Thursday, April 29, 2010

Plastiki: First Landing

The Plastiki landed today on Christmas Island, completing the first major leg of its 11,000-mile sail from San Francisco to Sydney to explore the Pacific Garbage Patch and surrounding seas. The goal: to raise public awareness of the ocean's pollution from plastic and other man-made, non-degradable substances that are killing marine and bird life in rising numbers. The leader of the voyage, British banking heir David de Rothschild, is joined by five others, including Olav Heyerdahl, the grandson of Thor Heyerdahl, who achieved fame in 1947 when he sailed his balsa wood raft, The Kontiki, from Peru to French Polynesia to explain how the Polynesian islands came to be inhabited by South Americans.

Follow the journey on Twitter, @Plastiki, and check out the crew's blog updates.

Gyres from The Plastiki on Vimeo.

[Photograph: Christmas Island lagoon, courtesy The Plastiki]

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Tuesday, April 27, 2010


Social media are enabling a new kind of social enterprise: micro-multinational companies. They're small, Web-wired startups that are using social media to find, then recruit, the best new talent from around the globe and leverage it for immediate innovation, impact and sustainability. Unlike traditionally large, multinational companies, these new digital startups begin operating in different countries from the very early stages. The rapid growth of micro-multinationals is being fueled by the ability of founders to use the Internet, inexpensive voice-over-the-Internet technology and lower traveling costs to create unique business opportunities.

"Immigration today, thanks for the Web, means something very different than it used to mean," says Hal Varian, the chief economist at Google and a professor of information economics at the University of California-Berkeley. "There's no longer a brain drain but brain circulation. People now doing startups understand what opportunities are available to them to recruit talent from around the world, and to harness it from a distance using the Web -- rather than having to move people from one place to another."

Consider the tiny, six-person San Francisco micro-multinational, SlideShare -- the "YouTube" of slide presentations for nonprofits and for-profit businesses. Its entire staff, Varian says, consists of a couple of employees in the States, a few in Eastern Europe and one in Asia. Or take, another San Francisco startup that employs 25 people who work across five time zones, four nations, and two continents.

Yet another micro-multinational is Viewdle, a Kiev-based startup that uses facial-recognition technology to search for tagged individuals in video files. President and CEO Laurent Gil, a French citizen, told a Milken Global Forum panel today that he has four people in California, three in Kiev and a two in Uruguay. He says his tiny company created the start-up's video tagging technology in the Ukraine, found capital to fund the company in Los Angeles "and Uruguay was a great place to find engineers in the particular technology we use." Added Gil: "The fact that we are a micro-multinational was by design. In a small company like ours, it's the only way to survive. We survive and we grow because we have the ability to identify, and then employ from the best pockets of knowledge around the world" -- and at a fraction of the price of the traditional, larger multinational.

Expect to see more such social media-powered global firms, says Varian. He says younger workers fueling most new startup activity tend to have a greater ability to use social media and digital Web technologies to supervise, communicate and manage employees at a distance, though Gil acknowledges that even for him, "it's still very difficult. ...There are cultural differences and many time zones to contend with."

But difficult doesn't mean impossible -- far from it, says Varian. Sure, it's still tough to build teams out of small, far-flung groups. But the cost-savings outweigh the challenges, he says. "Micro-multinational leaders are entrepreneurs who are hungry to get their businesses to success and they have extensive social networks, thanks to the Web. Finding people to work for their companies -- top global talent -- has become a skill-set now in its own right. Social capital is increasingly a reflection of one's ability to work the Web for maximum scale." Additionally, Varian says, crowd-sourcing for the best global talent to fit specific needs "is a lot easier [and cheaper] than hiring an international recruiting firm."

Are you a micro-multinationalist? Let us hear from you.

--Marcia Stepanek


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Thursday, April 22, 2010

Earth Day 2010

Writer and filmmaker Jon Bowermaster is a six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council; his recently concluded Oceans 8 Project took him and his teams around the world by sea kayak to the Aleutian Islands, Vietnam, French Polynesia, Argentina, Gabon, Croatia, Tasmania and Antarctica. Seeing the world from the seat of a sea kayak has given Bowermaster a unique look at both the health of the planet's oceans and the lives of the people who depend on them.

For Earth Day, here's a transcript of his introduction to a panel discussion that he moderated on oceans at last week's Skoll World Forum in Oxford:

For years, for centuries, we’ve treated the ocean like one big receptical. We've tossed things into it, never really considering what the future of that would be. We've used the ocean as a seemingly infinite resource – take and take and take and now we’re all starting to pay the price. Now we have plastic gyres in several locations around the world, where plastic spins to such a degree that there is now six times as much plastic as plankton. At the mouths of 400 of the biggest rivers around the world, there are now growing dead zones, due to nitrogens and phosphorous that are being spread downriver from agricultural run-off and industrial pollution.

