Sunday, February 22, 2015

Social Enterprise, Time to take ourselves seriously

Originally posted on NextBillion

Social enterprise is mature. By that I mean social enterprises have demonstrated they can sustainably provide unique value to their customers. Market infrastructure has enabled this value to be provided sustainably; i.e. it can be provided continuously over time. However, while mature, social enterprise is not yet successful because success entails solving the world’s most intractable problems. In this post I will try to pull together several threads and suggest a way to increase the likelihood of success for social enterprise and, in turn, success for humanity. (Because that’s why we are doing this work, right?)

Monday, December 1, 2014

Social Enterprise as a Disruptive Innovation

A social enterprise is a business that uses the market to solve a social problem. Far too much is made of this elusive adjective - "social". There are two ways to think about why we created social enterprise. The first is to understand social enterprise as a re-purposing of business to achieve a non-business goal. The second, and more compelling, is to understand social enterprise as a disruptive innovation that addresses the failure of financial enterprise – the failure to provide value beyond profit. I am a Capitalist because I believe the market is the only engine available that can power the change we need; however, the market has also been at the center of creating the problems we need to solve. This is why I see social enterprise as a disruptive innovation focused on providing value beyond profit and illuminating the abuses of its predecessor - financial enterprise.

The Tactics of Collaboration

This was originally posted at the Stanford Social Innovation Review.  I am re-posting it here just to keep track of my writing.


Understanding the tactics of collaboration can help make the unique value of working well together real. It’s important because the whole—all of us, humanity—can be greater than the sum of our parts. We often discuss collaboration in terms of its relationship to competition; competition, at its best, can make each part more valuable and more effective, but collaboration adds value to the whole by focusing on how the parts work together.
Effective collaboration depends on effective relationships between humans. If the right people are in the room, and if there is time and space for like minds and potential partners to find and engage with each other, then even the worst-designed gathering can be productive. If the right people are also talented, driven, and a bit entitled, they will make the space they need to be productive regardless of the meeting’s design. However, setting aside time and space is not the whole story. Effective collaboration also requires that all collaborators gain value from collaborating. When the value is reciprocal, other barriers become smaller and the collaboration is easier to sustain.
Now, if we think of conferences or meetings as our tools for offline collaboration, then we need better tools. Our facilitation methodologies need to evolve and professionalize to focus on the experience and needs of participants. In his paper “Creating Participatory Events,” Executive Director of Aspiration Allen Gunn describes the problem like this:
The Internet era has ushered in a broad new panorama of collaborative tools and interaction opportunities in the virtual realm. But live “offline” events such as conferences, given their unique potential for connecting like minds and catalyzing relationships, have remained relatively non-collaborative affairs, employing dichotomous formats such as “keynotes,” slideware presentations, and panels to let one or several speakers relate across a veritable moat to silent and largely passive audiences.

Friday, November 14, 2014

A Music Review

We have abused all of the great words.  I love words.  Words like finial and newell post or picayune or asinine are so perfect and exact.  And the great words, words like peace, faith, courage and love are so vaulting and once trusting now plaintive in their effort to ask us to aspire to something great. Their meanings are not declarations but interrogatives. In the dictionary they ask: “what could I mean in your world?”

No soldier is more courageous than when she lays down her gun or never picks it up or never considers the gun at all. War and conflict are actually confounding of courage. It is courageous to aspire to grace. Not the receiving of it, because you have it.  You don’t deserve it but that’s the way of grace as my Sundays on the couch self understands it. Not the receiving of grace but the practicing - maybe questing, maybe it’s a journey? Maybe only process is courageous.  Love is courageous - not harts and ponies love - graceful love. I am also clear that courage is terrestrial, even mundane, certainly of the earth and more than self.

I see courage in art and expression.

Sophie Hunger

Just 'found' her (like Columbus 'found' America) last night which is why this post. In her first song (@ 0:16) in this TED “talk” she stands plainly in her humanity. This video is from 2009 and I am hoping, selfishly, for myself, that she is this person for always. The decisions she makes are jarring and beautiful. What would I do with my TED Talk? Could I give this well, be this present?

Valerie June

(If you have never listened to Valerie June, please do not make this video your introduction to this exceptional artist. Maybe try this one first.)
In this video, she makes a plain, actually, a naked offer - “I’ll be somebody to love.” And she does so Good Morning America - maybe the most antithetical stage she could find. Watching her through the course of the song, it wasn’t until I got to the end that I realized I was breathing and realized that I wasn’t breathing before. Could I move from plastic to courageous like she did? I listen to Valerie June a lot - nearly every day because she informs me. Can I give like that?

Friday, September 19, 2014

What is Resilience?

