Social Change and Impact
Unite for Sight’s 2012 Global Health and Innovation Conference devoted a full session of speakers to Social Change and Impact. Ideas about changing the world for the better came to light via four talented and diverse speakers. Major themes of the session included the marriage of economic and social value, the effects of globalization on social change, and the importance of alliances and partnerships in improving the quality of life for all people.
Paul Light, a professor in the Robert Wagner School of Public Service at New York University, spoke about the “four flavors” of social change: social entrepreneurship, social stewardship, research, and social advocacy. Light explained that it is with innovation and visionary change that humanity will solve the world’s problems. The importance of research in defining problems and showing points of potential intervention was emphasized. Light pointed out that many times the research team is not popular with the social entrepreneurs, who often formulate ideas that are not grounded in scientific fact. This, however, only sets them up for failure.
Social advocacy, the fourth “flavor of social change” is a crucial part of social entrepreneurship, according to Light. Forming political and social alliances and involving multiple areas of influence is necessary for success. However, the involvement of politics inevitably produces opposition, especially in the area of social change. Light cautioned all social entrepreneurs to expect resistance against ideas that they put forth during their careers. He says, “ At the end of the day, you are going to offend somebody,” but there is “no shame to be on the losing side when you have the right position.”
Andrew Zolli, an executive director for PopTech, spoke about the effects of globalization on social change. With globalization has come the interconnection of multiple systems, all of which affect one another directly and indirectly. Zolli explained that the interconnectivity and interdependence of systems has made it hard for people to predict future events. This idea is pertinent to the current global climate change situation. Zolli illustrated (using a humorous analogy involving Elvis impersonators) how humans suffer from a cognitive bias that causes them to think that new, popular trends will continue into the future to the most extreme level possible. In looking to the future, many sectors (including international development and public health) are focusing on resiliency. Zolli spoke about the importance of resiliency and sustainability in both systems and social communities. Zolli, a futurist and social entrepreneur, explains his philosophies on adaptation in the face of unpredicted change in his new book: RESILIENCE: Why Things Bounce Back.
Tim Zak, an associate teaching professor and director of the Institute for Social Innovation at Carnegie Mellon University, spoke about “hacking innovation,” or as he called it, “hackovation,” which is the discovery of radically simple ideas or products that alter entire systems because of their social and economic value. He gave many examples of how cost effective solutions in public health have caught on in lower-income countries. Among them were the use of oil, bubble wrap, and lamps as incubators for premature infants in India, and the folding of saris by Indian women to use as water filtration devices to reduce the incidence of diarrheal diseases.
Though there are often simple and effective solutions available for the world’s problems, they are irrelevant if they cannot out-compete current lifestyles as viable and culturally acceptable alternatives. Zak spoke about the influences governing the diffusion of innovation including peer influence, complexity of use, and ease of testing the new product. He explained how diffusion of innovation is easier and faster today than in the past due to new circumstances such as cost reduction (stemming from the exponential growth of computing power, increased access to the internet, mobile devices, and virtual social networks in new areas), and more people concentrating in urban areas around the world. Regarding innovation and diffusion of new ideas, Zak predicted, “perhaps in the future, simplicity will become the ultimate sophistication.”
Laura Herman, managing director of FSG, a non-profit consulting firm focused on global social change, spoke about the importance of creating shared value in global health. A common theme in the Social Change and Impact session of speakers was the engagement of multiple sectors to solve global issues, which Herman touched on as well. While philanthropy will always be needed, Herman explained, there must also be more involvement from large private companies in the area of global health. The major industries that Herman focused on were pharmaceutical and medical device companies who have historically sought after markets in wealthier nations that can pay escalated prices for their goods.
In her talk, Herman called for a change in business management and theory. There are ways that the world’s huge companies can re-strategize and expand their markets to help grow themselves and the communities they are influencing. Herman explained how using local manufacturing (to decrease costs) and introducing marketing, educational, and political campaigns into new areas will increase the sophistication of the market and therefore the demand of new and innovative products. Private company involvement that influences supply chains, economic systems, and products available in emerging markets will allow a new level of influence that philanthropy lacks, Herman explained. Herman’s talk illustrated that with alliances across multiple sectors and new innovation grounded in social problem solving, social and economic value can (and should) coincide. She advised large companies to invest quickly in new markets to gain a competitive edge for the future.