Climate change has a couple of different impacts. There are increased sea levels, which we're seeing slowly. You know, I’ve traveled around the planet in an odd way, often by foot and small sailboat and by sea kayak. And everywhere we've gone, around the world, people have told us that they are seeing more storms, more frequent storms and more violent storms. As the sea surface temperature warms, it means there are more storms. That is due largely to a changing climate. The other part of climate change which we're seeing is the evil twin of global warming, which is acidification. For all of the CO2 that goes into the atmosphere, a fair amount dumps into the sea. My favorite statistic is this: 1 million tons of acid go into the ocean every day, which is the equivalent of 24 million Volkswagen bugs. Every day. So we’ve not been very kind to the ocean.

We’ve taken, taken, taken – primarily fish. Ninety percent of fish that once were in the sea are now largely gone. The World Wildlife Fund predicts that by 2050, all the fish that we know will be gone. The greatest example of that single species right now that we are watching is blue fin tuna, which the WWF says will be gone by 2012. Mitsubishi Co is buying 40 percent of all the frozen blue fin tuna that arrives in Tokyo now. They're stashing it. Storing it. Because they know that blue fin will soon be gone. To date, the record price paid for a solitary blue fin at Tsukiji market in Tokyo was $177,000 but Mistubishi is gambling that once the blue fin is gone from the wild, they'll be able to sell a blue fin for $500,000 or maybe for $1 million. In our lifetimes, we may see a $1 million blue fin.

There are some bright spots, some hope spots (such as the Marine Stewardship Council and its work). We’re making more and more attempts to set pieces of the ocean aside, similar to what we’ve done with land. The statistic is that 12 percent of land is set aside, but the set-aside for oceans so far is less than 1 percent. That portion is increasing and as governments and NGOs get more powerful, hopefully that number will grow."


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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

On Social Enterprise

Alastair McIntosh, the Scottish environmentalist, community advocate and author of Soil and Soul: People Versus Corporate Power, said in a brief interview today that he thinks the social enterprise movement faces a variety of sustainability challenges. I caught up with McIntosh during a break in the Corporate Register Reporting Awards conference today in London. Here's an edited transcript of our short talk:

What's your take on the social enterprise movement?
I'm involved in a grassroots community organization in Glasgow where we are working in a very broken community with people with issues like addictions, homelessless, criminal records and so forth -- as well as with just ordinary members of the community. We look to social enterprise as a way forward but at the same time, it is actually very difficult because a social enterprise can work well when you have entrepreneurial, fairly well-sorted, business-oriented people behind it.

Quite often, though, what happens is that people who set up social enterprises move on, to set up their own businesses because they get to the point where they want to make money for themselves rather than put the fruits of their actions towards the common good. Another challenge is that when you are working with mostly broken people in society, they are often the intergenerational victims of poverty in its various forms and it's actually very difficult for them to get a foot on the ladder and to compete
in the mainstream business world. So I think that social enterprise is a part of the solution -- although in practice, getting [social enterprises] going in hard-pressed areas and keeping them there can be more difficult than is sometimes made out.

What is needed to help them along?
I think that we need to shift our understanding of what a product is from a simple economic transaction in which we look for the cheapest price for the best available to an understanding that this is about the right relationships. And so the satisfaction we seek in what it is we consume needs to be partly built into the relationships that have helped to make them. Then, people might be willing to accept something that may not be as competitively priced -- but is much better socially.

So how do we get there?
Government is not the answer. It really has to come from our own hearts; it has got to be a transformation within us, whereby we seek to have a sense of our own value based on how we're connected to other values in the community around us -- and how we contribute to those values.

Will technology and social media help build stronger communities?
Technology and networking will be part of it. I would say a fundamental word is dignity. Is dignity built into our economic transactions? Is respect - the ability to take another look? Respect is our ability to look deeper than just to the surface of what's in the wrappers of the products we consume. Dignity needs to be built into [what we make and do via] the right relationship with the Earth and the right relationship with one another.

Do you agree? Let us hear from you.

--Marcia Stepanek

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Monday, April 19, 2010

TEDxVolcano 2

Cara Mertes, the director of the Sundance Institute's documentary film program, called it the first "flash forum" she'd ever attended. Truth is, last night's TEDxVolcano gathering was the first such instant event that any of us had ever attended -- a little over two hours of short talks, film clips and music that had been pulled together (crowdsourced) spontaneously by blogger Nathaniel Whittemore and several other cause-wired souls for the hundreds of Skoll World Forum attendees stranded in London.

Some of the 12 speakers presenting at the TED-style event -- held at The Hub (a co-location work space in King's Cross in central London) -- spoke eloquently about the nature and importance of serendipity. Entrepreneur Gary Bolles called this "a moment in time that can be essential for all of us to reconsider how to upgrade the impact we have on the world or how we can spread the influence of what we do in our lifetimes. Perhaps it is an opportunity for all of us to do more."

But not all speakers urged a gentle embrace of the circumstances that had brought them (yours truly, included) together again. Larry Brilliant, the American physician and director of the Skoll Global Threats Fund, said there is a strong relationship between the volcanic eruption in Iceland and climate change -- "not the kind you think" but a relationship caused, instead, by the fact that "we don't know (much) about a lot of very important things" including science.