Resilience is a buzzword. Like 'innovation', in a general way we know what it means - enough to nod our heads at a cocktail party or during an elevator pitch. But that's not good enough if you are creating a solution to build resilience.  So, what is resilience?

Robert E. Ulanowicz is Professor Emeritus of Theoretical Ecology with the University of Maryland's Chesapeake Biological Laboratory. He has an amazing body of work in the field of Ecological Economics. In one particularly brilliant paper (Quantifying economic sustainability: Implications for free-enterprise theory, policy and practice) he and his colleagues provided the best definition and context for resilience that I have ever seen.

I am going to provide my interpretation of the paper but I would recommend reading it for yourself.

The first and maybe most interesting point is that resilience opposes efficiency. As a system or a network or a community becomes more resilient it also becomes less efficient. This kinda sucks because both resilience and efficiency are good things.  Additionally, they oppose each other along an access of diversity defined as number of possible pathways or connections. Maximizing efficiency requires reducing diversity or more accurately, maximum efficiency uses only one pathway.

The next point to make is that, because of the whole efficiency opposing resilience thing, as a system becomes more efficient it becomes less resilient and it generates a greater total throughput. This is because there is less diversity or connections so their are fewer choices.  With only one pathway - one input to get one output - generation of the output can be maximized. With too much resilience you have too many pathways to optimize. And this is the point where the wealth maximizing capitalists put on a self-satisfied grin, nod their heads and leave the room.  But wait, come back!

The problem with 'Output' as the Y axis is that it ignores time and time is why we are interested in sustainability. While it is true that greater efficiency creates a greater output, it also creates a more brittle or fragile system that is more susceptible to failure. Our definition for sustainability is 
'the ability to sustain the production of an output over time".  Now that our graph recognizes we exist in time we can include the concept of vibrancy.  Vibrancy is "the state of balancing efficiency and resiliency over time to maintain a healthy system capable of sustaining a desired output". In this graph, we can see the essential nature of resilience.  While it is still true that too much resilience will create a stagnant system, it is also true that the optimal balance between resiliency and efficiency will create vibrancy. It is also interesting to note that the data gathered from real natural ecosystems suggests that the balance point favors resilience just a bit.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Time to Stop Playing Business and Focus on People

Profit and People

Please excuse a short excursion into this dilettante's version of economic theory to begin this post.  I do this in an attempt to declare the rigorous intellectual foundations for our economy as it is and for where I believe our economy must go.  In both cases the underlying economic theory is market based and Capitalist. I am a Capitalist. This post is about Capitalism.

Wealth Maximization is currently American Capitalism’s dominant ideology. Wealth Maximization was first described by Richard Posner in 1979 (Utilitarianism, Economics, and Legal Theory), as an economic theory concerned with maximizing social welfare.  In Posners own words, “wealth maximization provides an ethically attractive norm for social and political choices”.  His second essay in 1985 (Wealth Maximization Revisited) is more interesting because he directly addresses his critics who disagree that wealth can be an ethical or a normative value.  Posner’s claim that it can is based on a trend in economic theory to see economics as a march towards being a hard science like physics and away from a social science like sociology. Posner’s wealth maximization theory is the extension of a school of economic theory that has focused on the mathematical ideas of utility and efficiency. Posner claims a strong connection between wealth and happiness and he claims that market mechanisms can govern wealth (and therefore happiness).  While Posner is careful to describe what he means by wealth, utility, happiness and efficiency it has not stopped business actors from reinterpreting his theory and replacing his nuanced idea of wealth with the very simple idea of profit - wealth maximization begat profit maximization.  Essentially, Posner’s careful wordsmithing is ignored and the presence of profit becomes de facto evidence of an efficient and ethical economic activity.  Posner’s carefully constructed Wealth Maximization becomes the rapacious Capitalists justification for profit maximization.

Countering Posner’s Wealth Maximization theory is a school of economics that builds on the math of Economics while providing a rigorous explication of human behavior in the context of the choices we make in our economic lives.  At least two nobel prize winners of economics come from this tradition - Daniel Kahneman and Elinor Ostrom. In the late 1970’s Kahneman and others began to build the new theory of Behavioral Economics that pays close attention to the psychological aspects of consumer choice.  Ostrom focused on the idea that the tragedy of the commons is not an immutable law but instead a flawed and cynical theory.  Ostrom demonstrates that private ownership is often not the best way to manage a common pool resource and instead, stakeholders can self-organize and manage the resources they need to have sustainable livelihoods.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

What's a Website For?

I have done a lot of work in my career at the intersection of technology and social change. While I have never focused specifically on web development I have built many websites and most of them poorly. It has only been recently that I have been able to embrace the idea that less is more. So, I thought I would write out a quick post to describe what I see as the four types of websites that are differentiated by the goals that they serve. The first two are content sites and the second two are community sites. In reality, a real site may have aspects of all four.