worsen disparities. For example, smoke-free public housing aims to lower smoking among public housing residents by creating more smoke-free homes and reducing pro-smoking norms. Yet, violation of this policy may result in financial strain and/or housing instability, increasing stress and reducing feelings of controls, which can lead to increased smoking. The figures below illustrate these intended and unintended effects.

Text Box: Smoke-free Air Policy
Figure 1. Expected Impacts of the Smoke-free Air Policy

Reinforcing loops in the model are indicated with an ‘R’ and represent relationships that will continue to grow, or reinforce, over time.

Figure 2. Unintended Impacts of the Smoke-free Air Policy

We identified two other disparities-focused policies with potential unintended consequences per our model:

  • A menthol ban intends to reduce smoking among those who prefer menthol cigarettes. However, targeted marketing of other tobacco products is still possible through segregation and discrimination.
  • Minimum price laws (MPLs) enact the largest price increases on the least expensive tobacco products. While expected to reduce smoking by raising prices, this policy may unintentionally increase financial strain and stress and reduce feelings of control.

Our Recommendations

1. Use a health equity lens

Tobacco control efforts often focus on reducing smoking at the population level, but to ensure equitable outcomes, attention to priority populations is needed. Being intentional and focusing on how systemic racism and other structural factors permeate the model pathways and contribute to smoking disparities is critical. Future tobacco control efforts must acknowledge and address these lived experiences of communities.

2. Consider the intended and unintended consequences of tobacco control policies and programs

Well-intentioned efforts to lower smoking in priority populations can have unintentional and even counteractive effects. Consideration of these adverse outcomes upfront, as well as ongoing evaluation of policies and programs, can help to identify, react to, and address these unwanted effects.

3. Engage diverse types of stakeholders in tobacco control efforts

Additional voices are needed to represent the needs and perspectives of priority populations. We recommend engaging smokers, retailers, housing officials, law enforcement, social service agencies, mental health practitioners, and community-based organizations. Partnering with local communities can help to identify other relevant stakeholders.

Next Steps

Map the System provided a platform to present our model of smoking and receive feedback from other systems thinkers working on similarly complex issues. We value the information learned and are committed to continuing this work. We are currently conducting additional stakeholder interviews. We hope to build confidence in our model by testing some of the relationships between variables through future studies, and use our model to facilitate collaborative discussions about tobacco control in diverse populations.


Trinity term at Oxford during the pandemic

Tsechu Dolma is a 2019-20 Skoll Scholar on the Oxford MBA. In this blog, Tsechu reflects on completing her final term at Oxford Saïd during the pandemic.

I feel like I have stepped into a new life twice in my life — the first when my family left Nepal amidst the civil war and sought political asylum in the US, and second my Oxford experience.

Sixteen years ago, my family landed in JFK airport New York to seek political asylum in the United States. All of our worldly possessions fit in the cabin luggage. I missed my home and friends dearly, but I was relieved to leave behind the civil war raging in Nepal. Ten and unable to speak English, I could not understand what the Border Control Officer was asking me. Nonetheless, I was excited about the promise and possibilities of starting a new life in the USA.

A year ago, I packed up a suitcase to move from the US to Oxford. I wasn’t fleeing a civil war this time; I was escaping a political climate riddled with poor leadership and backward policies. I felt the same wave of emotions; homesick, excited, and hopeful. Within the first 24 hours, I started feeling at home in the UK – baking, sharing and laughing with my fellow Skoll scholars.

2019-20 Skoll Scholars

It had been almost six years since I was last in a classroom. Once classes started, I felt pretty tech-illiterate. I had spent the previous decade as a development practitioner, deep in the trenches fighting food insecurity, socio-economic disparities, and accessibility in South Asia. I had fallen behind on the rapid technology innovation coming out of universities and Big Tech.

I had heard and read a lot about the AI revolution, and I wanted to understand how it could impact my community in terms of both positive and negative aspects. I would have a significant learning curve, but equally, I knew that I could leverage the vast networks of expertise at Oxford. Every student group and department from Oxford Foundry to Women in Business were buzzing about startups, technology, and social impact.

Similar to when I first learned English after moving to the US, I learned tech-speak at Oxford. I learned to code and manage technology business. In particular, I reached out to researchers at the Autonomous Intelligent Machines and Systems (AIMS) program, under the engineering department and served as a research assistant. I worked hard quickly to grasp the nuances of AI and its applications to society, in addition to my MBA coursework. I have had the opportunity to work on several projects that address the intersections of AI, equity, and inclusion for all.

In March 2020, switching to a virtual work environment was a struggle for me when it seemed like the community I had worked so hard to build since September 2019 was disintegrating by COVID-19, and I left the UK in a panic. After months now, my community has sprung back stronger than ever before. I feel bittersweet ending my scholarship year at Oxford amid this global tragedy, leaving this nurturing home at Saïd to enter a world in turmoil. Nevertheless, these are precisely the challenges the Skoll Centre and the MBA has well-prepared me to tackle. I will be fighting alongside my peers for a more racially equitable, inclusive, and sustainable future for all.

Author: Tsechu Dolma, 2019-20 Skoll Scholar and Oxford MBA.