"...Right now, the single most important thing the world faces is climate change," he said. "It is the exacerbater of issues of war, water, population growth, pandemics and policy." Despite this, he said, "science is under attack from a new generation of Luddites, of climate deniers ... while the science about volcanos is uncertain, one this is certain: we need more -- not less - science. We need more and better scientists and we need to fund science better to create an entirely new cadre of scientists and new staff to help us address and tackle the problems of the 21st century." Thanks to the rapid evolution of information technology, he added, humans -- for the first time -- can see environmental problems earlier, though "we still don't always know if what we're finding is going to be a smaller or a bigger problem" down the road.

Brilliant suggested that "maybe there's a reason we all are here together tonight. We are going to witness, over the next few days, the interplay between science and policy as every King and President calls the Prime Minister (UK) complaining that their son or daughter is stuck in London; we're going to see an interplay of all of those things antecedent to the great global threats that we face. We are going to learn, if we haven't started to already, that we are all in this together. There is no rich, no poor in this. We're all grounded, equally."

Brilliant concluded his remarks with the admonition that "everything we will learn from science is going to help us. Science is the set of headlights by which we steer this ship. We need to fight for science because we are going to need every tool we can muster to deal with the problems we are going to face in the future."

Among other highlights of TEDxVolcano:

* Matthew Bishop of The Economist said Goldman Sachs' problems and the failings of Wall Street serve as reminders of the complexity of today's world. "The world has changed; a whole paradigm proved to be faulty and the practitioners of it couldn't see that the world had changed," he said. "The lesson here, the challenge to this moment, is to think: 'What changes are there that we are missing because we are just carrying on as normal?'" Bishop also asked what could be done to improve the quality of public debate over the tough and complex issues facing the world. "There is a moment now in our history that says if we rise up and think big enough, we can come up with a much more intelligent public discussion," he said. "We are really going to need it, and if we don't have it, we're all in big trouble."

* Travel news correspondent Peter Greenberg, on his way to Heathrow to do a stand-up report for CBS on the continued cancellations of flights, predicted the volcano would have greater impact on the economy than did 9/11. "People cannot fly but cargo cannot fly, either," he said. "Today, in Kenya, 400 tons of flowers are rotting and have to be thrown away. For every day we are not flying and air cargo is not flying, documents are still not being delivered, medicines are not being delivered, human organs for transplant are not being delivered ... the economic impact is going to be huge."

* Cara Mertes of Sundance spoke about the leveling effect of nature. "I thought I was clever enough to figure out a way home but none of us were clever enough because we're all here," she said. "Money doesn't matter, either. You can have a private jet but that just means you might die alone. So now I realize I'm in an alternate reality. To understand it is to see patterns in things, so I started thinking about what the pattern was here -- and here's what I think: the Earth is talking back. And I think the Earth is saying, 'You people are not listening.' What it is actually saying is that we have a really big problem on our hands with the current levels of human disruption. We are getting a sneak preview of what would happen with climate collapse. It's a peaceful sneak preview. Nobody died to tell us what we have to go through, right? But what will happen when serious cataclysmic events start happening across the planet?" Then, recalling a speech by environmentalist Paul Hawken earlier this week at the Skoll Forum, Mertes said: "We don't live in an historical moment but in a civilization moment. This is a generation that has to decide if we're even going to have a civilization."

* Jeff Skoll, founder and CEO of the Skoll Foundation, and Sally Osberg, the director of it, both read poems they wrote on the trip down from Oxford. Osberg's riffed on Robert Frost's Fire and Ice; Skoll's had a lighter feel to it, ending with the declaration: "Damn the volcano; let's have a ball."

* A performance by singer Susheela Raman

* A showing of the short video, Pixels, by Patrick Jean:

Watch this site for further coverage, as long as I'm still in London.

-- Marcia Stepanek

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Sunday, April 18, 2010


There has been a lot of talk this past year about the shifting, seismic landscape of social activism, thanks largely to social media. But what people (including me) attending this past week's Skoll World Forum in Oxford, England didn't count on was that this seismic activity might one day become literal.

I cannot pronounce Eyjafjallajokull yet, but the Iceland volcano has grounded most of us here in the UK. The Skoll conference ended Friday but the entire Skoll World forum is still here -- and many of us are trying to turn this stranding into an opportunity. Fellow Skollers, getting in touch with TED, pitched the idea of a TEDxVolcano conference in London tonight, and I'm headed there now, to The Hub in King's Cross, to see how the power of social networks and social media are leveraging circumstances for the better.

Watch this space for a report.

--Marcia Stepanek

(Flickr photo of volcanic eruption in Eyjafjallajokull, Iceland)

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Friday, April 16, 2010


Collaboration is one of the year's most aggressive new trends; two sessions at the Skoll World Forum explored the increasing use of social media by social change advocates to leverage their networks for greater impact.

It's one of the many trends I've been tracking for a book I'm writing, Swarms, about the rise of online networks and their increasing ability to aggressively (and sometimes abrasively) reshape establishment business, politics, media, philanthropy and other institutions.

