Originally published on PSFK and Sustainablelifemedia
I’ve just been co-presenting (with Rachel Botsman of OZOlab) and attending Feast Social Innovation Conference in New Orleans. If you don’t already know the smart team of ‘Millennials’ behind it, you should know: they are Alldaybuffet and this was the second in their next generation conferences and social entrepreneur events. What marked their event on Friday, February 6th as special is a combination of things, which may in some ways all add up to a loose definition of the term “Social Innovation”. Never before have I been to a conference where the ‘place’ was equally relevant and rich as the ‘content’ of the day.
The words I’d like to use to summarize this special event are Connected, Restorative, Humanistic and Beacon; I’ve provided my commentary on each one below. Please hold these words lightly and let them not get in the way of the stories behind them.
Social innovators come together to drive forward prosperity, collaboratively. This was apparent from day one of Feast gathering. Never have I felt so immediately connected to the culture of a city in such a short time. The event kicked-off on Thursday evening with Robbie Vitrano, the founder of Trumpet, hosting an impromptu speaker dinner at his large studio in the 9th Ward area (an area significantly affected by Katrina). Speakers were mixed with locals who’d returned to the city from the floods, with Robbie’s family, with entrepreneurs and the Feast team. We were all there with a shared goal – driving business as a force for good and building “social capital” as Jay Parkinson of Hello Health describes it. We are the stakeholders of social capital, a yet undefined or measured value.
Sounds real simple to say it, but social innovators are Connectors. This tribe, myself included, measures value as impact of collective good: we share or give away ideas, provide support and advice for no expectation of any economic return and mix together whatever tribe we’ve come from. There is very little that is proprietary or not wholly exposed.
Social innovators are also Connected thinkers: they see the world as whole relationships and are often addressing systems issues, because they are able to see them. Hello Health, presented to the Feast audience, is a powerful response to a broken system – US healthcare. Doctor Parkinson built his whole business model on an insight that the current healthcare system is siloed and completely disconnected. In his words, “the only thing connecting the patient and doctor is the waiting room”; patients are treated like a commodity –they exist to make transactions possible and generate more wealth within the healthcare sector.
“If I do a horrible job managing your asthma, I get paid hundreds of thousands of dollars; if I do a great job I might get $100” says Jay. He believes that being a patient currently sucks; for many it is financially out of reach, it is highly complex and involves little communication of shared information between practitioners. There’s no one central platform for your health.
Jay has created a connected “Product-Service System” for local health care. He took the middleman out of the process – insurers and surgeries – and in place he put a networked service and invited his customers to become stakeholders. In his words, “no longer working in a silo from my patients but building social capital together”. His model is a bit like Zipcar for health because it takes the burden out of the paying for a commodity designed for obsolescence and in exchange puts a pay-as-you-go membership model that benefits all stakeholders. And it’s wholly connected.
Woody Tasch’s hypothesis, author of Slow Money, is that money has become too fast (along with everything else), and as a result we’ve become completely disconnected from it. He’s right; and what greater evidence of our lack of vested relationship with money than the financial crisis. Fast money is made at the expense of society and the planet. When A LOT of money is made some of it is given to philanthropy to clean up the mess the fast spending created. There is no social capital in that way of making money.
Woody’s observation is that we’ve been too focused on “markets” and not “places”, when once upon a time we used to trade in marketplaces. He challenges the logic of 20% return on VC investment in a venture as a success, when we are subtracting such significant amounts of capital from the local economy. He asks “What if 50% of assets were invested within 50 miles of the marketplace?”. What if smaller returns became the norm in exchange for preservation and restoration of other forms of capital such as ecosystems, soil and communities? What if the connection between capital wealth and its provenance were once again made?
Does “restorative” resound with you at all lately? Are we in a moment of restoration? Possibly the oratory and policy development exuding from the White House of late might suggest so. The thing about NOLA is that it’s been ‘restoring’ itself since 2005 post Katrina. This is what was so fascinating about the conference: at times it was hard to tell if we were learning from the speakers on the day or the stories, evidence and people in the city who have ‘restored’ and transformed it. NOLA has become a leader for educational innovation because it was broken and exposed as broken when the city crashed under the pressure of nature’s force. John Alford of NOLA 180, KIPP charter school, is leading educational restoration. 107 out of 128 schools in New Orleans were failing; it’s the young and mission-driven generation who are moving into these schools and treating pupils like stakeholders in their school.
Woody describes an emerging Restorative Economics – because “we are past the point of sustainability”. And he’s right, we are. This planet, our economies and many of our social systems are broken. Restorative Economics, or “Nurture Capital”, is a new wealth creation from restoration – like the KIPP schools.
Brian Bordainick, age 23, spoke about his ambitious project to raise $1.85M to build a community football field and track on the campus of Carver High School – a recovery school. With no experience building ventures, raising finance or working in sport, Brian entered the Restorative Economy to create a job for himself with a mission. He is a story that the citizens of America should follow and the “Fame Game” story of our time.
What if instead of feeling bad about the mess in this country we took pride in restoring it?
It goes without saying that social innovation is humanistic; it’s emerged from (the growing) tribes who are born with altruistic values or come to these values through a significant shift that happens in their lives. Katrina kicked New Orleans hard, but what’s kicked back is a generation of idealistic change agents and a city that could actually become the beacon of our times. (The rest of the country and world is feeling a different sort of kick right now). Dan Pink describes these emerging tribes and their work as the dawning of the Conceptual Age.
Alldaybuffet exemplify this tribe. Michael Karnjanaprakorn presented their new business model and social venture at the conference. The idea: an incubator that will invest in talent and passion to make something happen (human passion) versus an idea measured on how fast it will make money. Theirs is a fund that will invest in people to create good ideas that create social capital, instead of judging the numbers and short-term return of a business model. That is a new paradigm right? Have you heard of investors funding people and their values? Believe it, as it’s happening. They are gaining significant traction.
Team Alldaybuffet ARE the generation of the Conceptual Age. They’re young, smart, loaded with values and rejecting fast money jobs. This breed have built massive networks of support and interest, and with it are incubating social ventures. Thus far Alldaybuffet has been built on a platform of values, and a network of disciples and supporters.
This is a provocation rather than a discussion that actually came out of the Feast conference. The kickback from Katrina has resulted in a city that is fast becoming a ‘beacon’ of excellence in reforming charter education and developing green buildings. It is a city shaping the definition of Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship. And it is a magnet for “smart, idealistic change agents” in Vitrano’s words.
What if the lessons and innovation, and talent, were exported to other parts of the country and in exchange seed investment and talent invested social capital back into the city? I’ve been dreaming about brand NOLA in the 21st century, which then made me think about others parts of the country where ground-up innovation is driving greater prosperity. What if the country was divided into centers or “beacons” of excellence, each one building on the unique cultural, social, environmental and economic attributes of its place (the “marketplace”). But instead of siloe’d entities, the beacons actually exist to drive leadership and innovation in other parts of the county? Centers would cross-pollinate and exchange social capital with other centers.
It’s just a thought. Whatever way, I would urge business leaders, entrepreneurs, citizensof this country and the rest of the world to spend some time connecting with the innovators, like Robbie Vitrano, in New Orleans.