Putting a ‘dent a in the universe’ is the goal of many mission-driven ventures. Those that succeed will create the new normals for a more vibrant, sustainable, and inclusive future. At Possibilian, we call them transformative ventures.
Seeking and achieving transformative impact is what we are most interested in. It’s also different than achieving incremental improvements, regardless of how valuable they might be.
To bring more colour to the differences, and what we’re most excited about in the years ahead, we’re pleased to share our perspective on:
Where does transformative potential comes from?
What are the current hotspots for transformative potential?
What do transformative ventures look like?
How can ventures manage for transformative outcomes?
At Possibilian we are interested in how ventures can create a better future, a future that is more vibrant, prosperous, and sustainable. In this post, we’re highlighting a few areas where we see extraordinary opportunity for progress in the next few years as we emerge from the pandemic. While these overlap with existing transition pathways, and will evolve over time, they focus in on certain characteristics of the types of innovations we think have particular momentum and potential for transformative impact.
We call them Transformation Hotspots
Human Centred Social Infrastructure: Helping everyone and each other thrive.
Smart Food: Engaging, local, and sustainable food and agriculture.
Resilient Supply: Resilient supply chains and sustainable production ecosystems.
Collective Culture: Vibrant, participatory, cultural resurgence.
Boundless Collaboration: Working better, together, beyond boundaries.
Integrated Decarbonization: Building back, better, through decarbonization.
Embedded Interdependence: Crypto and cooperative inspired product, services, and systems.
Human Centred Social Infrastructure
Social infrastructure from education and healthcare to employment and social security, have all gone through dramatic shocks as a result of the pandemic. Old approaches and assumptions have been broken and bypassed, creating space for new solutions to emerge, particularly solutions that enable and put people first, remove barriers, and focus on the outcomes of their participants.
Catalysts: Regulatory resets; experiences of vulnerability; government funding.
Enabling Innovation Platforms: Cloud, Mobile Connected Devices, Frictionless Value Transfer
Existing Example:MeetFrank keyed in on the power imbalance between employees and employers, and uses technology to enable a new behavior that they believe can help democratize the job market.
Dramatic shifts in daily habits and lifestyles during the pandemic have meant more people are eating at home, often with limited supplies, while governments have had to respond to food crises among the most vulnerable. Collectively we are reconnecting with the importance of food. This connection will likely spur accelerated innovation around simple, smart, and sustainable food production, distribution, preparation, and delivery, with consumers expecting better quality and experiences, and governments investing in greater food security within their borders and for the most vulnerable.
Catalysts: Forced experience of prolonged home-cooking and staying at home; government investment in food security.
Enabling Innovation Platforms: AI, Robotics, DNA Sequencing
Existing Example:Jow is an example that shifts the behavior of grocery shopping to simply swiping and selecting simple, delicious and nutritious meals, making home-cooking easier, healthier, and fun.
Disruptions in supply-chains during the pandemic has raised the value in resiliency over efficiency. Buyers everywhere will be more conscious of ensuring essentials are always available. Part of that will include a rise in ‘good-enough’ solutions as well as enhanced use of intelligence and automation to ensure sufficient buffers, redundancy, and responsiveness.
Catalysts: Shift in procurement policy and practices across government, corporate, consumer.
Enabling Innovation Platforms: 3D Printing, Autonomous Mobility, Robotics, Frictionless Value Transfer
Existing Example:ProducePay grew out of the desire to build trust in every transaction, leveraging market intelligence and financing to create a stronger and more resilient produce supply chain.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a profound collective experience, shared by all of humanity. That experience will undoubtedly be reflected in our art and culture. Our need to process that experience, reflect on life, and reconnect with each other will intersect with new media and technologies to spark a wave of innovation in media, entertainment, gaming and culture, including how we create and value it.
Catalysts: The pandemic experience; shift in how people value connection and culture.