Bruno Giussani, the European director of the TED conferences and a moderator of one of the panels on social media, said that "the reach of the Web is such that it is becoming far more inclusionary than exclusionary. When we have a phenomenon such as this occurring at this scale, it creates a world in which everywhere something serious and important is happening, we are camera-ready to capture a movement and network-ready to pass on that information to the rest of the world. Human rights abuses are no longer as easy to conceal."

Here are some other ways that social media are starting to influence activism:

*Social media create a common ground and "safer channels" for collaboration. Niche groups and networks are teaming up, increasingly, using the Web to share information and benefit mutual causes and goals. Mona Eltahawy, a speaker and blogger on Middle East issues, said Saudi women are starting to use YouTube, blogs, and Facebook to come together in their struggle for equal rights, including the right to vote and to drive. Eltahawy told the story of one activist in Saudi Arabia who asked a friend to make a YouTube video of her driving and verbally urging governmental authorities to lift the ban on women drivers. She then posted it online, then CNN picked up the story. It triggered a movement. Eltahawy says social networks are helping to consolidate multiple, individual efforts for change and help women activists to find each other. Eltahawy also says social media are giving Saudi activists a "safe space" in which to collaborate. "The government is less likely to mess with someone who's been on YouTube and CNN," she said.

*Social media are giving greater visibility and earlier credibility to new ideas. Kiva and Samasource (both present at this year's Skoll forum) said social media helped them to get funding and favorable attention early on; both said social media can help to rapidly spread new ideas and models for change in ways not possible before. New ideas used to have to pass muster by establishment "gatekeepers" before social media came along. Not entirely true anymore: Premal Shah, founder of Kiva, said a Frontline piece on his enterprise -- when shared virally on the Web and across key social networks -- became instrumental in giving the company the attention it needed at a dire point in its rollout to get funded and scale. Another example of a new activist community that is growing as a result of social media: Xindanwei, a new Chinese company that is helping would-be social entrepreneurs in China to find each other, collaborate, and scale.

* Social media are enabling social enterprises and established institutions to crowd-source some of their work. Responding to a question by a New York Times reporter about how the Web is changing journalism, panelist Joi Ito (the CEO of Creative Commons) advised him to "think of social media as your new newsroom." Organizations no longer have to do everything by themselves, he said. The social Web is changing the way people work. Collaboration between mainstream media and citizen journalists, for example, can reap better and more accurate reportage of current events, regardless of waning news budgets, Ito said.

To be sure, social media are still very new -- especially as a form of collaboration in the social entrepreneurial sector. But give it time, says Ito. "We're just beginning to see the impact of social networks on social innovation."

The Skoll conference ends tonight. Watch this space for further highlights and roundups.

--By Marcia Stepanek


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Greening Hope

Environmentalist Paul Hawken, the author of Blessed Unrest, urged fellow social entrepreneurs and green activists attending the Skoll World Forum in Oxford "not to despair" -- despite many challenges and barriers to building a more eco-friendly society.

"What you hear again and again in the environmental social justice movement is that we are too late, we're not doing enough, we failed at Copenhagen -- a litany of failure," Hawken said, then quipped: "I think this is the only movement that circles the wagons and shoots inwards, you know?"

Hawken, the CEO of OneSun Solar, a solar energy technology company, used his keynote address at the Skoll forum to caution its nearly 750 attending social entrepreneurs gainst losing perspective in their struggle for a greener planet. "The way you win," he said, "is not to be on a team where the coach is depressed by the difficulty of the endeavor. The way you win is to recognize that what you are doing is extraordinary." He added: "Copenhagen (climate talks) weren't organized to succeed. What did succeed was the information that got exchanged, the new people energized and organized around the issues and the catalyzing of new proposals, new solutions and new ideas."

Is the challenge to save the environment daunting? Yes, absolutely, Hawken said. But the goals are not impossible. He likened today's social movement leaders to the brave souls behind the abolitionist movement in 18th century Britain, who sought an end to slavery. It was a movement, Hawken said, that was started by "a couple of Quakers and Anglicans...What was so extraordinary about it was that it was the first time people organized themselveson behalf of people they didn't know and who they would never know." Such behavior was viwed as being odd then, he said, but is accepted widely today.

"The thing is that today, we (activists) have taken on the whole tamale," Hawken said. "It's not like we're trying to fix one thing. We're trying to fix the whole thing, the whole industrial system -- every node, every aspect, every part of it needs to be addressed and re-imagined. If we are winning, then we are doing something wrong because that would be playing too small. We are going to be defeated again and again. We are going to get laughed at. That's how we know we're on the right track. This is big."

Hawken ended his remarks by saying that "anyone can make despair possible but to make hope possible takes real genius and real heart." Hawken received a standing ovation.

The Skoll World Forum continues through Friday. Watch this space for continuing highlights.

--Marcia Stepanek

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Thursday, April 15, 2010

Call to Arms

Public health activist and social entrepreneur Paul Farmer is urging fellow social innovators attending the Skoll World Forum in Oxford this week to do more for Haiti as it moves into the rainy season, when "people in shelters on seaside slopes will be hit hard by acres of mud and waste."

