Philanthropic foundations and social innovation: How do we accelerate our learning?

SiG Note: This article was originally published on Social Innovation Exchange (SIX) on January 24, 2016. It has been cross-posted with permission from the author.

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”  Albert Einstein

The last quarter century has seen significant changes in the world of foundation philanthropy. New pools of earned wealth (think Jeff SkollBill Gates or Skype founder Niklas Zennström) have accelerated traditional philanthropy’s shift from responsive grantmaking towards experiments with different forms and degrees of more proactive, targeted and strategic or collaborative philanthropy. Some of these changes have included the adoption and experimentation with the mindset, tools and methodologies of social innovation.

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Visitor Center in Seattle via The Society for Experiential Graphic Design

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Visitor Center in Seattle. Photo via The Society for Experiential Graphic Design

To further and advance this adoption, social innovation grantmakers from three continents are being convened for the first time ever.

The goal is to share and explore what they and their peers are learning about social innovation philanthropy. This new “Funders Node,” hosted by Social Innovation Exchange (SIX), has the following goals:

  • Address the lack of shared knowledge among global organizations supporting and deploying social innovation;
  • Help answer vexing questions whose tentative answers could unlock transformational collaborations and high impact social innovation;
  • Increase funding for systemic change and social innovation while improving its likelihood of success. I began my career as a grantmaker four decades ago. Experience has taught me the truth of the adage: “it’s easy to give money away.”  On the other hand, it is incredibly hard for a funder to achieve major impact. Successful social innovation philanthropy is a tough occupation.
Funders Node hosted by the Rockefeller Foundation in New York City

SIX’s Funders Node hosted in the Rockefeller Foundation Facilities in New York City. Photo via Tim Draimin

Responsible foundations increasingly recognize their social change covenant to be a vital part of the R&D system for solutions to our world’s most complex challenges. But, by definition, these solutions are ill-understood. This means that it is an emergent and long term process to build new, generative pathways and social innovations spawning indispensable public goods (like a low carbon economy, global social equity, and purposeful meaning in daily life).

Funders grapple with their support role enabling globally-significant social innovations. Are there minimum specifications high impact social innovations depend on?

Seven topics are increasingly visible:


How does transformational collaboration among funders happen? How do collaborative competencies support genuine co-creation involving frontline-practitioner-innovators, citizen beneficiaries, funders, business and governments?


How are social innovations developed, curated, and aligned towards system change?


An innovation’s success can be foiled by weak communications. How does a communications strategy employ a meaningful narrative? Similarly, how are successful innovations lifted up by — and embedded in — many diverse cultures and values. What intentional steps can be taken to advance a positive cultural embrace?


How do social innovators manage the politics of social change, conceiving social innovations in a jujitsu manoeuvre that guilefully co-opts the power of opponents at the same time as enfranchising groups and peoples historically excluded;


How are innovations both grounded in ethics and  values, as well as probed and tested to anticipate and manage the shadow side, their inevitable and unanticipated negative outcomes?


How are integrated innovation system pipelines built in order to support all parts of the life-cycle of necessary social innovations? How are early stage components nurtured in ways that empower contributions by passionate amateurs who are embedded in community and reflect authentic local needs? How is scaling enabled? How can philanthropic capital beyond grants leverage other forms of capital?


How do we build deep, agile learning platforms of critical friends?

These “min specs” are difficult to embrace and then successfully execute. Coupled with the nature of complex challenges, this means risks are an occupational hazard.

The bottom line is that success for social innovation funders flows from building, participating in and being guided by a high quality peer learning system.

Funders Node participants from three continents joined together in New York City via Tim Draimin

Funders Node participants from three continents joined together in New York City. Photo via Tim Draimin

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Recoding Our Innovation Systems

Social Innovation’s Imperative to Be Ambitious and Think Big

SiG Note: This article was originally published on July 30, 2015 as part of the SIX Global Council series on Ideas for the Future. It has been cross-posted with permission from Social Innovation Exchange (SIX).

The world is awash with innovation reports and indices comparing the innovation prowess of different countries, cities, and corporations. The two cornerstone assumptions underpinning these reports are that innovation is:

  • Anchored in technology, and
  • A driver of economic growth essential for societal success.

“Technological innovation,” says the World Economic Forum’s recent Global Competitiveness Report 2014-2015, “is the key to a competitive and growing economy, unlocking major productivity gains and allowing companies to move towards higher value-added activities.”

By contrast, social innovation remains a modestly growing separate domain, unconnected to most national mainstream innovation systems. By “mainstream,” I mean the combined technological and business innovation domain, often referred to as STEM or Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics, which is the beneficiary of generous government support across the OECD.

This gap between mainstream and social innovation is a problem if we are to collectively apply our ingenuity to tackling this century’s pressing global challenges. Those include climate change, the loss of biodiversity, and deepening social inequality, all of which are torqued by population growth now upwardly revised by the UN to reach 10.9 billion people by the year 2100.

In addition, social innovators’ own success requires that they reach beyond their important existing networks with other social innovators. UK academic Dominic Chalmers has identified a key insight for social innovators to succeed:

“If social innovators identify too strongly as social innovators, and develop strong ties to other social innovators at the expense of more diverse and distributed groups, the innovation process may be starved of new knowledge and capabilities. This myopic ‘local’ sourcing of knowledge within narrow domains is well documented in other industries and risks limiting the creative potential of social innovation.”

Light at the End of the Tunnel

To be sure, there are important glimmers of change seen with governments. As well, some corporates are beginning to align their efforts with big challenges facing the world. The large US corporation DuPont has shifted its research agenda so that its “inclusive innovation” focuses on “applying science to great challenges.” Intel China is embracing the “power of corporate social innovation” noting that if  “the purpose of technology is to improve people’s lives, we have to break down the boundaries between technology and social innovation.”

In Silicon Valley, the debate on its social role is beginning. As Michael S. Malone’s January 2015 article in MIT Technology Review, “The Purpose of Silicon Valley,” put the question: “Capital and engineering talent have been flocking to seemingly trivial mobile apps. But would we really be better off if more startups instead went directly after big problems?”

