Ideas, Buzz Words and Connections at the Social Innovation Summit 2012

Posted on June 6, 2012 by Tanya Karanasios

What do the President of JP Morgan Chase Foundation, Lady Gaga’s mother, a young woman computer programming whiz, the former Hollywood director of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, the Chairman of World Economic Forum and a former NFL player have in common?  They all spoke, along with many more, at the Social Innovation Summit of 2012, held at the United Nations last week.

Forbes Magazine described it as a:

private, invitation-only forum that explores “What’s Next?” in the world of Social Innovation. Tailored to executive leaders interested in discussing the strategies and business innovations effecting social transformation across the corporate, investment, government, and non-profit sectors.

The summit brought these different sectors together to analyze innovative approaches to affect positive social change. Several themes emerged over the course of the day: importance of using new technologies for social change, moral capitalism, and the benefits of partnerships. I attended the summit on behalf of WITNESS, along with other non-profit organizations, hoping to be inspired and connect with others interested in video for human rights change.

“Constructive disruptive approaches to technology” and “reach scale” were among the buzz phrases of the day. There was even a Kafkaesque session organized around the topic of organizing conferences discussing TED, Davos and F50 (a hyper-exclusive gathering of 50 top social innovators that meet in private founded by Bruce Gibney).  In fairness, the moderator, Peter Hopkins, of Big Think joked on the ‘meta’ nature of this particular panel.

There were some noteworthy innovations put forward. On the technology side, Bill Gross from Idea Lab, presented affordable housing project in India. $200 down payment and 10$ a month bought a clean, sturdy, one room, house, with light to read. They have plans to expand into affordable villages. Through WITNESS and Habitat International’s global Forced Eviction campaigns, we see through video the realities of so many people who have lost their homes to forced evictions in the name of development. Could this idea help communities affected and governments reach affordable and fair settlements?

Steve Gleason, former NFL player for New Orleans, who has Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (aka Lou Gehrig’s disease) brought the house to its feet when he and his inspiring friend, Scott Fujita, NFL linebacker for Cleveland Browns, talked about technology being his cure. The emotional response from the audience reminded us once more the power of hearing directly from those affected by extremely challenging circumstances. Watch his talk at the UN here.

Not sure how the folks behind the iMATTER campaign would have reacted to the Green vs. Green sustainability panel with Coca-Cola, Intel, Verizon, and moderated by Jeffrey Hoolender, Co-Founder of Seventh Generation. It was encouraging to hear these major corporations admit that businesses are not providing adequate leadership on climate change and recognize that the science around climate changes is undeniable. While they spoke of steps their companies are taking, they also recognized pressures of shareholders.  Clearly, so much more needed to be done to reduce carbon emissions to sustainable levels.

Jeff Swartz, Former CEO and President of Timberland’s engaging, humorous and hard hitting views on moral capitalism, also asked the audience at one point, “How hard is it to change the light bulbs in your companies as a start?”

The former Hollywood Director, Tom Shadyac, best-known for his films Bruce Almighty, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and Liar Liar spoke about corporate greed and morality as well which was quite gutsy given the audience. Bill Gross summarized his presentation in a tweet: “Tom Shadyac’s message in a nutshell – cooperate, spread love, take only what you need, share the rest. Social Summit #SIS12.”  This is the underlying message in his most recent film, I Am.

Finally there was the idea to drop a $100 tablet loaded with applications at the edge of a village in Ethiopia, and without any human intervention, the kids will teach each other how to read. The aim is to reach the Millennium goal to ensure universal primary school education, an idea brought to the crowd by MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte, Founder, of One Laptop per Child.

Alicia Keys ended the night sharing what drove her to be engaged in the aids epidemic in Africa and create the Keep a Child Alive Foundation. She showed a film of one of her recent trips to Kenya, which brought tears to the eyes of many in the room.

There was an active Twitter feed on #SIS12 which raised some good questions and reactions to the presentations as there was so much more than I could cover in this short blog, including a rocking panel of empowered young women!

Swirling around sectors that don’t usually interact has its value, though hard to network effectively with an over 700 strong guest list.  All and all it was engaging to hear different perspectives around innovation and to challenge ourselves to think and dream big.

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