"There are still hundreds of thousands of people packed into tent cities and public parks," Farmer said in opening remarks at the Forum, which convened here Wednesday night and runs through Friday. Farmer, whose public health work in Haiti was famously profiled in the 2003 book, Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder, expressed concern about rising tensions in the camps, saying Haitians are "at the breaking point...Government and the international humanitarian community must do something to prevent an outbreak of mental illness among people who have gone without now for so long."

Farmer called on the nearly 750 social entrepreneurs attending the conference from around the world to turn their attention more fully to Haiti, and to help him brainstorm new ways to bring collaboration around aid to the nation in crisis. He urged conferees to devise innovative new ways to provide victims of Haiti's January earthquake with better shelter, land reforestation aid, safer drinking water, disability rights for those maimed by quake-related injuries, a new system of education -- especially one for girls -- and the creation of local environmental industry that will create alternative energy sources and green jobs.

Showing conferees photos taken three days ago by people who work for Partners in Health, Farmer's organization in Haiti, Farmer said "the international community has failed" to help Haitians well. "None of us deserve high marks for distributing food, water and shelter to people who needed it yesterday," he said.

In other highlights from Wednesday night's evening opener:

* Colin Mayer, the Dean of Oxford University's Said Business School, the venue of the Skoll conference, said that the new field of social entrepreneurship has "finally come of age," fueled by "deep-rooted skepticism" by the public and leaders of traditional institutions over "business-as-usual, which has valued cost-cutting above caring." Meyer added: "There is a widely-held belief that our institutions have failed us. We no longer trust them to do what they are supposed to be doing, much less what we would like them to do." Against that backdrop, Meyer said, the social entrepreneurship movement "is gaining momentum around the world."

* Jeff Skoll, the CEO and founder of the Skoll Foundation, said that in the seven years he has been hosting the conference, social entrepreneurship has gone from "a curiosity to a force." It is time now, he said, for the field to start collaborating more widely with groups also working broadly for social change, including governments and aid agencies. Added Pamela Hartigan, director of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at Oxford: "While Skoll continues to celebrate social entrepreneurs, unless we can create a movement with our efforts, the impact we will have will be limited."

The Forum continues through Friday. Watch this space for more highlights.

-- Marcia Stepanek

(Illustration by

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Coat-tail Crowds

Parties have "after parties." Panel talks have the "back channel." (Think Twitter.) Now, on the fringe of this week's invitation-only Skoll World Forum on social entrepreneurship in Oxford, there is something new: "coat-tail" conferences -- actually, a couple of small, satellite events scheduled to occur simultaneously around the Skoll gathering but which aim to include more of the crowd in the discussion.

One of the coat-tail events is an "e-Philanthropy" conference, sponsored by the Oxford Internet Institute, being held just up the road from the Said Business School, the epicenter of the Skoll gathering. Much of the talk there has been about how philanthropy needs to become more effective in solving social problems and measuring impact. A second fringe event, called Oxford Jam, is being held across the street. Founder Ben Metz, a former Ashoka Fellow, says his event is intended "to provide another space for conversation" that mixes up people attending the Forum and those not invited. With a logo that reads, "Oxford Jam: Spread Evenly," Metz's event also seeks to raise the visibility of younger and more diverse social change activists with a spirited menu of scheduled conversations, breakfast meet-ups and dinner collaboration exercises.

For the past two years, Metz says, he has been attending the Skoll conferences, hosting a dinner off-conference during each. Last year, he said, attendance at his dinner jumped from 25 people at the first one to more than 100 at the second, with many attendees coming up to him later telling him that "the dinner was actually more produtive than the whole of Skoll put together," Metz says. So this year, Metz decided to expand his annual dinner into a three-day ''jam.''

So far, so good, he says. His opening 'jam' sessions on Wednesday included some Skoll attendees who decided to stop by between Skoll pre-sessions, and Metz expected many more to attend his events through Friday's close.

Metz, though, insists his fringe sessions aren't "just a Skoll thing" but rather a sign of how the ''big conference model'' is changing across the sector, thanks to the Web and social media. "It's really about the growing influence of Web-powered crowds," he says. "The wisdom in any one room is much greater than what you can find on a platform (at a more traditional conference)," he added. "Why don't we as a community start looking at (new conference) structures that will harness the widsom of the crowd more effectively for the benefit of all?"

Metz says there is a place for panel discussions -- much of the Skoll forum's format and still the traditional format of choice at many events. But he said that new Web-wired crowds also now want to have broader and more spontaneous interchanges on the fringes of traditional big conferences that can "uncover hidden talent and hidden gems where you didn't see them before."

Metz predicts the coat-tail conferencing trend will take off across the social action sectors. "I think there's an arc that's just starting which you see in crowd-funding and crowd-sourcing that has yet to hit conferences and physical interactions all around," Metz says. Oxford Jam is a beginning. "We'll see how this goes," he says. "It's an experiment. By the end of the week, we could crash and burn or be wildly successful."

Watch this space for updates.