Here are three things the social innovation movement needs to do if it is to expand its societal role and shift how the mainstream operates:

c/o Jimee, Jackie, Tom & Asha

c/o Jimee, Jackie, Tom & Asha

1. Insinuate itself into national innovation systems.

This is important because social innovators need to participate in and shift their national innovation system to extend their impact. Achieving this involves strengthening the articulation of social innovation’s value, expanding its partnerships with other sectors, being more policy active, and ensuring that social innovation doesn’t exist only in its own silo (notwithstanding the on-going importance of social innovator peer networks).

Grand Challenges Canada (GCC), a $240 million platform that is part of the global Grand Challenges network, has attempted to explain what it would mean to combine STEM, business and social innovation. They articulate an “integrated innovation” vision. “Integrated Innovation,” says GCC, “is the coordinated application of scientific/technological, social and business innovation to develop solutions to complex challenges. This approach does not discount the singular benefits of each of these types of innovation, but rather highlights the powerful synergies that can be realized by aligning all three. Integrated Innovation recognizes that scientific/technological innovations have a greater chance of going to scale to achieve global impact and sustainability if they are developed from the outset in conjunction with appropriate social and business innovations.”

- Banksy

– Banksy

2. Advocate for social outcomes as a cornerstone metric for evaluating national innovation systems.

This is important because social innovators need to be able to access more talent, technology and intellectual capital than currently possible on their own. With OECD countries’ social spending envelopes (health, education, employment insurance, pensions, etc) growing exponentially and unsustainably, this should not be difficult.

3. Develop and adopt an ethical framework to guide (social) innovation.
c/o Randy Robertson

c/o Randy Robertson

This is important because we always need to be actively thinking about our “north star,” ensuring that we re-engage the most vulnerable people and ecologies in society. Any useful technological or social innovation can be applied for malevolent purposes. And all innovations – social as well as technological – have unintended consequences or even a shadow side. A Declaration of Action from a July 2015 Canadian cross-sector retreat examining Social R&D called for an innovation system that “leads from a new ethical framework for R&D for public good.”

For example, will the sharing economy improve social good or fast-track growth of the new precariat? A growing number of people struggle to cope with the “slow but continual downward pressure on the value and availability of work,” as many have observed, such as Derek Thompson in his troubling assessment “A World Without Work” in The Atlantic (July/August 2015).

The social innovation movement is well positioned to be the trim-tab, high leverage catalyst for bringing needed resources to bear on the innovation challenges our global community faces.

SiG Note: Email to sign-up for news and updates on the emergent Social R&D movement in Canada. 

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Mexico’s CatapultaFest Mixes Heady Innovation-Culture Cocktail

SiG Note: This article was originally published on July 9, 2015 on Social Innovation Exchange (SIX): Read. It has been cross-posted with permission from SIX

“I found my tribe!”

That’s how Pamela Alexander described her experience last year at Catapulta Festival 2014. She was invited as a media observer and soaked up her first exposure to social innovation, social purpose business and impact investing. This led her to re-examine her career. She ended up quitting her Mexico City media job and worked to align her values with her vocation. She began by moving to Tijuana, a depressed northern Mexican city, and starting a sustainable food-based initiative to help Mexican deportees from the USA build sustainable livelihoods.

FullSizeRender (8)I attended Catapulta 2015 as a board member and representative of SIX, which had been invited as part of Catapulta’s goal of being a local social innovation movement-builder connecting into global networks.

As co-founder Mark Beam described the Festival at its opening, “Catapulta’s goal is to be a platform to cultivate, inspire, and integrate social innovation with community.” Harry Halloran, founder of Catapulta funding partner Halloran Philanthropies, told me that Catapulta is different from other social entrepreneurship and social innovation events, like Skoll World Forum and SOCAP, by being embedded with community.

Although Catapulta had several international participants (from as far away as Uganda — for example, Sanga Moses shared the remarkable story of Eco-Fuel Africa), welcome impressions were gender balance (noticeable in a male-dominated culture) and the number of Oaxacans present, especially young people, students and individuals from projects like Sikanda’s community work with Pepenadores (waste pickers).

FullSizeRender (3)Oaxaca is a spectacular venue for social innovators. With a population of 500,000, the city has a rich indigenous culture and history coupled with a dramatic colonial setting. Some of the most exciting social innovations shared were the ones that drew from the local indigenous culture.

An inspiring example is Xaquixe Glass Innovation Studio that intuitively blends technological, business, environmental, cultural and social innovation.

A social purpose business, Xaquixe is tackling numerous issues simultaneously:

  1. The closure in the last decade of 75% of Mexico’s artisanal glassworks, undermined by the escalating cost of energy (LP gas has gone up 300% in 5 years);
  2. The fact that less than 10% of waste glass is recycled;
  3. Protection of threatened indigenous cultural traditions;
  4. Diverting used cooking oil (now discarded often in environmentally damaging ways) into energy applications; and,
  5. The gap in sustainable livelihoods for a rapidly growing and young population.

FullSizeRender (7)Tackling the cost of energy, Xaquixe has innovated the recycling of used cooking oil as a substitute energy source, building a network of Oaxacan restaurants as suppliers. The oil is supplemented with solar, using parabolic mirrors (a natural for a glassmaker). Xaquixe’s design and research lead Salvador Pulido Arroyo says they hope to be entirely self-sufficient in energy in three years.

Xaquixe has created an allied nonprofit that will be providing technical training to local glassmaker artisans in how to self-reliantly adopt cooking oil energy technology and also adopt design adaptations to improve the efficiency of their ovens. Originally Xaquixe set up shop in Oaxaca because the local mescal liquor industry had no locally-sourced glass bottle fabrication.

Another start-up social innovation in Oaxaca is working with artisanal producers to build their own brands, allowing them to retain a much greater share of the final retail price of their products.

The physical setting of Catapulta alternated between the San Pablo Cultural Centre, a magnificently rehabilitated colonial building operated by a foundation and La Calera, a reclaimed and re-purposed brick factory that is now a “centre for social innovation, culture and art.”

La Calera creates an intersection for felicitous new discoveries. One example is the experience of a hip-hop artist, who described to me how he came to La Calera to teach hip-hop, discovered social innovation and turned his talents to creating a very successful arts program working with both at-risk youth and incarcerated youth at the local prison. He is now confronting the challenge of scaling his proven program to other prisons across Mexico.