Enabling Innovation Platforms: Mobile Connected Devices, Blockchain, Cloud
Existing Example:Otis believe that culture is a new asset, democratizing ownership of fresh, emerging cultural assets like collectible skateboard designs, sneakers, comic books, and art.
Mass physical-distancing forced organizations to adopt remote collaboration and coordination technologies. In addition to breaking down past limitations, as these technologies and practices persist, new opportunities for cost-savings, efficiency, and coordination will emerge alongside innovations that break down barriers in participation based on who and where people are.
Catalysts: Mass experience of remote work; blurring of work and social interaction experiences.
Enabling Innovation Platforms: Cloud, AI, Mobile Connected Devices.
Existing Example:Hopin aims to create better connections and a better planet by using online technology to re-envision how people can come together for offline, online, and hybrid events.
As organizations and individuals have heightened appreciation for our individual and systemic vulnerabilities there will increased acceptance and interest in our systems being more resilient. This creates and opening for the technologies and practices of the crypto and cooperative movements to become embedded in products, organizations, and systems across society.
Catalysts: Systemic failures from unaddressed externalities; recognition of interconnectedness; value of resiliency;
Enabling Innovation Platforms: Blockchain, Frictionless Value Transfer, IoT, AI
Existing Example: Leap connects distributed energy resources and owners of all types with grid operators through an energy marketplace that facilitates dynamic demand response.
The pandemic provides a working example of the types systemic shocks and risks of inaction that have been feared from the climate crisis. As governments around the world introduce stimulus to stabilize and restart local economies, decarbonization solutions that also create jobs, improve wellbeing, increase resiliency and facilitate future infrastructure will have heightened interest.
Catalysts: Government stimulus; pandemic experience makes climate crisis implications more real.
Enabling Innovation Platforms: Energy Storage, Autonomous Mobility, IOT, AI
Existing Example:Wren helps consumers live carbon neutral through a simple monthly subscription, which gets invested in measurable, community-based decarbonization activities.
Systemic failures as a result of the pandemic are impacting daily life and order. The speed and severity of these breakdowns is leading to rapid testing of what were previously ‘radical’ ideas. This creates an opening for meaningfully different futures to emerge.
How disruptive will this be?
The disruptions have been jarring. Almost no one could imagine the world as it is now only a month ago, nor can do they have a solid idea of what the future will look like next month let alone next year. So if we can’t yet see the future, let’s start with thinking about “how bad will this get”?
While we can’t be sure, it does look like our answer will depend on the following variables.
Duration of the pandemic
Depth of economic impact
Stability of the financial system
Quality of international cooperation
Level of civil unrest
How are we responding?
Next, we can look at how we are responding. In crisis, these are almost like existential missions, or a systemic immune response. These responses paint a picture of what our priorities will be during the crisis and as we emerge on the other side. How consuming and enduring these priorities will be depends on the previous question.
Solve the current pandemic
Prevent future pandemics
Create stronger safety nets and failsafes
Why could the future be different?
Once we have turned the corner on the current crisis, what is it that creates the opportunity for a meaningfully different future? From where we stand, it looks like there are three factors at play that could affect the rules, behaviours and beliefs that governed how our world worked before. While each are shifting already as we respond to the crisis, it isn’t clear if, how, or how far they will shift, or how permanent those shifts will be once we are through it.
Governance, leadership and responsibility reset
Individual reset of values, behaviours, and beliefs
How will the future be different?
From the changes that we are seeing so far, it looks like the shifts happening as a result of the crisis will follow along these paths.
From physical to digital
From efficient to resilient
From individual to collective
From market driven, to goal driven
While it seems a pretty safe bet that an accelerated physical to digital transition will stay with us, it is quite possible that the other three transitions don’t stick, or even, retrench. For example, if there is largely uncontrolled and unmitigated economic disruption, or significantly unequal disruption among nations, inequality could spike while also leaving everyone worse off, driving a further retrenchment towards nationalism and individualism.