-- Marcia Stepanek

(Illustration by

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Monday, April 12, 2010

SkollFest 2010

This week, Cause Global is heading to Oxford, England, where the Skoll World Forum of social entrepreneurs convenes for its seventh year. Called the "Davos for social entrepreneurs," the gathering at Oxford's Said Business School has long been about celebrating up-and-coming entrepreneurs who don't simply want to prosper but also want to create new business and nonprofit models to help solve the world's most pressing problems.

But this year signals a shift in the conversation. Last year, the forum was held in what Skoll Oxford Centre Chairman Stephan Chambers called "the most chilling economic environment we've ever experienced." Social entrepreneurs talked about how their new field was finally gaining some mainstream legitimacy amid the failure of so many established institutions and organizations in the wake of the global financial meltdown. "The status-quo business model versus civil society is not a choice," Roger Martin, the dean of the Rotman School of Management said in opening remarks last year, "but rather the root of a new model, a new set of solutions for our times."

This year, amid criticism from some global change-makers that the Skoll gathering has become elitist and insular, the conversation will be less about proving the legitimacy of this new field and more about pushing its ability to scale. "Catalyzing Collaboration" is the prevailing theme of this week's three-day line-up of panels and networking sessions. With a new "collaboration track" added this year that includes such panels as "Structuring Collaboration: Mergers, Parternships and New Business Models," "The Power of Many: Collaborative Impact and Measurement" and "The Colours of Money: Social Financiers Collaborating for Impact" -- the message is clear: social entrepreneurs need to start playing better and more often with others to wield greater impact, attract greater funding, and trigger lasting change. [This year's Skoll Awards also send that message: most of the winners are social entrepreneurs who have been leading change efforts for years, learning how to work in various ways with existing groups and established authorities and organizations rather than around them.]

Cause Global will be covering parts of the conference, looking especially closely at the various new approaches being taken by social entrepreneurs to grow their initiatives. It will be a rich conversation, given that this new field continues to face some daunting funding challenges -- barriers that stepped-up collaboration with others outside the field can significantly help to diminish.

Watch this space for highlights.

(Illustration by Rienk Post Graphic Design for

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Sunday, April 11, 2010


Here's a look at Saturday's Seattle flash mob in Pioneer Square's Occidental Mall, dancing to some of the hit music from Glee. Co-organizer Bobby Bonsey, a freelance choreographer and photographer, told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's blogger Monica Guzman yesterday : "I want people to be staring at their computer and be watching this and have that really cool smile just creep across their faces, and have those goose-bumps." Besides this one, Bonsey's flash mobs around Glee also occurred at Seattle's Pike Place Market and Kerry Park in Queen Anne.

Memo to social change advocates: an estimated 3,000 people took part across the three locations; unlike most flash mobs to date, these were mildly choreographed and rehearsed in public parks yesterday morning prior to their tri-space debut, which had been kept somewhat of a secret to the general public. Mobile tech played a huge role in organizing, of course -- and the addition now of new geo-location apps are just making it easier to scale the size of the crowd, Bonsey says.

Are Cause Mobs next? Let us hear from you on that.

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Thursday, April 8, 2010

Gaming the System

It's called Armchair Revolutionary and it's the latest high-buzz social media play aiming to crowd-source social change -- only its cofounder, Ariel Hauter, says it is very different from the rest. He puts it simply. "The user experience for online social activism simply sucks," he says. "There's nothing fun" about click-and-give sites. "Why is the experience of activism online so uninspired?" he asks in one of five blog posts offered up this week as part of the site's beta launch.

It is time, Hauter says, for online giving to, well, get "stickier" -- to get less "slacktivist" and more location-aware, experiential, and engaging. Think armies of online gamers playing social games that help finance a series of short-term, "do good" projects over time. Started by the founders of The Hollywood Hill, a social change organization comprised of film, television, music, and gaming professionals in the Los Angeles area, Armchair Revolutionary is aiming to offer the public a chance to help micro-finance for-profit social ventures through its integration with Live Gamer, a micro-payment site. Armchair Revolutionary's advisers include the producer of Pulp Fiction, the producer of An Inconvenient Truth, the screenwriter of The Bourne Ultimatum, the producer of Electronic Arts' MySims and the president of 42 Entertainment, one of the best-known makers of alternate-reality games.

"Arm Rev" as it is otherwise known, reflects the cross-media diversity of its founders, combining the features of Facebook games such as FarmVille with social networking apps like foursquare (the mobile location service), and then throwing in micro-donation opportunities throughout. [Hauter says the goal is to eventually create large-scale "cause mobs" of gamers who can start crowd-sourcing activism in new and bigger ways, tapping not just into one kind of social medium, but into many at a time.] The payoff? Volume. Critical mass. "We are finally getting to a point [in the evolution of Web technologies] where we are able to tap into ... millions of people in a very viral way," Hauter says. will be the platform for funding games-for-change, serious games, and alternative reality game projects developed by the Play4Change Lab, a collaboration between The Hollywood Hill and the University of Southern California's Games Institute. The site also will be the platform for funding documentary film projects developed by The Hollywood Hill.

