Thursday, September 24, 2009



Innovation is now a field of practice—not just the result of random brainstorming, says Judith Rodin, the President of the Rockefeller Foundation. Speaking at this year's Clinton Global Initiative, Rodin cited new ways the collaborative Web is making it possible for social advocacy groups to replicate and harvest new ideas in their fight against hunger and other civic ills.

Rodin referred to three emerging social-sector approaches to innovation—what she called "user-driven" innovation, Net-powered "collaborative competition" and crowdsourcing. User-driven innovation, she said, is all about identifying practices that work and then replicating them throughout a community. Rodin shared the story of how this was used recently to help tackle malnourishment in a Vietnamese village:

“We found three or four incredibly well-nourished kids in a completely impoverished village over the course of several days. In those few families, we found that the mothers didn’t wash out the few small shrimp and crabs that were in the rice paddies. Their children were the only kids in an otherwise carbohydrate-based diet that were getting some protein. Once we observed that user-driven innovation, we taught people throughout the village to follow this process, and that practice spread in Southeast Asia.”

Crowdsourcing also can help, Rodin said, citing a recent effort by InnoCentive, a company with a database of more than 175,000 of the brightest minds in science, engineering, technology and business, to develop a solar-based mosquito repellent. Rodin said the repellent ended up being less expensive than bed nets and more economical to produce. She said a company in Houston posted the challenge and a company in New Zealand solved the problem. It is being taken to scale in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Explained Rodin:

“The solution is a small, cone-shaped little instrument that had parafin wax and human sweat, that at the end of the day melted and absorbed heat. People who were using it wore sweatbands around their arms during the day and took them off at night and put them on a panel close to their beds. The combination of wristband and a water-based repellent (on that panel) gave the scent and moisture and heat level that felt like the human body.”

Third, Rodin cited Ashoka, an organization that invests in social entrepreneurs worldwide, as a leader in "collaboration innovation." She said Ashoka's 2008 global water challenge asked people to compete for the best solution; competitors openly posted their suggestions so that others could build on their ideas and offer collaboration. The winning solution, she said, did not come from one individual but through the collaboration of 54 different companies. It is now being taken to scale with a $1 million grant from Coca-Cola.

Rodin said the social sector must embrace a "willingness to take risks, to experiment and to fail." But if advocates don't also measure their impact, she said, "[they] won't find the resources or the political will to take [their ideas] to scale."

Among other CGI highlights Wednesday:

* An early morning panel on social innovation agreed that the world's antiquated education system is broken: schools, panelists agreed, are celebrating old values and teaching mostly Industrial-Age skills rather than training tomorrow's citizens how to be entrepreneurs, innovators and global problem-solvers. Bill Drayton, CEO and founder of Ashoka, told attendees: "The skills people need now are very different from what people are getting in our schools and education system. We have a diverging society where a small elite has mastered the competencies of empathy, teamwork, and entrepreneurialism, but what happens to the 98 percent of the population who has not?" In 10-15 years, he said, "everyone will need to be a change-maker and an innovator." Companies, he said, won't be able to compete unless young people have been "trained for the revolutions we've been looking for."

* Jack Ma, the 45-year-old CEO and founder of China's leading Internet firm, Alibaba, said investment in small and mid-sized firms—now his nation's business "grassroots"—would be the source of economic growth and innovation in China's future, not state-run enterprises. "I think 70 percent of jobs and innovation will come from these smaller firms," he said, urging new state and global policies that would put small business in China and around the world on the same regulatory footing. Traditional, larger firms, he said, tend not to "contribute as much to the dynamism of the marketplace."

* Former Vice President Al Gore urged CGI attendees to phone or visit their friends and contacts in the U.S. Senate to pass climate change legislation, "even if it's not 100 percent perfect." Gore added: "The United States must play a crucial role and in order to do so, the president has to be able to go [to the December United Nations conference on climate change in Copenhagen] with a credible bargaining position ... The crucial step in solving the climate crisis is actually now to get the United States Senate to pass legislation."

CGI continues through Friday. Watch this space for more highlights. To catch the live Webstream of some of the conference sessions, click HERE.

—By Marcia Stepanek

(Illustration: © Urbanhearts -

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