One of the most avant garde initiatives presented at Catapulta was FactoryX, an incubator seeking to reinvent how business operates to ensure it is aligned with society’s best interests:

“FactoryX is a radical new experiment that aims to change the way organizations relate to society. By launching companies in a completely new way, we (a group of experienced entrepreneurs and builders) seek to solve systemic problems in the ecosystem via direct experimentation, learning, and sharing.”

The genius behind it is a social entrepreneur who is a successful alumnus of Yahoo and Google, Tom Chi.

FullSizeRender (1)

CatapultaFest connects and supports the growing local ecosystem of social innovators, like those involved with Oaxaca’s Impact Hub and SVX Mexico. It sees itself connecting the local with the global in ways that accelerate social innovation and embed the movement within the needs and cultural aspirations of Mexico.

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Taking the Seoul Train to the Sharing Economy Part III

Editor’s Note: The Sharing Economy is about a profound shift in consumer values from ownership to access. Together, entire communities and cities around the world are using network technologies to do more with less by renting, lending, swapping, bartering, gifting and sharing products on a scale never before possible. A wide variety of sharers are involved, from Tool Libraries and Maker Faires through to Car-shares and the open government movement. Organizations like Collaborative ConsumptionPeers and Shareable are working to foster the sharing economy. SiG believes that this movement is a force for social innovation and systems change. In this spirit, SiG will produce blogs and grow a knowledge base highlighting the people and concepts emerging out of the sharing economy.

Seoul LandscapeWith robust government support, South Korea is fast becoming one of the world’s most advanced sharing economies. In the course of one day criss-crossing Seoul’s vast metropolitan area by efficient public transit, I was able to visit three very different new sharing economy ventures that boast stories illustrating the value of the new national and municipal policies facilitating the growth of the sharing economy. Part I and II blogs highlighted my visit to Dream Bank and My Real Trip. In this final post on South Korea’s sharing economy, I offer my experience visiting Kozaza.


From suburban Pan-gyo, we headed by express bus to Bukchon, a unique neighbourhood “village” of Seoul that is peppered with royal palaces and shrines and a large number of Hanok traditional-style Korean houses. There we met Sanku Jo, a serial entrepreneur whose passion for protecting the Hanok heritage led him to start Kozaza.

KozazaKozaza is an online service that connects travellers with a trusted community of families offering unique accommodations throughout Korea. Kozaza sees its service built on the values of the sharing economy. Its social benefits are multiple: providing host families with a new source of income; assisting a city like Seoul to expand tourism without having to worry about its relatively limited stock of hotel beds; making it possible for people to share their homes, and increasing exposure to Korean culture and food.  Finally, with its current focus on shared Hanok accommodation, Korea’s slowly disappearing traditional houses, Kozaza hopes to rekindle interest and promote conservation of this increasingly scarce cultural resource.

As a start-up, Kozaza benefitted from a program of the national government that provided a 50% match on privately raised start-up funds. The Mayor of Seoul, Park Won-Soon, has also been an enthusiastic supporter. He personally stayed at Kozaza Hanok providing moral encouragement for Kozaza and what they do. In addition Seoul’s Sharing City program has promoted Kozaza by publicizing the service through city owned media platforms.


The Kozaza team with Canadian guests

Kozaza’s founder and CEO, SanKu Jo, combined his love for Korea’s traditional Hanok homes with his commitment to the sharing economy. He visualizes the sharing economy as portending the shift from Web 2.0 to Life 2.0. For him, the sharing economy offers cost savings, improved environmental stewardship, and social capital building as people share their homes and culture. Sanku Jo thinks Kozaza has reinvented Airbnb to create a “Life Sharing Platform”. Going further, he thinks of “sharing as the new communication”. Sanku Jo, a student of the internet, spent over a decade in California’s Silicon Valley, is using SlideShare to share compelling resources on his vision of where the sharing economy is headed.

D.Camp, My Real Trip, and Kozaza all have analogues that sprang up earlier in other countries. Notwithstanding that, each of them has evolved a unique model reflecting the specific needs and culture of Seoul and Korea in order to create a valuable sharing economy offering. Good ideas, whether new or not, are quick to travel and just as quick to be adapted and improved.

IMG_2463Note: Thanks very much to April Rinne, from The Collaborative Lab, who introduced me to two Seoul members of TCL’s Global Curator Team, DaYe (Diane) Jung and Seokwon (ejang) Yang. They in turn connected me with our indispensable guide Seokjoon Choi. Seokjoon navigated us through Seoul with great aplomb.

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Taking the Seoul Train to the Sharing Economy Part II

Editor’s Note: The Sharing Economy is about a profound shift in consumer values from ownership to access. Together, entire communities and cities around the world are using network technologies to do more with less by renting, lending, swapping, bartering, gifting and sharing products on a scale never before possible. A wide variety of sharers are involved, from Tool Libraries and Maker Faires through to Car-shares and the open government movement. Organizations like Collaborative ConsumptionPeers and Shareable are working to foster the sharing economy. SiG believes that this movement is a force for social innovation and systems change. In this spirit, SiG will produce blogs and grow a knowledge base highlighting the people and concepts emerging out of the sharing economy.


pan-gyo3Seoul is earning a reputation as one of the world’s most developed sharing economies. South Korean citizens and civil servants support the development of the sharing economy because it addresses issues inherent in high-density cities like overpopulation and housing shortages. In the course of one day criss-crossing Seoul’s vast metropolitan area by efficient public transit, I was able to visit three very different new sharing economy ventures that boast stories illustrating the value of the new national and municipal policies enabling the sharing economy. In Part I, I outlined the enabling government environment and my visit to Dream Bank. The second sharing economy venture, My Real Trip, is featured in this post and Kozaza will follow in Part III.



My Real Trip

Having the benefit of an extensive and spectacularly well-organized subway system (the second most used in the world), I was able to travel rapidly many miles out to the new suburban innovation hub in Pan-gyo from the Seoul city center. Referred to as Pan-gyo Techno Valley (PTV), it is Korea’s bespoke answer to Silicon Valley. The government has facilitated the construction of block after block of gleaming new office towers, which by 2015 will support a population of 80,000 people and house the country’s leading hi tech ventures.



