Three Takeaways from the Open Solutions Society Event with Greg Dees

Nov 10, 2012

What would the world look like if we all adopted a social solutions mindset?

Greg Dees invited a diverse group of students, professionals, and community members to explore this question during his "Open Solutions Society" talk Friday night at the Pacific Northwest College of Art (@PNCA). Portland State University Social Innovation Incubator (@PSUImpact) co-hosted the event. 

Here are three things I valued most about the experience.

First, I appreciated the historical context Greg Dees brought to his remarks. It's easy to feel like the effort to find innovative solutions to social problems by working across sectors and with citizens has barely achieved infancy. There are so many ideas and small scale initiatives, but it remains hard to see the forest through the trees. Dr. Dees, widely recognized as the father of the field of social entrepreneurship, speaks from a place of deep knowledge about the history and evolution of this messy space where mission meets market.

Drawing on the insights of economists like Douglas North, Nathan Rosenberg, and Ian Morris, Dr. Dees reminds us that:

  • The history of the world is one of adaptation. An innovation in one part of the world spreads, and creates the unintended consequences to which people adapt with new innovations, and so it goes.
  • Testing new ideas on the margins really matters. As these ideas scale, they become the drivers of more substantive transformations—and in unpredictable ways, as Clay Shirky points out in his TED talk about how the internet is changing (government and other) institutions. 
  • In order for ideas to scale, they have to have ways of being absorbed into markets or institutions. The path is fairly clear for private-sector innovators: they secure capital to grow, sell to larger firms, license thier technologies, go public, or some combination. New ideas are just as critical for social progress as economic progress, but the path for scaling social innovations is much less clear.

This is a case for field-building. Citing Richard Nelson's observation that industries with special skill needs—like, say the social innovation/enterprise/entrepreneurship/
impact/insert-your-favorite-label-here—require effective support structures to grow and become more efficient, Dr. Dees advocates a new kind of ecosystem—one that is more open and collaborative and offers new kinds of intermediaries, structures, and options for growing and scaling.  

Second, although the venue was not ideal for speaker/audience interaction, I appreciated Dr. Dees turning the floor over to audience for more than the customary 5 minutes of Q&A. One participant raised a question about how we get to a shared language among people with different experiences and points of view who so often talk past one another (business people coming to the social sector vs. social sectors professionals doing the reverse, for example).

(The questioner was helping to solve this problem simply by asking it in public.)

A specific "aha" moment for me, resulting from that question, was the possibility of linking Theory of Change approaches to social problem solving and design approaches. I often struggle with which frame to adopt in a given problem-solving environment. Last night's session, coupled with a video or two on framing, helped me see ways to blend these appraoches, even explain them in terms of each other.

Finally, although we had far too little time to explore the idea of an Open Solutions Society (and since that's the title of Dr. Dees coming book, he may not have wanted to steal his own thunder...), I really liked this idea. I asked where he had seen the promise of such a thing in the real world and the question seemed to stump him a little, though, again, he could have been keeping things under wraps until publication). 

So, I thought I'd add some breadcrumbs leading toward what I think he is describing from my small patch of the world—Portland, Oregon, the Northwest.

Here are three:

  • The coming #ScaleUp campaign. Lots of people are trying to figure out new ways to build healthy economies. This week a network of people from government, philanthropy, and the private sector in Oregon will test launch a campaign about scaling solutions to our fundamental economic challenges. The idea is simple: getting people from all corners connected so that good ideas for bottom up job creation have a better chance of getting to scale than they would otherwise. If you are interested, #scaleup wants to hear from you (regardless of where you live). #ecosystembuilding 
  • Change Exchange Northwest is an initiative Springboard innovation launched just this week, in partnership with Supportland, Mission Markets, Cutting Edge Capital, and communities all over the Northwest. The idea is to connect people who want to grow local and social enterprises within and across communities so that they can invest in each others' success and economic health—in an authentic, and accountable way. #ecosystembuilding
  • Social Venture Society will host Hacking Social Impact (November 12-13, 2012), an unconference intended to help build the skills of social entrepreneurs to navigate impact investing more effecitvely and to help impact investors unpack what they mean by impact. (if you hurry, there might still be time to register). #ecosystembuilding

I think I'll conclude with this Tim O'Reily speech. I'm still amazed by the number of tech people I turn to for lessons on the econony and government...there's a lesson in there somewhere. I'm not sure I can quite explain this particular connection, but one of the themes in Greg Dees talk (and a subject of interest among members of the audience) was the understanding value as distinct from profit. Tim O'Reilly's clothesline talk (borrowed from others before him) is one of the best commentaries on this theme I've heard. 

Until next time.