Planet Earth: Desperately Seeking Moral Leadership

It’s not every day that you get the chance to spar with a Nobel Peace Prize winner on how to make the world a better place, but that’s exactly what happened to me three years ago.

Tori Hogan invited me to sit on a panel she was organizing with Archbishop Desmond Tutu – who was 85 last week – aboard the MV Explorer, a ship sailing the world with hundreds of students aboard along with a dozen tech startups which I was invited to help mentor. I’d already had the chance to sit down with the Archbishop over breakfast a few times during my few weeks aboard, and soon discovered that his optimism and hope for the world was immense. I’m a little more cautious, and our slight differences of opinion came out early in the discussion.

Early on I made the point that we needed to be realistic, and that I thought few people really changed the world, despite this being a narrative common to the social entrepreneurship and non-profit sectors. History shows us that it’s far easier to make the world a worse place.

As evidence that anyone – even the seemingly smallest or insignificant of people – could ‘change the world’, the Archbishop brought up the example of Rosa Parks, the “First Lady of Civil Rights” who, in 1955, refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Alabama. There’s little doubt that her brave act was a significant event in the history of the movement, but I countered by asking if it had really changed the world? It more likely changed many people’s worlds, in the US, but even today significant problems with race relations remain.

With the state of the planet today it’s hard to be overly optimistic that any of us can significantly bend the course of history in a positive way – unless we’re realistic about what we hope to achieve. With much of the world becoming overly inward looking, and with nationalism on the rise, the environment necessary for kindness and empathy to turn into any meaningful positive action at any scale is becoming smaller by the day. Any impact any of us may have in helping stricken people in Syria, for example, pales into insignificance when compared to the large scale suffering the Putin and Assad regimes are inflicting on the innocent people there.

Of course, none of this means we shouldn’t try. I often get asked during talks, interviews or casual conversations whether I’m optimistic about the future or not. As I reflect on my work during this, my 50th year on the planet, I’m left wondering whether I’ve achieved all the things I set out to when I ventured on my ‘rebirth’ twenty-three years ago. Despite starting off with the sole objective of trying to be a good person, and to do what I could when I saw wrongdoing, I can’t help but wonder whether or not I’ve made much of a dent, and whether or not it even matters. People are still suffering on a monumental scale – either in silence or on the front pages of our national newspapers. While those I have helped that I know of now count as friends, that number is in single figures. Maybe if we all set our sites a little lower, and focused on doing good at a more modest level, far more could be achieved. Despite this, we live in a sector obsessed with scale. In reality, very little ends up scaling.

If that’s the case, maybe the Archbishop was right about thinking small after all.

tutu-acts-kindness

Much of what we discussed in our panel discussion echoes much of what I write and speak about today – take an interest, ask questions, be angry at wrongs you see, do your little bit of good where you are – and dream of changing the world. There’s a lot more on this on the Everyday Problems website and in my forthcoming TEDxMunich talk.

Charting The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who come alive”Howard Thurman (1899 – 1981)

When David Rowan, editor of Wired Magazine, invited me to write a short article for “Ideas Bank” last spring, it gave me a great opportunity to share something I’d been witnessing on an increasing scale since my days at Stanford University in 2007. The article had to be short – 600 words – and because of that I only invited a couple of friends to contribute their stories. But the seed of an idea was born, as was the concept of ‘reluctant innovation’. It was that seed which, one year on, would turn into a book set for launch in a couple of months time.

You can read the original Wired piece that inspired it here.

The new book features the likes of Medic Mobile, WE CARE Solar, Ushahidi, PlanetRead and DataDyne, and comes with a Foreword from Archbishop Desmond Tutu. “The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator” highlights the personal stories of ten social innovators from around the world – ten social innovators – ordinary people – who randomly stumbled across problems, injustices and wrongs and, armed with little more than determination and belief, decided not to turn their backs but to dedicate their lives to solving them.

Take Brij Kothari, for instance. Watching yet another Spanish movie in his friend’s apartment to avoid writing up his doctoral dissertation, Brij makes a throwaway comment about subtitles, which plants the seed of an idea and spawns a literacy initiative that has had, in Bill Clinton’s words, “a staggering impact on people’s lives”.

Worried about the political turmoil in Kenya, and concerned at the lack of information that is forthcoming from his adoptive country, Erik Hersman mobilises his own five-strong army to conceive, create and launch a web-based facility that revolutionises how breaking news is disseminated worldwide.

Parachuted into the middle of sub-Saharan Africa with a brief to collect public health data, and confronted with a laborious, environmentally wasteful paper-based system, paediatrician Joel Selanikio finds the perfect outlet for the skills he acquired as a Wall Street computer consultant.