Pan-gyo Techno Valley


Korea’s Silicon Valley


I visited the brand new tower of NEOWIZ, a successful gaming company that is creating an incubation environment for new start-up technology ventures. There we met the co-founder of My Real Trip, Donggun Lee, a serial entrepreneur whose first venture was a successful crowdfunding platform.

My Real Trip, similar to Peek (an online portal connecting travellers to local curated travel experiences), allows Korean-speaking travellers access to a global network of guides in 130 cities around the world. Geared to the cultural interests of Asian travellers, a local actor in New York might act as a guide for a Broadway tour. Elsewhere, a guide in Vancouver provides a Caffeine Crawl of that city’s unique and diverse scene of coffee shops.

My Real Trip creates income opportunities for part-time guides and full-time guides allowing the guides to set their own rate and retain more income than they would if employed by a mainstream touring company.



Visiting My Real Trip Team


My Real Trip is in rapid growth mode, having started in mid-2012 it has already supported 5,800 travellers in 123 cities. It expects to reach 10,000 by the end of 2013. My Real Trip benefitted from six months free rent in the NEOWIZ tower ecosystem before becoming a paying tenant.

The emerging global network of sharing cities is accelerating people’s ability to ingeniously adapt to new forms of urban living while at the same time reducing their environmental footprint. Stay tuned for part III’s train to Kozaza sharing economy venture.


IMG_2463Note: Thanks very much to April Rinne, from The Collaborative Lab, who introduced me to two Seoul members of TCL’s Global Curator Team, DaYe (Diane) Jung and Seokwon (ejang) Yang. They in turn connected me with our indispensable guide Seokjoon Choi. Seokjoon navigated us through Seoul with great aplomb.

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Taking the Seoul Train to the Sharing Economy Part I

Editor’s Note: The Sharing Economy is about a profound shift in consumer values from ownership to access. Together, entire communities and cities around the world are using network technologies to do more with less by renting, lending, swapping, bartering, gifting and sharing products on a scale never before possible. A wide variety of sharers are involved, from Tool Libraries and Maker Faires through to Car-shares and the open government movement. Organizations like Collaborative ConsumptionPeers and Shareable are working to foster the sharing economy. SiG believes that this movement is a force for social innovation and systems change. In this spirit, SiG will produce blogs and grow a knowledge base highlighting the people and concepts emerging out of the sharing economy.


IMG_2449Seoul is gaining recognition as one of the world’s most developed sharing economies.  Accounting for half of South Korea’s 50 million people, Seoul has become a unique launch pad, with the Mayor of Seoul, Park Won-Soon, working hard to promote the broader agenda of social innovation:


“As the mayor of Seoul, I have striven to create innovative ways of governing that are based on cooperation and collaboration. I have made a point of soliciting greater citizen input and getting citizens more directly involved in decision-making, fostering social enterprises that use innovative approaches to tackle social problems, and expanding collaboration between government, the market, and civil society.” (SSIR Summer 2013 insert Innovation for a Complex World entitled Forging Ahead with Cross-Sector Innovations)


Specifically, in 2012 Mayor Park created the Sharing City initiative as part of the Seoul Innovation Bureau’s goal to tackle social, economic and environmental problems in innovative ways. The city is supporting the start-up of new sharing companies and pioneering its own sharing programs (e.g. those range from making city facilities available in off-hours, to a car sharing service, and a program matching seniors who have a spare room with students needing accommodation.)


Seoul City Hall

The national government of President Park Geun-hye (no relation to Park Won-Soon) has a signature policy to catalyse the “creative economy”. The Korea Herald summarises its goal as “creating new business opportunities, industries and jobs through the fusion of information and communication technology, culture and others realms.” President Park says the existing economic model cannot address high unemployment and widening economic inequalities.

By taking a day just before the start of Social Innovation Exchange’s 2013 Summer School in Seoul, I had a chance — together with Michael Lewkowitz, the founder of — to visit several exciting sharing economy start-ups: Dream Bank, My Real Trip and Kozaza. Each boasts stories that illustrate the value of the new national and municipal policies enabling the sharing economy.

Dream Bank

In 2012, twenty South Korean banks came together, pooling nearly $75 million, to create and fund Dream Bank, a new foundation.  It was born out d.camp3of the preoccupation that current tough economic times meant that the economy was unable to generate sufficient employment opportunities, especially for young graduates entering the labour market. Dream Bank explains that it “was formed in order to nurture a successful startup community and consequently create high quality jobs through emerging enterprises.” In fact, Dream Bank hopes to help South Korea become Asia’s number one hub for the new economy.

D-CAMP LogoAs a first step, Dream Bank set up D.Camp in 2013 in Central Seoul (facing the spectacular Seolleung Park — a UNESCO World Heritage Site of two Royal Tombs). D.Camp is a 1,650 square metre, multi-storey, co-working space for young entrepreneurs. Those preparing to launch a new venture receive three months free rent and stay longer if they have made progress on their venture. Besides providing state of the art co-working space and dozens of monthly curated networking and educational opportunities in their large hall, D.Camp is also developing an online financing platform to connect ventures with investors. D.Camp is both a sharing economy platform and seeks to help strengthen ventures that feature collaboration and sharing business models. Dream Bank’s start-up Operation Manager, Seokwon (a.k.a. ejang) Yang who previously founded the co-working space CO-UP, is a well-known leader in the sharing economy space and a member of The Collaborative Lab’s Global Curator team.


D.Camp co-working space

Following my exploration of D.Camp, I made my way to another inventive sharing economy venture, My Real Trip, which will be featured in part II of this series on Seoul’s Sharing Economy.

In a field of rapid innovation, public policy can either slow the advance of disruptive innovations (e.g. New York City fining Airbnb) or help them take root and evolve like Seoul is doing. The sharing economy appears headed to become the most impactful vector for scaling social innovation in urban settings.

Author’s Note: Thanks very much to April Rinne, from The Collaborative Lab (TCL), who introduced me to two Seoul members of TCL’s Global Curator Team, DaYe (Diane) Jung and Seokwon (ejang) Yang. They in turn connected me with our indispensable guide Seokjoon Choi. Seokjoon navigated us through Seoul with great aplomb.

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The Social Innovator’s Guide to Systems Thinking Part II: Rules for Innovators Leveraging Bigger Change

This is the second part of a blog series on systems thinking. In part I, Realizing the ultimate impact of community-based innovations,” I introduced the theory and core elements of systems thinking.