Hauter says Arm Rev could take online fund-raising to the next level, pushing it beyond today's click-and-give one-offs to more engaged and sustainable crowd-funding communities. To test its ability to do this, Am Rev is launching with three projects, including a video game called "Make Waves" which incorporates sensors, simulation and augmented reality to promote cleaner and more sustainable waters. In this one, players "own" and maintain a 3-by-3-foot plot of the ocean, just as they would a virtual plot in FarmVille. A player's actions could help ease overfishing and pollution. Another project is called "End of Darkness." It is a game that brings users together to support, with micro-donations, three leading energy and micro-financing organizations -- E+Co, Grameen Foundation, and Selco India. Players work to finance the launch of the first publicly financed international clean energy company selling and servicing low-cost solar power kits to the world's poor. The project also invites leading thinkers to submit their projects for review.

Arm Rev advisor Robin Hunicke told ABC News earlier this week: "Blurring that boundary between science, activism and entertainment is what Armchair Revolutionary is all about."

What do you think? Can the combination of virtual worlds, online games and micro-fundraising via social networks help engage millions of new people around social causes in ways that weren't possible before? Is there something in this model that could be applied to the workplace and business teams working to achieve greater employee engagement and innovation?

Let us hear from you.

-- Marcia Stepanek

(Illustration by Chris Gorgio for

(This first posted on and appears here with permission)

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Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Remix School

Anya Kamenetz, a technology and innovation writer for Fast Company, has just published her second book, DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education. In it, Kamenetz explores how technology is upsetting the traditional hierarchies and categories of education, putting students in the driver’s seat of the learning process – versus at the affect of it. “Increasingly,” she writes, “this means students will decide what they want to learn; when, where, and with whom; and they will learn by doing.” She urges young people to step up to the changes; to start planning how to bypass the aspects of today’s educational system that keep them from learning what they need to succeed and thrive economically. Kamenetz also argues passionately for new online educational models that will make it possible for “millions of kids now forced out of the system” to change it into a more inclusive, relevant, and collaborative experience.

I caught up with Kamenetz yesterday at her Fast Company desk, between deadlines. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation:

You were thinking for a long time about writing a book about problems regarding access to higher education, the cost of education and the relevance of it, but what finally convinced you to make this book happen?

It’s true. I found a groundswell of students who felt their degree wasn’t giving them the preparation they needed. But what really pushed me over the edge was realizing that I had a bead on some solutions. Working at Fast Company and covering the technology space, I have seen that there is a lot of destructive change happening in a lot of different areas. But in the education space, it’s been increasingly clear that it’s a domain where people are asking this question a lot: Why hasn’t technology transformed education as it has so many other institutions and industries?

So why hasn’t it, in your view?

I had been delving into education’s 1,000-year history to try to answer that question, and I found that education has been the institution of institutions, particularly as our society started to get more organized in the Twentieth Century. During the post-WW2 era in America, every institution got larger and had a bigger impact in people’s lives -- and universities generated the experts that made these institutions possible. So universities sort of gained in power, as did the federal government and large corporations and the military, and science. And so educational institutions, especially, are very locked up and locked down. They are “the complex.” They hold the keys in terms of money and prestige and many different kinds of social proof in our society, and so to disrupt that model requires disrupting a lot of different apple carts.

What’s got to fall before some new approaches to education, radical innovation, can occur more broadly, and how painful do you think it’s going to be in the transition?

It’s scary, obviously, to talk about the collateral damage. But okay, one way of looking at it is that college now provides three main functions for most students and those are: content -- instructional content and knowledge; socialization, or human development and also initiating people into networks of peers and teachers and professionals, and finally, accreditation. That’s the social proof, that piece of paper that says you’re good to go. Content has been exploded in the last 10 years. Full suites and complements of academic materials have become free and open commodities on the Web. Socialization [over the Web] is transforming young people. It was college students who had created things like Facebook, and young people tell me that the way they relate to each other and find communities is continuing to change because of the Web. We are all changing the ways we communicate, so the socialization factors of the traditional educational experience can now be provided over the Web in very interesting ways through social media. So what’s really still missing from that picture is accreditation – but it may be surprisingly easy [to provide that on the Web, too.] What is required for that to happen is for people to get better at recognizing that people can now use the Web to acquire knowledge and socialization skills directly, bypassing the institutional middleman. Once this becomes more apparent, that people are doing this, you will start to see a lot of new [educational] value being released.

You wrote something recently about Startl, a first-of-its-kind social innovation hub for education that’s being backed by some of the best-known foundations, including Gates, Hewlett, and MacArthur. You quoted Startl founder Phoenix Wang as saying that today’s new generations of kids don’t want to be told what to learn but “expect they should be able to have control over how they learn, what they learn and where they do it, as co-collaborators.” That triggered a lot of responses from people. There’s a lot of discomfort here.