Intending to ground himself in the realities of global health during his internship in rural Malawi, Josh Nesbit discovers that it is hard to sit on the sidelines and soon finds himself proposing a solution to overcome the difficulty of connecting patients, community health workers and hospitals.

After watching local doctors and midwives struggle to treat critically ill pregnant women in near-total darkness on a Nigerian maternity ward, where an untimely power cut can mean the difference between life and death, obstetrician Laura Stachel delivers a solar-based solution that enhances survival prospects.

Observing how well the autistic son of a close friend responds to the therapeutic effects of a Chinese massage technique that she has advocated using, Louisa Silva is convinced that the treatment has the potential to benefit thousands of others, but she needs to prove it.

Haunted by the memory of being separated from her older sister during a childhood spent in foster care, and horrified that other siblings are continuing to suffer the same fate, Lynn Price resolves to devise a way to bring such people back together.

An unexpected conversation over dinner leads Priti Radhakrishnan to build an innovative new organisation with a mission to fight for the rights of people denied access to life saving medicines.

Until a visit to the dermatologist turns her world upside down, Sharon Terry has never heard of pseudanthoma elasticum (PXE), but when she discovers that research into the disease afflicting her children is hidebound by scientific protocol, she sets about changing the system with characteristic zeal.

Encounters and conversations with leftover people occupying leftover spaces and using leftover materials, at home and abroad, led architecture professor Wes Janz to view them as urban pioneers, not victims, and teach him a valuable lesson: think small and listen to those at the sharp end.

The book is aimed at a general audience, although I’m hoping it will particularly appeal to younger people interested in social innovation and social entrepreneurship, and schools, colleges and universities teaching the subject. It fills what I believe is a much-needed gap in the market, one which is currently dominated by books which – often at no fault of their own – give the impression that meaningful change is only possible if you’re an MBA, or a geek, or have money or influence, or a carefully laid out five-year master plan, or all five. Let’s be honest – you don’t need qualifications to change the world.

By highlighting the stories of ten ordinary yet remarkable individuals, and the impact their work is collectively having on hundreds of millions of people around the world, “Rise of the Reluctant Innovator” will show us that anything is possible, planning isn’t everything, and that anyone anywhere can change their world for the better.

We have a holding page up at reluctantinnovation.com and you can follow us on Twitter @ReluctantsBook. The book, and new website, will launch on 20th November.

“If we can help anyone on their journey, then we should. Whether that be giving advice or a positive critique on an idea, helping raise awareness through blog posts, giving tips on fundraising, making introductions to other projects and people with the same interests, or offering to be a future soundboard as their ideas grow and develop. These are all things I didn’t have when I started out, and using them productively now that I do is one of the biggest contributions I believe I can – and should – make to the future growth of our discipline. Our legacy shouldn’t be measured in the projects or tools we create, but in the people we serve and inspire”

Enabling the Inspiration Generation, December 2009

Spirituality, being human, and how to change the world.

“Despite all of the ghastliness in the world, human beings are made for goodness. The ones that are held in high regard are not militarily powerful, nor even economically prosperous. They have a commitment to try and make the world a better place”Archbishop Desmond Tutu

I’ve been home for about three weeks since leaving the Unreasonable at Sea ship in India. I spent just over a month helping mentor eleven technology startups which, if that was all I’d done, would have been a fantastic experience. What really stood out for me, though, was the interaction with the hundreds of students aboard, and a stronger sense than ever of how important it is that we encourage, engage, support and mentor the next generation of planetary problem solvers (something I’ve written about before). As if that wasn’t enough, the trip gave me the chance to re-immerse myself in the kinds of environments that were responsible for starting me on my own journey back in 1993. Witnessing suffering and hardship, and countless young children denied a childhood in India, Myanmar and Vietnam, reminds me that there’s still much work to be done.

Spirituality plays a large part in what drives me, and I’ve tried to capture some of this before. It’s not just a subject I find incredibly interesting, but one which puts humanity and purpose back at the centre of development (something which has become increasingly cold and institutionalised). I’ve never thought of helping people as a career. For me it was a way of life, a deeper purpose. So it was a huge honour to be invited to sit on a panel with Archbishop Desmond Tutu to talk about “how we change the world” aboard the MV Explorer. A big thanks to Tori Hogan (who was also on the panel) for inviting me to take part.

I’ve had something of a crazy time over the past few years, finding myself in all sorts of places I felt I had no right to be (National Geographic and No. 10 Downing Street, for example). Having the chance to chat with the Archbishop on a number of occasions during my time aboard the ship is another highlight, and the one hour discussion in front of a packed auditorium was the icing on the cake.

This video is also available (in larger format) on the main kiwanja website, and via Semester at Sea (hosts of the Unreasonable at Sea programme). It can also be downloaded on Vimeo.

Here’s to making the world a better place. For all of us.