On the last rainy weekend in Oxford, I was indoors. So far indoors, in fact, that I was in a windowless room. But I had barely noticed. I was dashing about a lecture hall during the Emerge conference, snapping pictures madly.
I picked my way through a packed room of attendees, huddled in small groups, leaning over worksheets. There was a buzz of energy in the room, much of which came from the facilitator, Daniela Papi-Thornton.
Daniela is a Deputy Director of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, the organisation that planned and hosted this conference. In some ways, she was a natural leader for this workshop, which was focused on zeroing in on a problem and building the right process to find the right solution. In other ways, it’s surprising to see her here. For one thing, this was the only conference session in which full-time Skoll Centre staff facilitated an event themselves. For another, Daniela was still on maternity leave. She had taken a break from her leave just to lead this event.
In fact, her baby Skye was casually sleeping, strapped to his mother’s shoulders, while she paced rapidly back and forth across the room and spoke.
“How many of you want to be social entrepreneurs?” Daniela asked the crowd. A number of hands went up. Daniela looked around the room. “Now you need to ask yourself,” she said, “are you excited about the idea of starting a business, or are you committed to solving a specific social problem?”
She went on. “I think wanting to ‘be’ a social entrepreneur is like wanting to be a toothbrush. We don’t need more toothbrushes in the world; we need cleaner teeth. Which means we also need toothpaste, floss, and education about the benefits of teeth cleaning, not just more and more toothbrushes to hang on a wall and receive awards. The same goes for solving a social challenge: rather than jumping to the conclusion that a social enterprise is the best way to solve a problem, you first need to understand that problem really well and see what might be needed to contribute to a solution. No social problem is solved by one organization getting big – instead, such problems usually require a diverse group of efforts, from non-profits to government and corporations to social activists. You need to understand the landscape of solutions to understand where the gaps are. Maybe starting a new social enterprise is the best way to do that, but maybe not. We can’t prejudge the outcome.” Her words came like surges of power, making everyone lean forward on their desks.
Daniela has the rare talent in which everything she says seems both shocking and obvious at the same time. Her comments were simple, rational, self-evident, and yet, subversive. They were reminders that conventional wisdom is conventional partially because it gives us a convenient way to stroke our own egos. She called the desire to build new social enterprises, even when they weren’t necessary, “heropreneurship.”
Daniela split the attendees into small groups and had them start by considering the questions they would need to ask in order to best analysing a social problem. She had the groups use a tool she had designed called the Impact Gaps Canvas. Instead of jumping to likely solutions, she then asked them to think about who they could speak with who could teach them more about the nature of their problem. It was a humble, empathy-forward way of thinking of social impact.
As I took pictures of these groups in action, my mind jumped back to a recent Technology & Operations class. That course has a specific point of view: it looks at the world and sees processes. Manufacturing a car? That’s a process. Triaging patients in an emergency room? A process. Responding to customer complaints for your digital product? Another process.
With that lens, you can’t help but want to improve processes. But when you try, your solution will almost always come up short unless you take the time to really, truly understand what’s actually happening. Japanese car manufacturers described this with the term gemba, which meant to go and see what was happening. Visualisation isn’t good enough. Diagrams, flowcharts, and spreadsheets aren’t sufficient. Under this philosophy, there is no substitute for talking to people, understanding a problem, and observing it in real life.
At Emerge, this theme came up over and over. It came up when one of our keynote speakers, Paul Lindley, talked about his unstinting focus on the babies who ate the food that Ella’s Kitchen produced. It came up when another keynote speaker, Lily Lapenna, mentioned that the key inspiration to creating MyBnk arrived after she listened to her confused, indebted peers. It came up when Ola Suliman of Mayday Rescue—herself a political refugee from Syria—cautioned would-be refugee helpers that Syrian refugees often need to feel useful through work more than they need new mobile apps.
Humility—of the actively observant sort that Daniela taught—must be the watchword of any aspiring social shaper. It was certainly the main lesson I took from Emerge. Opportunities to improve the world are typically complex, interlinked design challenges. Like any design challenge, you need to begin by grasping all facets of a problem. That means watching and learning, without making assumptions.
This might not be the easiest way to fix a problem, but it has the virtue of being one of the best.Back to top of article