In Part II let’s begin with two questions: what can individuals and organizations do to be part of systemic change? And how can powerful institutions like governments be more part of the solution than the problem?

In Systems Innovation, Geoff Mulgan suggests two sets of answers.  The first: it is essential to ground individual change actions within the context of the “broader movement of change, and with a sense of the bigger picture.” For Mulgan “the ideal is to iterate between the big picture and small steps. Realism about power and knowledge can also help: if you have knowledge but not power then you need to find allies, and points of leverage. If you have power but lack knowledge you need to experiment and learn fast.”

The second: recognize and leverage the essential role of what I call the missing middle or what Mulgan calls intermediaries. In order to succeed, “the creation or mobilisation of intermediaries can be crucial, to articulate the direction of systemic change, and link big ideas to individual innovations. In retrospect this role was sometimes played by networks, clubs, think tanks and development agencies.”

The roles played by intermediaries can include: orchestrating advocacy campaigns; engaging critical stakeholders; demonstrating alternatives; and facilitating the required networks into power structures and changemaking communities. Some of these roles resemble those of “backbone” organizations in collective impact initiatives. Mulgan lays out a valuable chart for seeing the range of roles and their goals:


Joined-Up Innovation, Geoff Mulgan p. 21

Building the Enabling Systems-oriented Ecosystem

What would be elements of an ecosystem building approach for systems innovation that a government should focus on? Social Innovation Europe suggests seven:

1.    Developing a common vision around the need and potential for systems change
2.    Supporting greater experimentation
3.    Expanding rapid learning through open innovation platforms, greater transparency, and much more cross-sector collaboration
4.    Expanding incubation support systems and platforms to enable systems innovations
5.    Targeting capacity building focused on critical competencies
6.    Developing enabling conditions through funding instruments, regulation and legislation
7.    Growing networks connecting key stakeholders in order to spread and disseminate innovative practice and generally enable knowledge mobilization.

How imminent is a heightened focus on systems change? What conditions will prevail to shift us in that direction? Charles Leadbeater, in his essay in Systemic Innovation: A Discussion Series, says there are four main ingredients to the systems shifting process (that he calls “regime change”):

1.    Failure Stacks Up – The multiplying failures and frustrations with the current system
2.    Landscape Shifts – The landscape of the current regime shifts so much that it is left at odds with the world
3.    Alternatives Accumulate – Real alternatives start to grow, multiply in overlapping fashion
4.    New Technology Offers Accelerated Impact – “These new approaches are energized by the application of new technologies, which open up new possibilities for organizations, businesses and consumers. These rising new technologies add to the momentum and excitement for change.”

Alice Casey, from her vantage point in Nesta’s Public Service Innovation Lab, highlights two additional ingredients for people working on systems change at the community level. Her essay in the Discussion Series advocates for:

1.    Structures that value collaboration and that assist people escaping their narrow service silos to think and work together, and
2.   Relationships that enable power sharing by using an asset based approach and drawing on the tools of co-production that “help create collaborative and trusting relationships that give people the risk–friendly space they need to engage and behave in different ways.”

Systems Thinking Into the Water Supply

How do you see the issues you care about through a systems thinking lens? Does systems thinking have implications for how you imagine deepening your impact over the next decade? One of Canada’s social strategists extraordinaire, Al Etmanski, is fond of saying that we need to get “social innovation into the water supply”. For many years now he has applied his talents at the systems tilting end of the social innovation spectrum. How do we take Al’s lead to expand that essential “systems think and do”?

Related Links:

  • The indispensable desktop resource on systems thinking is the short book by Donnella Meadows, Thinking in Systems: A Primer (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008). Donnella was a co-author of the 1972 watershed book Limits to Growth that was a catalyst for recognizing earth as a system with finite limits.
  • The SiG Knowledge Hub is replete with useful content including the sections on Systems Thinking (Dip into Systems Thinking, Dive in Systems Thinking)
  • The Social Enterprise World Forum, taking place in Calgary Oct 2 – 4, features an extensive line-up of systems thinkers and social innovators.
  • Nesta’s robust website contains two excellent 2013 PDFs on systems thinking: Systems Innovation and Systemic Innovation: A Discussion Series. The latter carries a contribution by Canadian Daniel Miller a St. John’s, NL-based independent researcher who has a web site Systemnovation dedicated to systems thinking.
  • The field of social innovation, design or change labs is developing across Canada. It offers a growing set of basic tools to assist organizations, businesses and governments in initiating practical multi-stakeholder processes to develop, prototype and scale systems-shifting innovations. SiG has just published a new map to those resources.

Editor’s note: this blog originally appeared in Tamarack’s Engage! newsletter on July 16, 2013. It has been cross-posted with permission.

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The Social Innovator’s Guide to Systems Thinking: Realizing the Ultimate Impact of Community-based Innovations

Editor’s note: this blog originally appeared in Tamarack’s Engage! newsletter on July 16, 2013. It has been cross-posted with permission.

Early in my career I worked in international development in Central America supporting the pioneering community development efforts of organizations like a country’s first ever women’s movement, campesino co-operatives, and adult education NGOs.  As strong as any individual organization’s efforts were, they were effectively undone by the worsening human rights backdrop of authoritarian governments and military dictatorships. Within 4 years I found my focus had shifted to working in Canada to support peace efforts through what later became called “citizen track diplomacy.” These were informal efforts by non-state actors like NGOs who convened off-the-radar meetings that connected belligerents and international stakeholders in facilitated processes that helped build relationships, new thinking and thereby overcome barriers to more formal peace efforts. In other words, events forced me to appropriate systems thinking to first seek to understand and then try to create ways to influence the larger forces and dynamics destructively dominating the region.

Have you ever put a lot of hard work into achieving your big idea or successfully creating a reform only to realize there are many related issues that need to be addressed? And realize your achievement may stand alone, an orphan in danger of erosion if you don’t address them? Welcome to the world of systems.

c/o Artinaid

c/o Artinaid


“Systems loom large in our lives”, says Charlie Leadbeater, a leading writer on social innovation. Our planet of 7 billion inhabitants depends daily on a myriad of interlocking systems for clothing, food, and shelter as well as meeting health care and other needs.



