The Game Has Changed: The Empathy Keystone

For the past six weeks, our team and our SIX Summer School Vancouver 2014 partners – Social Innovation Exchange and BC Partners for Social Impact – have been sifting through, sorting and curating the wealth of content captured during the summit. The breadth and richness of the knowledge exchange at SIX is undoubtedly enough to write a book on the State of Social Innovation in 2014. Amidst this richness, however, is exquisite simplicity; for a field dedicated to working in complexity, two ‘simple’ (even primordial) practices surfaced again and again as essential for leveraging that complexity: collaboration and empathy.

Of course, engaging in collaboration or practicing empathy is neither simple nor easy; they have been the purview of faith and philosophical teachings for 1,000s of years and the centrepiece of kindergarten teachings, workshops, trainings, retreats, literature, and research in the past century. Moreover, they are interlinked actions: collaboration is a process enabled by empathy. Given this precondition of empathy for collaboration, the collective wisdom of the SIX Summer School pointed to empathy as a keystone of social innovation.

As this became increasingly clear in curating the learnings from SIX, further connections began to unfold, linking these emergent insights from an international network of social innovators more broadly to the global community of social change practice. Close on the heels of SIX, the SiG June IASI event — in partnership with Ashoka Canada and MaRS Discovery District — was In Conversation with Bill Drayton, the founder and CEO of Ashoka; the dialogue was moderated by MaRS CEO Ilse Treurnicht. A champion and pioneer of social entrepreneurship, Drayton’s current message and mission is that the movement of the 21st century must be to nurture, teach and train empathy — especially in children.

Between the SIX Summer School, In Conversation with Bill Drayton, the ongoing work of both the SIX and Ashoka networks, and many more initiatives, it is clear that a mix of cross-pollination, simultaneous discovery, and knowledge exchange is nourishing a common valuation of empathy as the bedrock of the 21st century. A powerful mindset shift is underway.

In Conversation with Bill Drayton

For Drayton, the shift will be towards empathy-based ethics, replacing the current ethics ‘rulebook’ with a constellation of principles rooted in empathy (such as compassion, hospitality, initiative, intuition, contribution, and empowerment). Why? Because the rigidity of our current rulebook — and the rules themselves — apply less and less in an exponentially changing world. We are dragging the values, mindsets, and legal/financial structures of a Fordist, pre-digital, pre-networked system into the global, interconnected, interdependent and omnidirectional relationships of the present. The game has changed. Empathy is essential to understanding this new world and our humanity in it.

“Every child must master empathy-based ethics because the rules are changing; the less they apply the less learning them has positive impact” — Bill Drayton 

Arguably, empathy and collaboration have always mattered to the integrity of a society, but the argument now is that empathy is the essential skill to thrive socially, ecologically and economically in the present day. In a world defined by exponential rates of change across all systems, Drayton’s position is that everyone can and must be a changemaker, because change is the new game; it is not a question of whether we should nurture an ‘everyone is a changemaker world,’ it is imperative that we do so. Enabling and empowering this new norm of empathic agency is what Drayton calls a ‘teams of teams’ model; a model of collaborative co-leadership by and within teams.

A teams of teams model was similarly championed at the SIX Summer School as participants discussed the power and possibility of Public and Social Innovation Labs (PSI Labs), community-led development, co-production, co-working spaces, nested innovation hubs, cross-sector networks, and ecosystem building. The common call is that the operational norms of our relationships — working, personal, institutional, civic, and community — are shifting, and must shift, toward the principles of collaboration; a practical and mindset shift that is not only an essential driver of positive systems change, but is a form of transformative systems change itself.

“If everyone is a changemaker, there’s no way a problem can outrun a solution” — Bill Drayton

There is a convergence happening as both social entrepreneurs — which Drayton describes as entrepreneurs with big pattern-change ideas for the good of all — and communities establish a new precedent: the wellbeing of all supports the sustainable wealth of all. At the same time, system pressures are driving commerce, institutions and innovation in the same direction.  “All the evidence shows companies committed to values internally, do better financially,” says Drayton. An ethical and ecological imperative for empathy is now also an economic imperative.

“This is the most thrilling moment in human history, we are leaving an unequal, unfair world” — Bill Drayton
Practicing Empathy: Active Listening Exercise

This simple sounding exercise can be deeply challenging.  It takes one step:

(1) When listening to another person, turn off your inner monologue; silence the inner voice in your head that is reflecting, judging, observing, cataloguing, analyzing and preparing what to say next. Quiet that voice. Listen completely to the other person.

Try this with one person. Then another. Then another. Do you recall his or her name? Are you hearing more, and remembering more, about what that person is saying? Feeling?

          

In conversation with Bill Drayton from Social Innovation Generation on Vimeo

Further Resources:

Start empathy

Ashoka

Bill Drayton sees a world where ‘everyone is a changemaker’ — Christian Science Monitor

Leading With Authenticity — 2014 Skoll World Forum

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Kelsey Spitz About Kelsey Spitz

Kelsey is the Senior Associate at SiG National.

Comments

  1. Love this! I’m working to bring empathy into the university. I really appreciate the great resources. There’s also another project that I am helping with to bring empathy and alternative education into the Vancouver elementary school system. Thanks again!

  2. Even Inc. Magazine agrees with the importance of cultivating empathy: http://www.inc.com/jessica-stillman/3-habits-that-will-increase-your-empathy.html?cid=sf01002

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