The Bottom Line
Personally, I’m now leaning more optimistic in terms of our capacity to deal with this crisis and recover more quickly than our more dire predictions suggest. I expect that there will be significant and permanent shifts that come from this, but also expect a strong retrenchment that limits the advances we might think we can make based on where we are.
More than anything though, I’m seeing a broader range of possible futures than I did a week ago. While I’m no more certain which version will play out, I’m finding it a bit easier to process what’s happening and move forward. I hope this offers some of that to others as well.
While it’s impossible to predict if any venture will actually ‘change the world’, we can be sure that if it does, it will have done so through some combination of the following:
introducing meaningful new capabilities;
sparking a change in behaviour;
enabling new systems of people, things, and information.
Let’s take a look at Twitter as a simple example.
Allow people to post a simple text message that is publicly available (new capability)
People start publicly sharing seemingly trivial updates such as ‘what they ate for breakfast’ (new behaviour)
Allow anyone to subscribe to someone’s posts without their permission ( completes the loop to enable a new system)
… effort, investment, and good fortune …
The world’s information source for what’s happening right now.
Step 4 is what makes it happen, but steps 1, 2, and 3 set the stage for what’s possible. While few had any reasonable belief that step 5 would be the outcome when it started, it would have been easy to see from the earliest days that a new capability (1) was leading to a new behaviour (2) and giving rise to a new system (3). The behaviour of ‘sharing what you eat for breakfast’ was easy to dismiss, but enough of those that experienced it, sensed it could be something more.
Now, let’s see what how those components show up in early-stage ventures (click on the links for deeper dives):
In each of these cases it’s impossible to predict the outcome. We can however see that they each have some key components around which a world changing company could be built. And if your goal is to see a better future, those are great places to dig in to understand what might be possible.
I’ve started an experiment to share how I think about ‘transformative’ or ‘future defining’ ventures.
Transformative potential is the core of what we look for at Possibilian and it can be hard to describe. In our thesis we talk about it as the potential to:
…change the way we think and act, shift power and relationships, and create the foundations of a vibrant, sustainable and inclusive future.
But what that looks like and how a venture might get there is not often obvious. Using basic diagrams and the constraint of short-form video I’m going to see if I can make it a little easier to dive in and explore.
I’d like to do one a week for now, and refine the approach to see what works best.
The first one is below. Watching at 2x is can get it down to ~2min which is where I’d love to be. 🚀
(While there is always more I could do, suggestions that might make them simpler and faster to produce are particularly 👍.)
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.
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.
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
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
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 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.
It’s easy to get excited about data and information. They’re hot topics, and rightly so. As we wade into the digital revolution, we’re flooded with things demanding our attention. And the things we want others to see keep getting lost in the tsunami of everything else. But let’s step back for a second. Think of this like swimming across a river. The goal is to get across the river, not to go for a swim. What I need is a way to get across. And in the case of this infrastructure, what we need goes beyond data standards, quality, and accessibility to include supports that help us achieve impact more efficiently, and with greater efficacy.
2. Harness networks and relationships
If the purpose is to help impact happen, then the infrastructure must also include the people, relationships, and networks involved. Whether it is the person leading change, the team working with them, the ecosystem supporting their effort, our ability to achieve impact is very much dependent on the networks and relationships we bring to bear. Indeed, understanding networks and relationships is coming to be a central challenge in achieving meaningful change. When it comes to information, the same relationships and informal networks play an increasing role in how we share and what we discover. This infrastructure needs to tap into our relationships and networks, wherever they are.
3. Find signal in the noise
Despite our best efforts to standardize and improve the quality of data, the vast majority will always be unstructured, inaccurate, and mostly irrelevant until we find ways to use it. Who would have thought Twitter would become useful in earthquake detection or Google (maybe) in monitoring flu trends. Tapping into this sea of noise could be a core feature of what this infrastructure provides, enabling new, creative approaches to understand how impact happens. With the majority of humanity already able to send messages about the things that are impacting them, even old ideas like using sentiment analysis to understand change could bring entirely new insights. This infrastructure needs to rewire the web for impact.