Our primary man-made systems were born – or matured – in the immediate post-World War II era when the planet was far less populated and its needs less complex. Unfortunately, many of those systems are now reaching – or have passed – their “best by” date.

Which systems do you experience as wearing thin: Social welfare? Education? Food? Health? Democratic engagement? Global finance? Environmental protection? Management of the global commons?

Geoff Mulgan, the CEO of Nesta, and Charlie Leadbeater have co-published a pair of excellent articles in Systems Innovation, including Mulgan’s Joined–Up innovation: What is Systemic Innovation and How Can it be Done Effectively? and Leadbeater’s The Systems Innovator: Why Successful Innovation Goes Beyond Products. They explain what systems are, why they are so important, and how they should be a focus for change by people involved in building and scaling social innovations.

Systemic innovation is defined as “an interconnected set of innovations, where each influences the other, with innovation both in the parts of the system and in the ways in which they interconnect.” As Leadbeater predicts, “systems innovation will become the most important focus for companies and governments, cities and entire societies. In the last decade there has been a growing focus on innovation in products and services as a source of competitive advantage. In the next decades the focus will shift towards the innovation of new kinds of systems.

As I wrote in Shifting From Scale to Reach, individual social innovators are making enormous strides in building valuable innovations that generate meaningful social change. However, in order for those individual initiatives to scale up to achieve deep, broad and durable impact, we need to shift gears to collaborate with others operating in the related system. In most cases individual social innovators begin their changemaker careers focused on specific symptoms of systemic malaise. As they engage their system, they deepen their knowledge of it and often shift, as Pathways to Education’s David Hughes would say, from an-organizationally-centred strategy of ameliorating symptoms to an issue-centred strategy of altering systems. For example, many social innovators in the environmental movement started their careers focused on local issues like pollution or local conservation. Their experience with the underlining forces that produce negative local impacts provided them with the insights to re-think their goals and strategies in a more systemic fashion. This description reminds me of the work of Nicole Rycroft, who cut her teeth as a passionate campaigner for the protection of Clayquot Sound.  Today she is an Ashoka Fellow who leads Canopy, working with the forest industry’s biggest customers to protect the world’s forest, species and climate by shifting markets.

Nicole Rycroft Ashoka Fellow

Federal Conservative Minister John Baird & Canopy’s Nicole Rycroft

In recent decades the world has seen the rise of numerous valuable fellowships supporting individual social entrepreneurs like Ashoka, Schwab Foundation Fellows, and Echoing Green. Their field building work, and that of their fellows, has helped to crystalize today’s extraordinarily exciting new era of entrepreneurship, experimentalism and innovation. Today however, we are preparing to enter the phase of connecting up the approach of individual innovations with the emerging systems innovation approach.

Core Elements of Systems Thinking

SiG’s Knowledge Hub, which has a section on Systems Thinking, lays out the following Principles in its resource Introduction to Systems Thinking:

  • Systems are a way of thinking about the world
  • Systems behave as a whole
  • Systems understanding is observer or perspective dependent
  • A systems approach requires multiple perspectives
  • Where WE draw systems boundaries affects the system
  • We need to be aware of what is going on inside the system but also outside
  • Systems are ‘nested’ – we should always think about the system we’re looking at as being made up of smaller systems and being part of larger systems

Introduction to Systems Thinking suggests three stages to employ in order to look at a problem using the lens of systems thinking:

1.    Frame the Situation - Begin by generating a systems description or map of what is involved and the important relationships that define the system
2.    Describe the Dynamics – Develop an understanding and description of the dynamics of the situation
3.    Synthesize the Understanding –Capture what was learned from the first two phases of analysis into narratives about how the situation might or could unfold in the future

How does system thinking inform the strategy of social innovation?  Introduction to Systems Thinking suggests three ways:

  • It’s critical to consider the purpose, function, goal, objective for examining a system
  • You cannot talk about a system without considering who is looking at it and why
  • Understanding how elements within a system are connected allows you to identify places for intervention and transformation

Social Innovation Europe (SIE) has written a useful introduction to the topic, entitled Systemic Innovationwhich outlines some of the key elements for taking a systems approach:

  • Openings appear following a crisis or period of upheaval
  • New ideas, concepts and paradigms
  • New laws and/or regulations across a broad area
  • Coalitions for change of many actors and/or across more than one sector or scale
  • Changed market metrics or measurement tools
  • Changed power relationships and new types of power structures
  • Widespread diffusion of technology and technology development
  • New skills or roles across many actors
  • New institutions
  • Widespread changes in behaviour, structures and/or processes

SIE points out that complex challenges “cut across different policy domains, sectors and political and administrative jurisdictions. Coherent responses to these kinds of challenges cannot be driven by single institutions but will be reliant on numerous people, organisations, institutions and stakeholders working in a coordinated way. And as these social challenges become more pressing, a systemic approach becomes necessary. Individual social innovations may deliver certain benefits in a piecemeal way. But if we really want to address a major social challenge, we will need to look at problems in a holistic way.”

They highlight that systems change requires a whole series of complementary innovations – often introduced simultaneously – that will rely on all sectors: business, government, community as well as unorganized households. “In many cases,” they argue, “systemic innovation results from a confluence of forces: social movements, the creation of new markets, public policy (such as new rights or new legal, fiscal and regulatory frameworks) and behavioural change. While some systemic innovations are more challenging to effect than others (because of their scale, scope or complexity), systemic innovation in general is difficult to orchestrate or support (through the creation of enabling conditions, for example) and certainly more challenging than innovation at the level of a new project or a new venture.”

A timely opportunity to learn more about systems thinking in action is at this year’s Social Enterprise World Forum, taking place in Calgary this October 2 – 4. Hear from systems thinkers like Charmian Love of Volans (also speaking for our Inspiring Action for Social Impact series next week), Ros Tennyson of Partnership Brokers, and Vickie Cammack of Tyze Networks. Each of these individuals is currently collaborating with many partners to shift systems in new directions.

Part II — The Social Innovator’s Guide to Systems Thinking: Rules for Innovators Leveraging Bigger Change

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Part IV: Walking the Talk. How can we learn to be better collaborators?

