10 Things I Learned At Skoll World Forum 2013

10 Things I Learned At Skoll World Forum 2013

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The 10th annual Skoll World Forum, which brought together several hundred of the world’s leading social entrepreneurs to Oxford, wrapped up last week. The Forum serves as a useful barometer for how the climate of social enterprise is changing.

When launched in 2004, it was all about celebrating the unknown social entrepreneurs, helping to give them global recognition, credibility and a platform to engage with policy leaders and large corporations. In that task, it has succeeded brilliantly—over the past decade, social enterprise has become mainstream. Jeff Skoll picks out the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Muhammad Yunus in 2006 as a watershed moment; equally significant was Al Gore being named a Nobel laureate the following year.

So ten years in, after the microcredit boom and a global awareness of climate change, what’s the current thinking? What new, big idea now dominates the agenda and concerns of the Forum participants? And where do they think this field is going?

In the spirit of the tenth anniversary, here is my own top ten list of insights gleaned from walking the halls and joining the panels at this years’ event:

1) It’s about Changing the System, Stupid. Broadcaster Ray Suarezexpressed it eloquently when he said, “Nobody ever comes out and says they are in favor of starving children, or inadequate sanitation, or war and conflict. And yet they persist. So, how is it that if no one is for these things, and everyone is against them, these problems continue?”

Everyone at the Forum was in some way wrestling with that question. Whether it was this year’s Skoll awardee Carne Ross, whose organization Independent Diplomat is seeking to turn the closed, rigged game of international diplomacy on its head, or Salman Khan’s Khan Academy, a model for free, online tuition that is re-shaping how education is delivered, system-change is the new game in town.

2) Change is accelerating. In “Dare to Imagine,” the film from the Forum’s opening plenary, a theoretical physicist, a publisher, a neuroscientist, a technologist, a social financier, and a young science prodigy speculate on the next 50 years. All agree that the old, incremental way of tackling problems won’t work anymore, and that we need to radically imagine new ways of coming together to deal with the accelerating world of change. But the film is also profoundly optimistic—never before have we had so many ideas and tools to help us cope with this change.

3) To solve our problems, we need more problem solvers. Who better to address this issue than Ashoka founder Bill Drayton, who was among the first to explain the very concept of social entrepreneurship? Drayton outlined to a packed room his view on what Ashoka considers the next big idea in moving the field—what he calls “framework change.” In Drayton’s view, to fix our broken systems, we need to accelerate the number of people who see themselves as changemakers, and ultimately create a world in which everyoneis a changemaker. That message really seemed to resonate at this year’s Forum.

4) It starts with young people. A significant number of discussions highlighted the vital role of young people. Bill Drayton estimates that about 700 of the 3,000 social entrepreneurs in the Ashoka network work directly with youth in some way. Helping young people develop the life skills to flourish in this new world is critical to solving the problems we’re facing. In particular, Drayton stressed the need for children to master cognitive empathy, and speakers such as Taddy Blecher of CIDA and Sandy Speicher of IDEOshared how youth-focused models are working in India, South Africa, Peru, and around the world.

5) Scale through collaboration. In this year’s Forum, I sensed a strong undercurrent of feeling that scaling impact need not be the same thing as scaling an organization. Partnerships, franchising, scaling through influence, and encouraging imitation—these were all strong topics that emerged in conversations. Whether this was a response to a reduced funding environment, or a strategic choice based on more effective ways of delivering impact, there was real optimism about emerging socially focused business models. I saw dozens of deals and partnerships being brokered around me. “I believe in collaborating to the point of pathology,” said Willy Foote, CEO ofRoot Capital. And he should know—from a tiny startup only a few years ago, Root Capital has now mobilized over $500 million to support farmers in developing countries. If pathological collaboration is Foote’s mantra, I say amen.

6) Technology is driving creative disruption. It’s always fun to talk about tech, but this year tech was at the heart of conversations on disrupting systems: apps, for example, were used to monitor human rights during the Arab Spring, mobile phone technology is transforming financial services in Africa, and Web-based, tuition-free universities like the University of the People, founded by Ashoka Fellow Shai Reshef, are disrupting education. Premal Shah spoke about how Kiva is seeing loans being disbursed to the U.S. from emerging markets, defying our assumptions about the traditional north/south relationship. The democratizing power of tech, and its ability to impact political situations, bring us to…

7) Power is moving from the few to the many. There was a universal agreement that empowering people as far down the chain as possible is key to the system change that we are witnessing. Whether this is through technology giving people unprecedented access to real-time information, to apps that can transform anyone into a blogger/journalist/commentator, the days of a few commanding many (even if those few are brilliant, enlightened social entrepreneurs) is coming to an end. There was a rising view that lean, flexible teams are going to eat the lunch of the old dinosaurs—and that’s as true for NGOs and social enterprises as it is for corporations.

8) The silos are breaking down. Are the NGO, the corporation and the government agency reaching the end of their shelf life in their current form? When Sarah Severn from Nike spoke about integrating sustainability into the DNA of business, and Maura O’Neill, chief innovation officer of USAID, spoke about re-engineering the aid model in language any corporate CEO would recognize, it was hard to tell who was the NGO and who was the corporate leader. And that’s a great thing.

9) Here comes the social intrapreneur. The Forum has always brought together leading social entrepreneurs in conversation with corporate and political partners. But this year I glimpsed the emergence of a new beast prowling the halls—the self-identified social intrapreneur, who works to enact change from within an organization or political system. From pioneering executives such as Gib Bulloch at Accenture Development Partners to his counterparts at Unilever , McKinsey & Co., and many other firms, these individuals are creatively finding ways to turn their own organizations into change agents. And it’s clear that they are warmly welcomed by the social entrepreneurs. Will there one day be a Skoll World Forum on Social Intrapreneurship? For my part, I hope that soon people won’t even notice the difference—intrapreneur, entrepreneur … let’s follow Ashoka’s lead and call them all “changemakers.”

10) When you pass the torch on, light many fires. Many leaders of the social enterprise movement are approaching, or already into, their 70s—some are older. A poignant moment occurred during a panel discussion when Bill Strickland, Paul Farmer and former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland—titans of this movement—were asked about succession planning and how they saw legacy. Interesting, all answered that they saw their legacy in teaching, mentoring and inspiring others. “One torch can light many fires” was a common theme. And the fire doesn’t have to be spread just within a single organization—none of them saw succession planning as simply being able to find someone to step into their immediate role.

Editor's note: This is a part of a series of articles that are updates from Ashoka at the Skoll World Forum.