4. A platform for a new generation of impact enabling tools
Of course, as we discover more of what we truly need from this infrastructure, we will find opportunities to build new tools. And no, this does not mean a shiny new place for groups to have conversations that they are already having on Facebook and LinkedIn. And it certainly doesn’t mean a fridge with a screen, baby monitor, and evernote. What it does mean are specific impact related tools, resources, and supports like Fix My Street and CrowdMap; Innoweave and Open Workshop; and NationBuilder and OpenIDEO. For this infrastructure to thrive, it needs to support a creative explosion of tools like this.
The digital infrastructure for the impact ecosystem.
Ultimately, what we are talking about here is more than an information infrastructure. It is a digital infrastructure for the impact ecosystem. If we find our way to making it happen, it would mean the web could work with impact like it can work with location. Just like I can now expect my smartphone to help me find the best route through the most congested traffic: the web could show me search results based on what I’m working on; my social networks could connect with me with the people who could help me have the most impact; and the impact of my actions could be automagically tracked and available to whoever I choose to share it with. Imagine even, not having to respond to yet another sector survey, census, or mapping initiative with the same information you have already provided a dozen times before.
Of course, this may take a decade or more to become reality. It is itself a deeply systemic innovation and requires more than a handful of initiatives. It needs to follow the best practices emerging around collective impact and could do well to harness new methods for catalyzing social innovation. Markets for Good is a great start. It needs to be well supported and to either rise to the level of the impact infrastructure or join with others in making it happen.
Our contributions of interface, infrastructure, and collaboration
Responding to ongoing need of mapping who’s doing what in communities all over the world, we began by prototyping the socialsca.pe interface. It is a simple tool for individuals, researchers, and network managers to map, discover, and connect participants in the system. Launching in April with the world’s largest map of social entrepreneurs, it will also be a simple utility for communities to gain insight into their membership and collective networks. And for individuals we aim to create the best weekly email of recommended activity and connections based on their unique relationship to the ecosystem.
As part of that process we uncovered the need for two new technologies that are central to enabling this digital infrastructure. The first, called the Impact Graph, integrates formal and informal relationship networks with impact data to provide new methods of discovery, analysis, and exploration of the impact ecosystem. The second, scheduled for development this summer, is a Behaviour Engine designed to broadly encourage the behaviours of data gathering and network weaving across the entire ecosystem. Together, these technologies form the core socialsca.pe infrastructure that we aim to make available for broader use later this year.
While we are still prototyping, we have already received requests to develop custom interfaces and applications to support networks of entrepreneurs, link relationship graphs to existing stores of impact data, and generally harness the collective social networks of existing formal communities. We are also encountering requests to use our underlying infrastructure to power new and existing applications, saving developers from having to create their own user profile systems and simultaneously leveraging the network awareness that this infrastructure brings.
Finally, in order to help keep our activities aligned with the emerging ecosystem, we have convened a small working group. Members of this group already span 4 countries and will hopefully grow to include representation from the main stakeholder groups in the ecosystem. Alongside this, we are hosting a series of ‘mini-labs’ to help improve our collective understanding and uncover actionable needs and high-potential interventions. The first of those will happen April 9th in London, UK with the second scheduled for October 1st in Calgary, Canada.
A better future, sooner.
What has been sparked by Markets for Good is an incredible opportunity, and while building an infrastructure on this scale is ambitious, it’s not any more ambitious than other major infrastructure projects we’ve taken on over history. At the same time, if we consider the challenges we are facing as a civilization, we could find reason to be more motivated than ever before. If we choose to make this happen, the results could go down as the greatest collective effort at increasing our capacity to create a better future, sooner. And to me, that’s worth diving in.
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: