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Our Insights 15 Apr 2011

Skoll Forum: Reading the Tea Leaves

By Lindsay Clinton

Have you heard the tale of the Oxford forest? In this mythical story, the dons who started Oxford University 500 years ago had the foresight to plant a forest nearby, so that when, centuries later, the wood in its hallowed halls starting rotting, a ready supply awaited. Not only did the dons have the pluck to think that the institution would survive over the centuries, they planned for a sustainable future.

Oxford’s focus on the future has continued, not only in its focus on educating future world leaders, but also as the host of the annual Skoll Forum on Social Entrepreneurship. This conference, one of the largest conferences in this growing sector, brings together social entrepreneurs to talk about new ideas and innovations to tackle today’s challenges so that we can all experience a better tomorrow.

The historic setting for such a forward-looking conference seems anachronistic and yet apropos; that some of the most innovative ideas about our future world are showcased at this institution speaks leaps and bounds about the progressive nature of the university. (The Forum is also made possible by the generous philanthropy and thought leadership of eBay founding president and serial entrepreneur Jeff Skoll).

This year’s Forum focused on Large-Scale Change. The theme is timely because while many social entrepreneurs have cracked the change equation, they often haven’t figured out the multiplier effect. During the last week I’ve read through the Forum agenda, watched videos and tracked #Skollwf Twitter feeds and noticed a few emerging themes. What follows is an unscientific assessment of signals to watch in the social change space in the near future:

  1. Systems Thinking: Whereas social entrepreneurs are often positioned as lone rangers doing the work that government can’t do and private sector won’t do, there is a new emphasis on looking at the tough challenges from a systems perspective. Entrepreneurs have realized that effectively tackling a social concern requires not just filling the gaps left by others – for example, giving loans to farmers – but also working to understand and affect change on  the drivers within a system – like addressing the inputs a farmer might need, understanding seasonal cash-flow challenges, and creating market linkages.   
  2. Intergenerational Equity: Add to the growing lexicon of demography issues (i.e., demographic dividend, youth bulge, gray collar workers) the term intergenerational equity. While the phrase has been around for decades (and SustainAbility has used it in the recent past), it seems to be trending among entrepreneurs who might want to provide solutions to the challenging bookends of a growing aging populations in some parts of the world and disillusioned youth populations elsewhere.  Both will need to be addressed as we move into the future. (See the session on Engaging the Next Generation and check out the tweets from the Intergenerational Innovation at the Oxford Jam.)  
  3. Choice Architecture: The 2008 best-selling book Nudge introduced many people to the art and science of choice architecture. It was intended to influence policy-makers to make more effective policy. Now, social entrepreneurs are getting in on the act, thinking about how to motivate people around issues like climate change and poverty. Check out this brief post about the session on Nueroscience of Social Change.   
  4. Collaborative Mergers: In years past, those who can’t afford or don’t want to attend Skoll Forum have organized an alternative conference called OxfordJam, a fringe event where the presenters pay, and the guests listen and learn for free. While some might have construed the Jam as competition for the Forum, the Skoll folks realized what a great service it provided for people who couldn’t afford to attend the Forum. This year, Skoll featured the OxfordJam in their event calendar, encouraging attendees to give it a look. It’s a great example of what a healthy merger looks like, with neither partner superseding the other, but both finding ways to derive mutually beneficial outcomes while holding on to their identities.  Might we see more of these collaborative mergers in the future?  
  5. Public Companies that Drive Change: While social entrepreneurs face the ongoing challenge of scaling up, more and more publicly-traded companies have realized that they can and should incorporate social impact into their already large supply and distribution chains. Cisco, Novartis and Danone took the stage at the Forum to speak about their efforts to re-engineer their bottom lines. Aramex CEO Fadi Ghandour delivered a keynote on the power of using networks and collaborative action. Look for more companies jumping on this bandwagon.  

To catch more of the Skoll Forum sessions on video, click here.

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