Archive for the ‘ Social Action Nets ’ Category

World Water Week: Negotiating the Non-Negotiable

During 2011, Circle of Blue has collaborated with the China Environment Forum at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars to report on energy demand and water supply in China. Their extensive coverage and reporting included over a dozen presentations of the results in China. The context for this coverage—called Choke Point: China—is positioned as follows:

“Over the last decade alone, 70 million new jobs emerged from an economy that this year, according to the World Bank and other authorities, generated the world’s largest markets for cars, steel, cement, glass, housing, energy, power plants, wind turbines, solar panels, highways, high-speed rail systems, airports and other basic supplies and civic equipment to support a modern economy.

Yet, like a tectonic fault line, underlying China’s new standing in the world is an increasingly fierce competition between energy and water that threatens to upend China’s progress.”

Last week in Stockholm, the 23rd World Water Week convened and could have featured the tag line, Choke Point: World. Over 2600 water professionals (and semi-pros) gathered to focus on Water in an Urbanising World. (For an overview themes and participation at the conference, read Céline Hervé-Bazin’s post.)

Many thought leaders including Paul Reiter, CEO of the International Water Association (IWA), lauded China as a potential source for ideas and innovations. Motivated by those 70 million jobs and terrible conditions in rural areas, China is the most rapidly urbanizing country in world history. The challenges facing China’s urban leaders and planners are extensive. (While not mentioned at a conference with an urban focus, another indication of the connectedness of everything through water is the amount China will spend on rural water, sanitation and healthcare: $125 Billion.)

Assessing which problem is more challenging may be less productive than thinking about how both challenges could share technology, innovation and social enterprise approaches to make progress. China so far has not acknowledged the need for outside social enterprise or technology models, and is betting on competition between the provinces for innovation.

A New Style of Urbanization

At the first day plenary session, both Dr. Joan Clos, Executive Director of UN Habitat, and Sheela Patel, head of Shack/Slum Dwellers international, made a strong case that this is one of the most complex development challenges facing the world. According to Clos, “Every year the number of people who live in cities and town grows by 67 million – 91% of this figure is being added to urban populations in developing countries.” Unlike the urbanization that accompanied 19th century industrialization, this new urbanization often lacks the job and revenue base to invest in public services. Sheela Patel challenged leaders to seek cooperative solutions agreed to and supported by beneficiaries: “Participation does not mean bringing in the poor to rubber stamp a predetermined solution.”

Essentially every rapidly urbanizing city must be viewed as a resource poor environment. These circumstances require a combination of innovation, ingenuity and people that is simply not required in most high- and middle-income countries. Innovation in the coming century must come from these exigent environments. In the case of water, cities and countries recognize the need for a combination of tariffs and taxes, but the challenge in poor countries flows from compressed finances. According to Greg Browder of the World Bank, water can garner 2-4% of individual income—$1000 per person per year in rich countries, $200 in middle-income settings and $40 per person in poor countries.

Challenges: Non-negotiable

The session on Integrated Urban Water Management Challenges was a microcosm of the overall conference. Here are a few of the @ReachScale tweets from that session:

Urban Water Mgt: 2-4% of income to water means: High income $1k/yr/person; mid=$200; low=$40; so mid 5x>low; high 5x>mid: Big Constraint

IWA Paul Reiter: Challenges in urban means urban must use 50% less as globally; 800k new urbanites added weekly!

IWA Paul Reiter: Challenges means new urban water systems in Asia & Africa must cost a fraction of current.

Urban must use 50% < water, as globally 800k new urbanites added weekly. If Ag water use 10% less; Amount for urban 2x.

Paul Reiter Point: Realities of Water Challenge are non-negotiable; Glenn Oroz Counterpoint: Realities require much Negotiation.

Global Water Intelligence through the Water Risk Index is one source for looking at the areas where challenges will be greatest: http://www.water-risk-index.com/index.html

Collaboration, Innovation and Investment to Succeed

In the case of water, we are all part of the potential solutions. Seeing the water fraternity hard at work to enhance collaboration provides the basic foundation for seeking solutions. Here are scenarios/suggestions for the kind of transformative changes IWA, SIWI, the World Bank and others insist are essential.

1. Agriculture is the center. New practices are needed to double agriculture production, protect natural systems and enhance global food security. As stated by the CGIAR Challenge Program on Water and Food:

“There is an urgent need to rethink current strategies for intensifying agriculture, given that food production already accounts for 70 to 90 percent of withdrawals from available water resources in some areas. The report, An Ecosystem Services Approach to Water and Food Security, finds that in many breadbaskets, including the plains of northern China, India’s Punjab and the Western United States, water limits are close to being ‘reached or breached.’”

2. The World as a Scaling and Learning Laboratory. In meeting after meeting, I saw studies and decks that talked about pilots, prototypes and tests. While there were a few exceptions – the Asian Development Bank’s remarkable progress with the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System in Manila for one – too many projects were “learn now, scale later.” Mechanisms need to be developed to compare and promote the most scalable opportunities. This could include funding scaling learning labs and then funneling funding into the winners. Brookings along with the Shell Foundation and others funded by the Japan International Cooperation Agency are developing thinking in this arena. Healthpoint Services with P&G have already embarked on scaling in India. Next year they will add scaling investors and journey to other countries.

Homi Kharas of Brookings pointed out in a call today that aid projects have actually been shrinking in scope in order to improve measurement. This runs smack against the non-negotiable realities of urban everything, including water. I spoke with country and DFI leaders at World Water Week that are concerned about the lack of scale. Turning this thinking and action around is critical.

3. Seeking social innovation and making it profitable. The only way to attract enough capital to fully address this problem is to identify the segments that are willing to pay and then deliver low-cost solutions that fund extensions further down the pyramid. In the early stages, focusing resources on getting profitable (or close to) is more important than studying impact.

Social enterprise models including for-profit, hybrid, leveraged and cross sector innovation models will be critical to attracting new capital sources. Social innovators often breach silos that an industry can’t see beyond. They also aggregate investments from multiple donor, DFI and profit-based sources to get to scale faster. In some cases these models will be superior; in others they can augment, so that less study is needed and more action can happen sooner. Both Water for People’s FLOW model and the Blue Planet Network are examples of these types of innovations.

Looking out to 2030, there is a shortage of innovators from inside water, as well as outside water. Not enough innovation is being crowd sourced, and not enough adjacent and non-adjacent innovators are engaged in the water challenges. Over the next decade, Millennials will create more social enterprises than those created to date. We need to make sure a significant share of those social innovators are working on scaling water and agriculture sustainably.

Note: A version of this post first appeared on CSRwire.

New Styles of Courage


All our connections are deeply interrelated (from a close up of a large scale woodcut by Paul Edmonds)

Sometimes I am overwhelmed with admiration for those who have faced danger and summoned the courage to step forward and act. It is easy to see them as different from the rest of us. But some recent experiences have shifted my focus to what we have in common with that class of courageous heroes. No matter where we work, there are opportunities to connect the dots, to create our own style of courage.

Good examples help reveal what this might look like. The Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship is the capstone event for an ecosystem built from the Ebay success of Jeff Skoll. It is a good place to hang out with courage counterparts. In addition to this global community of social entrepreneurs, there were about 20 corporate representatives in attendance this year. But what a boon it would have been if there had been over a hundred.

The Oxford Jam, a fringe conference happening alongside Skoll, offers more opportunities to connect. I met a former hedge fund executive there who is investing her own assets to address the obesity epidemic. Her courage will rally others to innovate while she is also able to turn a profit.

Both Skoll and Oxford Jam offer a panoply of ways for companies to connect with social enterprises. Corporate leaders who make the decision to get to Skoll next year a priority will find a uniquely rich set of courage leaders with which to interact.

Another opportunity for exploring new styles of courage is Saving Lives at Birth: A Grand Challenge for Development. This Grand Challenge (issued by USAID, the Gates Foundation, Grand Challenges Canada, the Government of Norway and the World Bank) will fund efforts to combine technology, service delivery and/or demand innovations that can directly improve the lives of mothers and their newborns. Up to $15 million will be awarded in the next 6 months. This will include 25 awards of $250,000 that will test new innovations.

The collaborative conversations around Saving Lives at Birth has resulted in a broad range of proposals that reflect how multifaceted this sector is. One of the teams I am working with is led by the Royal College of Gynecologists and Obstetricians (RCOG) and also includes an Ashoka fellow and Movirtu, an ingenious company that enables low-end cell phones to be shared while still maintaining individual identity and custom information (funding will develop simple applications such as calculating gestation month and providing tailored advice).

