Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Skoll World Forum 2013: Where Have I Been the Last Decade?


Having spent the better part of last week in Oxford at the tenth running of the Skoll World Forum, my first thought was “Where have I been the last ten years – under a rock? It took me a decade to figure out that this is my tribe?”

A few quick reactions on the flight home:

Thinking: There is more genuine, on-the-fly thinking at this event than at any other I have attended recently, perhaps ever. I don’t often do well when there are over six people involved in a conversation. But even with over 900 attending the Forum, there was ample opportunity for quiet sidebar conversations, legitimate interactions with the panelists, time to then digest and respond, and a clear path to remain in contact online and off. It strikes me that Skoll is the one talkshop who takes seriously the perpetual recommendations about big conferences: more time for networking (there was plenty), thinking (nonstop), unscripted conversations (from well before the start to after the Forum ended), and opportunities for participants to get their messages heard (informal, delegate-led lunch sessions – well done, Anna Demant  - and topic-specific breakfast gatherings). One example I’d offer is The Evolving Role of Media in Social Progress, powerfully and unobtrusively chaired by Alberto Ibarguen of the Knight Foundation, who had his hands full with David Bornstein (Dowser Media), Peter Koechley (Upworthy), Pat Mitchell (Paley Center for Media) and Joaquin Alvarado (Center for Investigative Reporting). A close second was Not So Strange Bedfellows: Influencers and Enablers though I remain unconvinced of the forced dichotomy between the two.

Risk: Most folks out to save the world say they welcome heightened levels of risk, and my role has been at times to call their bluff. This is only my first year at Skoll, but I sense more real risk-taking on the part of the conference organizers, the delegates, and Skoll Foundation itself. It’s less about “OK to fail once, just don’t do it again,” and more akin to Thomas Edison’s “I have successfully discovered 1,000 ways to NOT make a light bulb.” Risk, failure, extreme openness – all are welcome at Skoll. I went to the Skoll World Forum looking for social innovations that will help minimize the risk that political leaders all over the world must take to prioritize what they already want to do (i.e. provide basic social goods like water and health to their people). In my work in strengthening political will for water and sanitation around the world, there are a lot more failures than successes, but the successes – when they happen – truly make a difference. Where politics meets global development challenges is a risky road even at Skoll, but I found the most receptive, interested, and helpful audience of any such convening.

Creativity: the secret to creativity is not necessarily to create anything new. Creativity may simply involve pushing and pulling together extant pieces of a puzzle in new configurations. To prepare for the Forum I read Raising the Hunley. The Hunley was the world’s first attack submarine, sunk off the coast of South Carolina in 1863. Although we don’t know yet exactly how the Hunley sunk, all the pieces of the puzzle are likely there. Nautical archaeologists need simply to put those pieces together in different, creative combinations to figure out the answer. Inspired by another Forum participant (thanks, Gannon of Tostan), I was struck by the parallels to the global safe drinking water and sanitation challenge. We do not for the most part need to invent anything new to accomplish 100% access to safe drinking water and sanitation for everyone on the planet. We have done it already in many parts of the world (so just try to tell me it’s not solvable). To get to the remaining 800m or so, we need to find new, creative ways to configure and amplify what we already have. I work at an advocacy organization because, to misquote Al Gore, "You can't just change lightbulbs. You have to change the laws." The real accelerators of longterm, systemic change are upstream. The design of the Skoll World Forum intrigued me well before I arrived, and the event indeed proved to be less about direct service provision (water, ARVs, schoolbooks, laptops), and more about creative ways to create the type of systemic, empowering change for which we all strive.

Disruption: On a related note, I’m not entirely convinced that “Disruption” is a suitable theme for the entire conference. One doesn’t need to throw everything out the window to be creative. A revolution is not necessarily required. The best thing to do may be the simplest: increase the RPM of the evolutionary process which will lead to success at scale in a compressed timeframe. In my work, creativity leads to more effective upstream activity at the political level; this leads to important, sustainable changes in service delivery, e.g. passing legislation in India to allow (or mandate!) rainwater harvesting in Indian cities to adapt to climate change and urbanization. At times this is highly disruptive but it does not have to be.

To be sure, the event did have its downs: A couple of the plenary speeches were subpar (do we actually need plenaries anymore?). One panel on foreign assistance – initially quite encouraging - deteriorated into a whining session about how wasteful (stronger words were used) all foreign assistance is, oblivious to the pointed questions of audience members looking for solutions (come on, guys - more light, less tunnel). An awardee or two caused a bit of cringing throughout the New Theatre on George Street (but one can never avoid that sort of thing, and it was actually pretty fun). And some of the sessions were a bit too techno-utopian for my taste. Technology is not always the answer, and social entrepreneurs will not succeed in the absence of a healthy enabling environment, the responsibility for which lies squarely in the hands of the elected leadership of any given country.

It’s really too early for suggestions for next year, but a couple:

  • Skoll World Forum 2014: Inspired by Ken Brecher (I literally held my breath through his talk), next year’s theme could well be “Let’s Just See How Strong We Are.” Let’s make next year’s Skoll World Forum slightly less about tech- and entrepreneur-driven scalability and slightly more about scale. Ask me more about that.
  • Get stronger with Cisco at continuing the conversations throughout the year. The value of these conversations can be amplified with a bit of support from Skoll throughout the calendar year.
  • More Rwandan drummers, and invite me for 2014!

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