Competitions, Social Innovation, and Human Well-being

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review, “The U.S. Lagging, not Leading, Social Entrepreneurship” caught my eye; the author writes, “Spend less time and money training entrepreneurs and funding contests domestically; invest more in social entrepreneurs globally.”

A few observations:

  • Lead with partnership. The author suggests that what’s needed are innovations “for the two-thirds world, coming from the two-thirds.” And while this is true, its probably not sufficient. What we’re finding is that partnerships – in which communities contribute their expertise, and MIT students contribute theirs – generate startling results. Scrape a little deeper into the history of companies like M-Pesa, Ushahidi, and even Grameen Phone and the role of robust international partnerships become clear.
  • Markets are not equal. Markets are very different in the U.S. and base of the pyramid. The consumer needs and the costs of entry are very different, as are the ongoing costs of doing business. We need better descriptions of the end-user benefits before we rule out domestic investment. The fact that the U.S. has created a Social Innovation Fund should signal some hope that we’re moving out of the era of big NGOs and into trimmer enterprise-led solutions to social dilemmas.
  • The U.S. is a terrific incubator. Domestic investments are, counterintuitively, investments in international social entrepreneurship. At MIT, 25% of team members in competitions like IDEAS and the Global Challenge are international. At the same time, partnerships should be considered an essential investment criteria for anyone considering funding for a social enterprise outside the U.S. in which American actors play a part.
  • Finally, there isn’t much in the article to suggest how the U.S. can move from being a laggard – if the proposition is true – to being a leader. Its not clear how investing in social entrepreneurs globally will advance the U.S. leadership position.

Its probably true that the United States, and much of the donor base that operates out of the U.S., has over-invested in well-intentioned – and ultimately fruitless – self-styled innovators who don’t have the problem-solving knack needed to tackle persistent problems abroad. But that’s not sufficient in my book to suggest we lag. Nor that entrepreneurs abroad are any more likely to achieve success – precisely because these are tough challenges that often require a rare confluence of skills, experiences and resources necessary to solve them.

At the end of the day, we need to create more opportunities for entrepreneurial thinkers to encounter each other – whether that’s through competition spaces, incubators, networking events like Design Indaba, Maker Faire AfricaSocial Capital Markets, Pop!Tech, and the Skoll World Forum to name just a few. The important concept is that these are how learning networks are fed, and from these networks innovation is sparked. We also need to seek out, recognize, and support nascent talent where it lies, and foster spaces where young problem-solvers like William Kamkwamba can encounter and build the personal networks that often build toward successful social enterprises.

Come get a sneak peak at some of the terrific ideas MIT students are coming up with as we prepare to launch the MIT Global Challenge, a competition platform to connect and reward innovators inside and outside the MIT community that are tackling barriers to well-being.

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