Breaking the bottleneck: The shift from social to systemic impact

Igniter - Systemic Incubation Model

I just read Tris Lumley‘s post Transforming our Anti-Social Sector along side three posts by Dom Potter: The Story of Social Investment; Rethinking how we support impact driven organizations to start-up; and Collaborative and collective impact for social change.

Together, they tell a story of how our best approaches to investing in impact-first ventures are falling short. Incremental improvements to what we are doing are not enough. At the same time, the answer is not in trying to replicate the financial-first startup support ecosystem. Nor is it likely to be ‘something in the middle’.

If our goal is a future that is hospitable to humanity, our best efforts will be those that actively help produce systems of society that make it possible. This is quite different than working to make sure that every investment has an impact.

Efforts around collective impact, social innovation labs, and social venture incubators and accelerators all hint at how we might do things differently but mostly appear hamstrung by the limitations and constraints we are trying to break free from.

A while back I had put some thoughts together around what systemic incubation might look like, but just realized I never shared it. It’s full of challenges of course, but reminds me what it might look like to shift our focus from generating returns to funders, to creating the conditions for entrepreneurs and innovators to create our future. Maybe sharing it now, can provoke some more questions and ideas for those working to make it happen.

How are you doing?

It’s a simple question and it’s the heart of Pine’s daily check-in. As we’ve been building Pine over the last six weeks, I’ve answered it about 120 times. This is my experience.

At the beginning I’d look at the question, not sure where to start. Often I’d quickly tap in a few words. Sometimes those words turned into paragraphs. Sometimes I’d check-in with a simple emoticon.

After a while, I started noticing things throughout the day. Little thoughts. Sudden reactions. Sometimes I’d reach for Pine and tap them in. Sometimes I’d just pause and watch them play out. And then, it hit me. There was a pattern in my responses, a common theme lurking below the surface that had been shaping my days. Now it’s not like I’ve even done much to change that pattern yet, but simply noticing it lessened its influence and my days are noticeably flowing a little more lightly. Not bad for a simple question.

Looking back, Pine also helped set the stage in a few other ways.

First it’s private. These are my experiences, my thoughts, expressed in a way that’s unfiltered and unedited. Not shared, they are raw and real.

Second, the simplicity. I can check in just about anywhere at any time, and I can do it in a few seconds whether I think I have anything to say or not.

Third, while it’s private, I’m not alone. I can’t see what my friends are saying, but I know that they are checking in. It’s like we’re walking the Camino trail together, silently nodding to each other as we discover a little more of ourselves with every step.

In summary, our lives are made up of the experiences we collect every day. In that journey, Pine is my silent partner, helping me pay attention to whatever happens. Founder bias aside, I think that’s something we can all benefit from.

Reflections on the potential of digital for impact

Digital technologies are increasingly integral to understanding and enabling social innovations. Whether it is as a beneficiary of a social service, a pioneering entrepreneur, or an intermediary, researcher or policy maker, we all increasingly depend on digital technology in our work. As these digital technologies spread to link every person and every thing, we are beginning to see how digital technology is central to our ability to gather data, engage others, and ultimately create the systems of our future. Indeed, it is impossible to think doing so without it.

Exploring this emerging reality, on Tuesday, April 9th, I hosted a mini-lab with the Nominet Trust in Oxford, UK. With participants from MaRS, Nesta, Big Lottery Fund, UNLTD, the Point People, SIX, and the Web Science Trust we explored the landscape, barriers and strategies for realizing the potential of digital for impact. Following is a high level overview of what we discovered, some post-lab reflections, and how we’ll be following-up.

Discoveries on realizing the full potential of digital for impact.

Drawing on past experiences, we explored the barriers we each encountered in realizing the full potential of what digital technology has to offer. Across those experiences we uncovered the following set of barriers:

  • Lack of enabling infrastructure
  • Lack of coordination
  • Friction between cultures
  • Dysfunctional interactions
  • Bridging how and how-to
  • Sustaining adoption in dynamic change
  • Surviving the data glut

Following up on those barriers, we took a look at a host of practical actions that could most help us realize the full potential of digital technology. From those actions emerged the following underlying themes:

  • Sharp tools for data discovery and usage
  • F@*k it, ship it, together
  • People powered intelligence
  • Weaving inclusivity
  • Incentivizing systems change
  • Experiential learning and sharing

Reflections in retrospect
Reflecting back on our conversations throughout the day there are a few additional themes that stood out for me.

The deep entanglement of digital and social
Originally introduced in 1999 by Tim Berners-Lee, the concept of social machines struck an immediate chord in our conversation. Increasingly, our solutions to social challenges draw on tighter and tighter integration humans and digital technology. This linking tends to blur the concepts of consumer and producer, beneficiary and provider, us and them, blending all participants into a ‘social-machine’ and creating both the tension and the opportunity for entirely new interactions and relationships to emerge. In this way, digital technology has become central to designing solutions, understanding systems, and envisioning systemic approaches addressing the needs of society.

The boundary-busting nature of digital technology
The connective nature of digital technology does not adhere to the sectoral and polititcal boundaries that the impact ecosystem tends to organize around. Data and tools created for use in addressing homelessness in Detroit will likely have utility outside of homelessness and outside of Detroit. And if we think in terms of a digitally connected social machine, every person brings and links to a whole new set of data, people, and systems.

This boundary-busting nature is in stark contrast to the way the current impact ecosystem flows resources and support. Bound by geo-political and or sectoral boundaries, the sector is not structured to invite, nuture and scale the full potential of digital technology, leading to redundant, under-resourced digital solutions that fail to meet expectations, let alone tap the full potential that participants realize could be possible.

The systemic opportunity
This deep entanglement of digital and social is an unprecedented opportunity to create entirely new ways of responding to the needs of society. In a handful of years we have created systems like Facebook, Google, and Wikipedia which have unexpectedly transformed how we connect, find, and share information. These are massive social machines that have become underlying infrastructure for how the world works. Our opportunity is to take that approach further, creating infrastructure that creates similarly transformative social machines that serve the basic and underserved needs of humanity.

The impact ecosystem of course has an important role to play in this. While entrepreneurs will likely contintue to drive new ideas, the ecosystem itself can create new relationships and pathways that enable boundary-busting solutions to emerge and take hold. Indeed, projects like BRIDGE, the GivingGraph, and MarketsForGood highlight early efforts to go further still by developing enabling infrastructure. While these tend to be informed with limited sectoral and/or geo-politicial scope, they do hint at what might be possible if the ecosystem is able to coordinate at scale.

Going forward
Going forward there appears an immediate need to link and deepen the conversations already happening around the globe. Over the coming weeks I’ll begin by linking the people having those conversations and see what it might look like to keep bridging those converstaions into the future. If you know of other initiaves looking to do the same, I’d love to hear from you.

Developers seeking adventure.

We’re looking for the next adventure at Igniter.

We are a small team of developers, facilitators and entrepreneurs. We build web applications that invite connection, nurture relationship, and build understanding. Our approach is friendly and designed to facilitate flow. We start simply, work quickly and care about what we’re crafting.

In our short time together, we’ve been fortunate to quietly craft some great solutions with some ambitious partners:

We love working with creative agencies and organizations that are shaping the future. If that sounds like you, we’d love to hear from you.

Drop us a note in the comments or ping me @igniter or

A crack in the dam – opening a new domain.

It’s been in the works for awhile and I now think we’re really starting to make a connection between web tech (2.0+), venture investing, social innovation. That connection is going to unleash some tremendous innovations and a surge in the activity directly working on the challenges facing our civilization. It feels like the emergence of a new domain that will take some very different approaches to change and influencing the course of civilization. It seems inspired by open source, technology innovation, financial risk taking, a venturing culture, and now a deepening and deeply felt realization that there are more important tasks to tend to.

I’ve been digging deeply into this for a while (Venturing on the Frontiers, Open Everything <site>, and The Great Remix) and these two posts (Umair Haque and Fred Wilson) have me feeling that something just shifted. What I love is that this isn’t just the same old folks getting into this AND that they are coming at it from an understanding of how systems emerge. Umair uses the language of DNA and Fred is living it through his investment approach in web tech companies.

Maybe what it is, is that all the different groups I’ve been working/having the conversations with (MaRS, SiG, CSI, Renewal Partners, Communicopia, Causeway, Tides Canada, and Good Capital) are using different language to talk about the same things.

I’m not sure. What do you think? Is this just a personal moment are others sensing that some thing has shifted too?

An open quote from Michael Edwards

Cross posted from my tumblog.

Open: “more radical innovations in ownership and production that change the basis on which markets currently work”

In the conclusion of “Just Another Emperor” by Michael Edwards, he poses the above quote which I think is a great description of what ‘open’ is actually playing at. Full context here: “Philanthrocapitalism offers one way of increasing the social value of the market, but there are other routes that could offer equal or better results in changing the way the economic surplus is produced, distributed and used: the traditional route that uses external pressure, taxation and regulation; the philanthrocapitalist route that changes internal incentives and gives a little more back through foundations and corporate social repsonsibility; and the more radical innovations in ownership and production that change the basis in which markets work. We don’t know which of these routes carries the greatest long term potential, though all of them rely on civil society as a vehicle for innovation, accountability, influence and modified consumption, and especially for getting us from reformist to transformational solutions.”

Benevolent dictators in the open movement

One of the interesting things coming out of OPEN everything (Toronto) was the idea that open projects are driven by what we were calling ‘benevolent dictators’. That phrase, while abrasive to some, seems to be resonating in a number of different conversations that I and others are having.

What it seems to do is counter the notion that open is a touchy-feely, everyone has to agree, happy place where everyone gets along. At the same time it reinforces the important and evolving role of leadership. What I’m starting to try and tease out is what are the qualities of open leadership that we’re really getting at? And which of those are core values – and which are situational reactions?

So far I’ve been seeing some aspects such as:

  • willingness and authority to make quick decisions based on intuition and sense of purpose and values (the DNA of the project)
  • a relentless focus on near-term goals vs. controlling tasks
  • ability to command/wield social capital vs. financial capital

So what do you think? What are you experiencing? What’s different?

Photo credit: invisible consequential

OpenEverything opens today!

Well, it was only a few months ago when Jason Mogus, Mark Surman and I chatted on this concept of the event series that is now underway. It started as an exploration as to a new Web Of Change event at Hollyhock this year and Mark has taken it to what is going to be an amazing series that is going to push our thinking and the thinking of the ‘open’ community even further.

For more information, check out Mark’s opening post here, and the openeverything wiki.

Today, Toronto kicks off Open Everything: a global series of six (or more?) events about the art, science and spirit of open. We’ve got 60 amazing people registered who come from computer programming, community development and everywhere in between. It’s gonna rock.

There are going to be a few bloggers and hopefully a few twitters going live today and putting their follow-up thoughts out shortly thereafter… and I’ll do my best to link to them as they come available.

Some related links – adding on to another conversation.

I commented on Fred Wilson’s Looking Forward post yesterday and he reblogged a part of my comment in his tumblog here. Tt’s been generating a few emails to me so for those that are interested, here are a few other links that follow that theme…

– A few of us are convening an event that is digging deeper into that mindset that riffs off open source
Ervin Laszlo’s Macroshift – a book about the evolution of civilization and the interplay of technology and mindsets (my highlights and links to the book – additional post here)
– A post of mine on this phase we are in that I’m calling “the Great Remix“. Additional posts here and here.
Stafford Beer’s work on information design of systems in an organizational context (my highlights and links to his book and work)

Social Tech Training – June 22-24, 2008

SocialTech Training

That’s right, Social Tech Training is happening this June in Toronto.  Here’s the link and a quick blurb.  Check-it out and sign-up if it catches your eye. Coming from Web of Change and MaRS it’s bound to be an excellent event!

No one working in social change these days can afford to ignore the opportunities offered by the web. Most organizations get stuck, though, on “How do we do it?” “Where do we start?” and “Who can help us?” Interest in high, but the talent pool of people equipped to understand, prioritize, and implement these tools and ideas remains limited.
We’ve gathered the best and the brightest leaders in this sector, and we’ve put together an agenda that will help take your organization to the next level. Each participant will emerge with new technical, creative, and leadership skills, a powerful network, and a customized, comprehensive “Web 2.0 Plan” for their organization.
This training is an excellent opportunity to connect to the big picture, develop practical skills required to execute, and network with both leaders and learners in this emerging space. We are excited to be part of this transformation of the social change sector. Please join us!