It’s a revolution. There is potential to do a lot of new things. I think technology tools can go both ways; just because you have technology doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to have democracy or, conversely, anarchy. But I’ll give you a good example of the discomfort from another domain. I was speaking to a [college] architecture student yesterday who talked to me about how she’s done a lot of work at her school to try to get a joint program going between the architecture school and the [environmental] sustainability, or forestry program. But it didn’t really work out because there was no support from this faculty. It was very much a situation where there was a generational divide and all of this young woman’s fellow architecture students understood that they needed to be thinking about sustainability in every project that they made. But none of their professors understood that, and they didn’t really know how to do it. They didn’t have the content or the domain knowledge to do it. And when they set up this joint program, it became really clear that the forestry teachers didn’t necessarily know how to teach architecture students, either – or that they didn’t have the wherewithal to collaborate across these two domains as flexibly as the students would have liked them to do. I think that you see this kind of thing happening a lot across a lot of different areas where young people are coming up, and they are not necessarily respecting the old disciplines and hierarchies. They’re sort of taking for granted the fact that teaching on these topics has to become more fluid and also that new solutions have to be created all the time to solve the challenges that are facing us as a society. It’s this type of transformation in education that existing institutions are not well set up to do. These new and evolving organizations on the Web are.

New media thinker Mark Pesce predicted at last spring’s Personal Democracy Forum that the rise of Web-wired, self-organized groups won’t necessarily topple existing institutions but will be abrasively reshaping them, “like sand against limestone.” Is this, in your view, a good description of what’s happening with regard to online communities and social networks and traditional colleges and universities?

I’m going to offer you a counter metaphor. Last year, I was in the MIT Media Lab, and I was interviewing a young scientist [it’s impossible to describe what she does without a lot of hyphens.] This person, Neri Oxman, showed me in the basement of MIT -- a pretty traditional institution -- that there is a 3-D printer that uses sand and it prints buildings. At this point, it prints small buildings. But at some point, it will be able to print entire buildings. And the assumption that we make about what is permanent and what kinds of investments in resources does it take to create an institution like MIT might be totally changed by something like that. And in fact, at MIT, they are changing. In the virtual world, they have created a courseware site where many of their courses are being offeredonline, for free, and something like 93 million people have accessed them, so who’s an MIT student and who isn’t? How much more influence is MIT having on the world because of this?

What would you tell a student, or someone who is just entering high school or college, how to compensate for what traditional institutions today aren’t able to deliver?

The last chapter of the book is sort of written as a guide for students in that position. As a student, you have to start by changing your own whole mental model, right? A lot of students, especially really good students, have gone through the whole [educational] system by having an external locus of control. In other words, they are well attuned to what institutions or parents think about them and what their work is all about. But they are not as good at learning on their own. They are not as good at following their own curiosity and they may not have an internalized idea of what they’re good at or what it is that they really want to do. These are skills they really need to work on. If I had an 18-year-old kid going off to college, I’d encourage him or her to spend the summer in some sort of self-discovery process, where they are taking lot of responsibility for their own existence and are getting lots of insights into who they are and what they want. That, really, has to be a starting point for any education. Maybe that sounds a little bit woolly or vague, but what I’m saying is that you have to forget what the institution wants from you and you have to start thinking about [education] in terms of what is my goal? And what are the resources I can assemble to make that goal happen? I think people today need to assume it won’t be one institution, and it won’t be one kind of experience, and it won’t just be online, and it won’t just be a person. It won’t be a workplace experience or travel and it won’t be just coursework. It won’t just be research, nor experimentation, either. What you’re going to want to do is combine as many of these as possible into a plan, always with your own goal in mind but not simply the goal of getting a diploma.

It’s kind of like what’s happening in health care – the move by many patients to take control of their own health amid a broken system.

I think a lot of people would agree that the health care system is broken but we have to be really careful here, because a major reason I wrote this book is that the education system is broken – not just for our children or for me as the child that I was, but for the millions and millions of kids forced out of the system who are not getting the education they need and can’t afford to get a decent degree that will translate into a decent job. That’s the major reason why education has to change, not just to make things better for kids at MIT.

Has technology, during this evolution we’re talking about, given us too much information/knowledge too fast? Is both the amount of information and the speed at which it can be shared overwhelming us -- not only with the reality of how much more there is to know but how inadequate our institutions have been in delivering it to more people?

I think that our [educational] institutions are too slow to keep pace with digital technologies but I also think we are evolving new types of institutions. You know, Jefferson talked about how the human store of knowledge must be growing and enlarging, advancing accumulating until the end of time – if not infinitely then indefinitely. And he lived in a time when he was broadly thought to be a person that was an actual Renaissance Man; he had top-level knowledge in every major domain of life in that time, whether it was botany or astronomy or cooking or politics. I don’t think anyone would argue that today, very few people have the ability to have the knowledge that Jefferson had, and so I think that in general, [the rapid evolution of the Web] is a good thing and change is speeding up. The fact that it’s speeding up is a good thing and the fact that there is more information than ever before is a really good thing. We just need to start being very creative about how we deal with the acceleration. I want to be a friend of change. I think there’s been a little bit of a debate already about the book coming out. I get asked, Are you a Pandora opening up Pandora’s Box, or are you a Cassandra, declaiming that things are doomed and that other things are coming up in their place? I kind of don’t want to take responsibility for either of these [viewpoints]. I think we are all imagining a different kind of future and I want to be on the side of the future and not on the side of the past.

-- Marcia Stepanek

[This post first appeared on PopTech and is reposted here with permission]

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