The proposal from SMILE (Saving Mothers and Infant Lives with Education) leverages relationships with governments, health systems and community health workers (CHW) that RCOG has been building for over a decade in Africa. Combining these relationships with Movirtu’s technology will enable low-resource environments to become high-touch environments where lives are saved through tailored advice and learning. When scaled, this program expects 30% or greater improvements in outcomes.

Forward-thinking companies who have women as primary customers can participate in these outcomes by finding programs that feature innovations where their expertise could add value.

The Skoll World Forum and Saving Lives at Birth are just two examples where courageous investors—of both time and money—are visible and can play a part in the innovation networks of a corporation. The learning and innovation that flow from these connections can be transformative, and begins with a simple sense of how you and your organization can find new styles of courage in your own innovation spheres.

Road Work: Be Aware, or Fall Behind


The Shape of Space, by Alyson Shotz, at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Made from plastic Fresnel lenses and staples, Shotz’s wall of light reflects some aspect of everything around it, including Frank Lloyd Wright’s extraordinary interior space. In other words, “everything is illuminated.”
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I just returned from two weeks of road work (AKA conferences) that has simultaneously reinforced my faith in the future and also caused me to wonder just how we will all get to that faith-filled future. The next few posts will highlight some of the dichotomies that I found particularly vexing. I write this with the hope that the collective mind can rethink these challenges and improve the outcomes that are possible.

Attending the Ashoka Future Forum was very faith reinforcing even though it was generously spiked with “how to get there” dichotomies. The meeting was held in DC at the spectacularly dramatic Newseum (the Knight Foundation is a smart and significant Ashoka funder,) and I split time between the “Cities” and “Hybrid Value Chains” discussions. Participating in discussions with a room full of Ashoka Fellows and friends as they deconstruct current situations and future options was highly rewarding. But there is a fair question that must be asked: Who exactly was rewarded?

Once again I was struck with that pervasive and frustrated theme of lost opportunities. Of the 90+ conversations I participated in, only six included representatives of global companies. Manpower, a company I respect, was there as a sponsor and I can assure you that their competitors will be at a disadvantage because of what Manpower learned. I would suggest that the fact that Manpower was headed to Capitol Hill the next day to discuss true job creation innovations is partially driven by their open and social innovation-centric attitudes and actions.

Each of the other five companies in attendance is at least a year ahead of their competitors in both thinking and the contacts needed to bring the shifts we need within those organizations and their customers. The global consumer products player that was active in the hybrid value chains discussion heard and met 20+ Ashoka innovators working in the health and healthcare sectors. The cumulative innovation power of these social enterprises can provide access to learning and innovation levers that big global companies would and/or could never pull. Just as GAVI has demonstrated with its vaccine delivery program, each innovator is pursuing hybrid innovations that global corporations cannot duplicate on their own.

To my corporate readers, I pose this question: If your biggest competitor is in contact with hundreds of social innovators, being introduced regularly to a range of rich innovations, and moving to partner and implement the best of the best—while you meanwhile have never even heard of the leading sponsor of that ecosystem, Ashoka*—JUST HOW FAR BEHIND ARE YOU?

More to come.

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*Note: To confirm this lack of awareness, I met many global company representatives at the next two conferences I attended that had never heard of Ashoka, including most of the speakers at the Investing in the Millennium Development Goals meeting cosponsored by the UN and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Social Action Networks

Thesis: We are just beginning to appreciate the potential that exists in the burgeoning social networks expanding across the globe. Learning to innovate and act together to change the world is the most important growth business the Web is creating and has the potential to explode exponentially.

Each of us is making decisions on a daily basis about time spent on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter (for me that list is a declension, with LinkedIn being my social network of choice.) Those cumulative decisions demonstrate a remarkable worldwide desire to connect and collaborate, even if aspirations rise just to the level of quiet or boisterous conversations over a tall glass.

During more reflective periods we each might consider whether our respective news feeds actually have news that would better our family, friends, neighborhood and/or world. Those of you reading this post who are employed understand that you are one of the most fortunate people on the planet.

That realization can lead to a desire to enhance our news feeds with ideas and actions that share that good fortune with others. The distinction between social media and social action is sometimes a leaky margin, but the distinction can be life changing for millions of people.

Building powerful and impactful social action networks is a challenge and it is something we will write about here frequently. We have some inspiring examples to talk about. We also hope you will share your successes, inspiring others to allocate more time to the social action end of the social media spectrum.


Living in a world with thousands of ways to connect (reflections on a sculpture at MASS MoCA)