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In the last decade, a swarm of new buzzwords has caught the attention of philanthropic organisations and aid funders: “change makers”, “social entrepreneurs”, “social innovators” and “system entrepreneurs”. These catch phrases are meant to characterize the next generation of entrepreneurs and innovators who are out to solve societal challenges, such as poverty, malnourishment, education or health, in quick sprints.
The Rockefeller Foundation, the Skoll Foundation and many others have invested in programmes and courses to connect change-makers and immerse them in the latest thinking around these grand challenges and how to amplify their innovation solutions. The outcome, in theory at least, is a cohort of bright, future leaders empowered with the knowledge and networks to drive transformation in their chosen domains.
Researchers led by centre researchers Per Olsson and Michelle-Lee More have been involved in some of these social innovation initiatives and recently published a paper analyzing how they perform. Olsson and colleagues ask, are these programmes fit for the challenge of global sustainability?
They conclude that most need a rethink and reboot to tackle the unique challenge of the Anthropocene – the term used informally to describe Earth’s current age. Scientists have decisively shown the rate of change of Earth’s life support system is currently solely a function of industrialised societies and accelerating at an alarming rate.
The authors argue the Anthropocene is a “game changer” when it comes to future development. This means rethinking many initiatives aimed at solving humanity’s greatest challenges.
The Anthropocene is characterized by speed, scale, connectivity and surprise. As a start, this means solutions must be systemic, deeply connecting social and ecological perspectives, and consider unexpected connections across scales. They say that too often solutions focus on a single issue but this narrow approach creates negative impacts elsewhere.
Olsson and colleagues feel the initiatives being led by social entrepreneurs and investments in innovation are moving in the right direction but can do much more.
“If we take seriously the idea of the Anthropocene and the need to prevent the crossing of further tipping points or planetary boundaries, social innovations will need to move through the entire innovation process faster than ever before. Whether this is possible remains to be seen,” the paper says.
However, Olsson and his colleagues stress, it is not just about getting a large number of people to adopt something quickly, the solutions need to go deep as well. There are norms and connections that need to transform too.
The researchers argue that purely focusing on more innovation also misses the point. The world is not short of good ideas and great inventions. What’s missing are solutions that are cognizant of the systemic nature of the problem. They say that a focus on singular solutions often ignores the big picture. Significantly, ecological and social challenges are often treated independently, partly because the framework used to develop solutions – the “triple bottom line” – can reinforce the idea that economic, social and environmental goals can be traded off against one another.
The Green Revolution, for example, in the 1960s and 70s dramatically reduced famine in large parts of the world, but “caused longer term damage to the environment and created social vulnerability for millions” due to food price volatility. And in Maine lobster fishing has become a dominant industry but created a coastal monoculture leading to a “loss of functional diversity” along the coast. “The social-ecological system is now highly vulnerable to disturbances such as lobster disease,” argue the scientists in the paper.
The authors conclude that, in the Anthropocene, a solutions framework that seeks to minimize environmental harm just won’t cut it anymore. What is needed are new ways of thinking about humans as a positive force on Earth, where solutions to economic and social challenges store carbon, enhance biodiversity and clean up pollution.
They discuss the need for programmes that explore regenerative economies, for example integrating fish farms and agricultural systems to restore, renew and regenerate Earth’s biosphere.
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