In Part I and II of the collaboration series, I shared some of the reasons why leaders, organizations and sectors need to collaborate, particularly when addressing intractable challenges embedded in complex systems. While Part III highlighted best practices in collaboration, this post outlines various resources that can build the necessary skills for effective collaboration. 

Making it Work: Building Partnership Competencies

How do we align all this talk about collaboration with the robust capability to execute on it in ways that can change the world?

Fortunately there is a growing infrastructure of training, educational and advisory resources on collaboration. Here are several:

Tamarack Institute: Canada’s Leading Collaboration Resource

Tamarack Institute, Canada’s leading capacity building organization for the community sector, will be running their annual Communities Collaborating Together: Accelerating Our Impact this October 7-11 in Edmonton. This follows their April event – in partnership with FSG and John Kania – a 3 day educational training for 150 leaders called Champions for Change that provided “a detailed look at the roles played by backbone leaders; dealing with complex issues in a changing and emergent environment; collective governance; shared value; and, exploring the development of a collective impact initiative over four phases of maturity.”


c/o Champions for Change event day 3

Partnership Brokers Association

A unique and important global training organization, the Partnership Brokers Association (PBA), has built deep knowledge and learning about partnerships and what makes them succeed. (Full disclosure: I just joined their board.)

PBA is training and supporting a worldwide community of partnership brokers who, working as consultants or employees from inside an organization, bring strong professional competencies to the development and fulfillment of new collaborative ventures that cross sectors and organizational boundaries. Brokers fulfill two major functions:

  1. Helping partners address typical partnering challenges
  2. Improving a partnership’s efficiency, effectiveness and innovation
PBA Which-hat-cartoon-380x225

c/o PBA website


PBA has published a guide entitled What Do Partnership Brokers Do?  And they have recently started a new journal Betwixt and Between that is “the platform for stories from partnership brokers everywhere – bringing together insights in practice, thought leadership and critical analysis.”

According to the PBA Board chair, Microsoft executive Greg Butler, writing in Good for Business?, we need to shift from transactional partnerships to transformational ones:

“Partnerships come in all shapes and sizes. In the private sector, many so-called ‘development partnerships’ are essentially transactional and tactical involving philanthropy on the one hand or service-type contractual arrangements on the other. However, we came to realize in Microsoft that a true partnership approach is something very different. A better managed and understood partnering process can lead to genuine win-win collaboration—where the conversation moves from ‘here’s some money, this is what we expect you to deliver’ to ‘this is the problem/challenge, how can we solve it together?’”

Operating without great fanfare, PBA has been training small numbers of Canadians for some years. In fact, a Newfoundland and Labrador government department – The Rural Secretariat – has ensured that all its staff have taken at least the PBA’s Level 1 Training since they employ PBA’s partnership approach to achieve their mandate. As the Rural Secretariat explains, they are “a unique and innovative Provincial Government entity that strives to advance the sustainability of rural Newfoundland and Labrador communities and regions…by engaging the public in deliberative dialogue about sustainability issues and challenges [and] supporting collaboration between and among rural stakeholders including governments…”

PBA partners with local hosts to bring their trainings to Canada. The next 4-day Level 1 training is in partnership with JS Daw & Associates in Calgary the week of September 24th. The following session will be in Ottawa in March or April 2014.

The Intersector Project

Among the new resources in the collaboration ecosystem is an emerging organization, The Intersector Project (TIP). It is a merger of Tri-Sector Forum and the Collaborative Governance Resources Institute. Its goal is to enable “intersector leaders across the business, government and non-profit sectors to come together and create new solutions to society’s most pressing problems and challenges.”


c/o The Intersector Project website

TIP recognizes that “the most pressing challenges we face as a society – such as access to education, the rising cost of healthcare, energy security and infrastructure redevelopment – are best addressed through collaboration among and between the business, government and non-profit sectors.”

“Successful collaboration is not easy, however,” says TIP. “Reaching innovative solutions requires a complex set of collaboration strategies and processes that ensure the right people are engaging in the right way. Shepherding this along requires a unique type of leader who has the mindset, skills and networks to appreciate, engage and collaborate with and among all three sectors.” TIP will be providing professional services supporting these types of boundary spanning initiatives.

Moving Forward Together

The Toronto organization Rethinking Sustainability Initiatives (RSI) is also working to build strength in partnership building. RSI describes itself as “a hub for leaders who want to optimize sustainability and innovation for greater business and societal success.” On June 20th they hosted Taking Action: The Power of Collaboration, which “explored how diverse groups of business leaders and subject matter experts took action to break through traditional sustainability barriers with strategic collaborators…And what the collaborators would do differently if they could do it again.”

Two leaders in Deloitte’s public sector practice, US-Based William Eggers and Canadian Paul Macmillan, have a new book coming out entitled: The Solution Revolution: How Business, Government and Social Enterprises are Teaming Up to Solve Society’s Toughest Problems. They are identifying the importance of promoting a solutions ecosystem where “all the elements together draw strength from the diversity of contributions that collectively target all aspects of a given social challenge.”

solution economy

c/o The Solution Revolution to be published Fall 2013

The Social Enterprise World Forum (SEWF), scheduled for October 2 – 4 in Calgary, illustrates a prime example of Canadian collaboration. Event host, TRICO Charitable Foundation, is partnering with the Social Enterprise Council of Canada, the MaRS Centre for Impact Investing, Social Innovation Generation, the Social Finance Forum and the Canadian Community Economic Development Network. Through this groundbreaking partnership, SEWF 2013 is poised for the world stage. It is in this spirit that the SEWF will host a series of breakout sessions on Collaboration, featuring leaders like Ros Tennyson, co-founder of the Partnership Brokers Association, and covering topics like open data, sharing failure, and making unlikely alliances.

There is much cause for hope that we can move from a country of siloed efforts to one with a deep culture of effective cross-sector partnerships. The next step is where the rubber hits the road and we look forward to sharing the stories of breakthrough success in this collaborative new world.

Tell us your stories, share your experiences with us. We learn best when we learn together and we achieve more when we work together.

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Part II: Collaboration is the Jet Fuel for Social Innovation

Escaping our silos to achieve deep impact

SiloThis post is the second part of our blog series that is taking a deeper look at collaboration. Read part  I  “Why Collaboration Matters: The Platform for Social Innovation” here.

The world is a-buzz with social innovation these days. So much so that Roger Martin, Dean of Rotman School of Business, made some bold categorical statements in his recent essay, “The Trouble with Winning”, for Stanford Social Innovation Review’s 10th anniversary issue:

“It is fair to say that times have changed. Social innovation is now super-cool…Social innovation has gone from the fringes to center stage. In important ways, it has won. But winning isn’t an unalloyed good. It brings challenges that must be recognized and overcome if the movement is to continue to prosper… When anything exceeds forecasts, expectations skyrocket…”

As a result, Martin cautions:

Increasing numbers of people believe that social entrepreneurs can solve the world’s problems. No one can solve all the world’s problems. Social innovators can work together with governments, businesses, and NGOs to tackle global problems and make progress in solving them. This should be the message of all those who support and celebrate social innovation.


The Message: We Must Work Together

As Martin alludes to, solving complex problems outstrips the capacities of individual organizations and even individual sectors.  Consequently, collaborations, partnerships, and “collective impact” approaches are becoming the sine qua non for developing social change strategies, especially those tackling root causes.

While there is a long history of successful but sporadic individual cross-sector partnerships, the cultural shift towards a broad based approach – of cross-sector collaboration being the default – has been decades in the making.


An early watershed was 1992’s UN Conference on Environment & Development (UNCED) held in Rio that produced Agenda 21 calling for cross-sector partnerships:

“Agenda 21 puts most of the responsibility for leading change on national governments, but says they need to work in a broad series of partnerships with international organizations, business, regional, state, provincial and local governments, non-governmental and citizens’ groups. As Agenda 21 says, only a global partnership will ensure that all nations have a safer and more prosperous future.” - Canada’s International Institute for Sustainable Development

Don Tapscott, writing 20 years after Rio for the Martin Prosperity Institute, identified how the rise of cross-sector networks represents a major shift in tackling global challenges:

“There is a fundamental change underway regarding how global problems can be solved, and perhaps how we govern ourselves on this shrinking planet. Emerging non-state networks of civil society, private sector, government and individual stakeholders are achieving new forms of cooperation, social change and even the production of global public value. They address every conceivable issue facing humanity from poverty, human rights, health and the environment, to economic policy, war and even the governance of the Internet itself.”

If we are to address our modern world problems, then we must embrace boundary-spanning solutions, which inevitably necessitate cross-sector collaboration. Thankfully on the call for collaboration, no one sector is alone.


Survey Highlights Collaboration

The centrality of collaboration in the emerging “solution economy” is being recognized across all sectors.

In the wake of the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD), known as Rio+20, many of the 800 experts polled for the GlobeScan/SustainAbility survey, viewed collaboration “as one of the few models that could catalyze solutions to the sustainable development challenges that we face at the speed and scale that we need.”

The survey additionally found that:

  • “Despite pessimism of national governments’ willingness and ability to make substantive progress on the sustainability agenda, experts overwhelmingly believe that progress requires companies collaborating with multiple actors, including governments.”
  • “Public policy advocacy and consumer engagement on sustainability topics are seen as having the most upside when addressed through multi-actor collaboration…”
  • “Nearly half of experts cite access to diverse perspectives and expertise and pooling risk as keys to the business case for collaboration; Cost reduction is not seen as a primary reason to collaborate.”


Business Leaders See Collaboration as Key to Successful Innovation

Another reinforcing study is the Global Innovation Barometer, which reported that:

“Canadian business executives identified increased collaboration as one of the keys to successful innovation. Results showed 85% of Canadian respondents would partner first to enter new markets (6% above global average), and 83% would partner to improve an existing product or service (8% above global average).”


Former Civil Servant Calls For Collaborative Government-Nonprofit Partnerships

In his article “A Social Contract for Government”, Peter Shergold, Australia’s former top civil servant, concludes that robust cross-sector collaboration is critical to the future success of social development. His article lays out the new vision:

“Until now the transformative potential of public-community relationships and the contract state has been constrained. NFPs have too often been thought of merely as outsourced providers rather than collaborative partners. If governments and their public services can move from contract managers to innovation facilitators, bold new forms of democratic governance will become possible…[NFPs] should be empowered to influence the policy parameters, administrative guidelines, and contractual conditions under which they operate. The attitude on the government side should be one of building a relationship, not managing a contract.”


United Way Shifts to Collaborative Social Innovation

Most of today’s community leaders who rose up in the ranks inherited a mindset that saw social change through the lens of the valiant efforts of individual organizations. The spirit of rugged individualism was reinforced by a challenging fundraising environment in Canada, which saw the growth of social and ecological needs expanding faster than the financial resource base.

Apex organizations like the United Way, who have the luxury of taking a sector-wide view, are helping catalyze collaboration and collective impact. For example, the United Way of Calgary recently inaugurated its Leading Boldly Network (LBN) to become a city that solves issues innovatively and collaboratively. To achieve this vision, LBN is working with nine executive directors from a diverse range of agencies to harness the collaborative power of networks in five ways:

1      Creating and weaving social ties,

2      Accessing diverse perspectives,

3      Openly building and sharing knowledge about collaborative social innovation,

4      Creating infrastructure for widespread engagement, and

5      Coordinating resources and action to make progress on complex social problems.


Collective Impact Movement Gains Momentum

CollectiveImpactLandmark thought leadership from FSG helped North American nonprofits think through a  collaboration lens. In 2011 Mark Kramer and John Kania wrote their now famous article “Collective Impact,” recognizing that large-scale social change requires broad cross-sector coordination.

Canada has quietly been a leader in this movement for over a decade, with support from Tamarack – An Institute for Community Engagement and their pioneering work through Vibrant Communities: a national network of leading social, civic, and business organizations that are transforming the way communities reduce poverty.

Whether in Canada or abroad, collaboration is essential to unleashing the innovations necessary to solve intractable societal issues. Fortunately, all sectors are heeding this call. In my next post, we will go beyond the why and examine the how of collaboration.


Further reading

Steve Waddell represents another Canadian leader in the field of collaboration. Waddell supports and writes about “global action networks” as a vehicle for harnessing the problem solving capabilities of diverse stakeholders. His book, Global Action Networks: Creating Our Future Together, appeared in 2011.

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