Social R&D in Silicon Valley: Field Notes #1

This is the first in a series of Field Notes this year on methods, business models, conditions, as well as profiles of organizations pursuing or supporting R&D in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley. The observations, ideas and provocations here are meant to help us revisit our own assumptions and ask if our approaches are fit for the future, all with the aim of strengthening Canada’s Social R&D ecosystem.

Peter Diamandis, Co-founder of Singularity University and XPRIZE Foundation, two highly regarded impact-oriented organizations in Silicon Valley, reflected on the value of experimentation in a recent blog.

Singularity University is a global community using exponential technologies to tackle the world’s biggest challenges.

Diamandis noted:

“Running great experiments and building a culture of experimentation are crucial for driving breakthroughs in your organization.”

He also highlighted:

“You must ask the kind of questions to which you don’t currently know the answer, but if you did, you’d change the way you operate. If you already know the answer, or if you are testing an insignificant detail that doesn’t matter, you’ll just be wasting time and money. To get good questions/experiments, you must create a culture that incentivizes asking good questions and designing good experiments.”

Since January 2017, I am spending some time each month in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley to better understand: their culture of experimentation, how organizations structure themselves to deliver offerings in tandem with developing new and improved offerings, and the role of funders and grantmakers in supporting the practice of R&D in the impact sector.

The two questions I’m currently pursuing:

As we help create the conditions for a vibrant Social R&D ecosystem in Canada, what might Silicon Valley, the world’s largest R&D ecosystem teach us?
How might we begin to bridge the two ecosystems for exchange and mutual learning?  

Last year Community Foundation of Canada organized a Canadian Delegation to Sillicon Valley with the help from SiG fellow Vinod Rajasekaran.

In my time so far, I have met with, had site tours, and shadowed:

– mission-oriented startups like HandUp, Year Up and DataKind;

– innovation outposts like Swissnex, Center for the Edge, and Unicef innovation;

– community hubs like Impact Hub and Kapor Center for Social Impact;

– accelerators like Fast Forward;

– funders like Tipping Point Foundation, Silicon Valley Community Foundation, Omidyar Network and Draper Richard Kaplan Foundation;

– mature organizations like Kiva, Center for Care Innovations, and Feeding America, and;

– institutes like Long Now Foundation, Institute for the Future, and Singularity University.

Initial observations:

There is no ecosystem curator. They operate as a hive culture.

When I probed on the absence of a single curator to nurture an ecosystem for Social R&D, individuals mentioned that having a curator organization “can create a culture of dependence.” This might be the good-old “analog switchboard operator” versus “digital platforms” analogy. Digital platforms are more widely accessible, they can be used to self-organize for both online and offline engagements, and can help harvest collective intelligence more effectively and efficiently. However, ‘curator dependence’ is worth unpacking and following further. What are the dependencies experienced in an ecosystem by having a single curator organization? In what contexts have single curators served us well?

Grantmaking strategies must integrate funding for delivery and development. 

Individuals and organizations recognized the multi-dimensional nature of investment required to kick-start, embed and sustain R&D activities, capacity and function. It means investing in people, infrastructure, adoption, and skills, in addition to research and experiments. Nonprofits accelerator Fast Forward is an example of an organization that supports development of organizational R&D culture, skills and experiments. It is the first nonprofit accelerator that I have come across where research and experimentation capacity-building was baked into the acceleration program; enabling resourcing and mentorship around applying R&D methods such as A/B testing. Tipping Point Foundation is an example of a grantmaker that invests between $200,000 and $700,000 in unrestricted funding to build their grantees’ organizational R&D capacity over multiple years. This includes support of the development process, skills and competencies, data and research infrastructure, and initial experiments. At Tipping Point, funding both delivery and development is core to their grantmaking strategy. Grantmakers such as the Omidyar Network, Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, and Nasiri Foundation also deliver unrestricted funding as part of their grants and impact investments to empower R&D in their investees’ and grantees’ organizations. How might Canada’s grantmakers and impact investors take an integrated funding approach that combines delivery and R&D (embedded capacity, skills, infrastructure and experiments)?

High velocity can create blind spots.

The ‘move fast and break things’ culture in Silicon Valley can create blind spots around inclusion and public benefit. While significant research investment goes into, as an example, the design and development of new emojis, the same proportion of investment will likely not go into research around who the emojis include or exclude, and their long-term individual and collective behavioural, policy or psychological impacts. They are, however, beginning to mitigate this risk. A recent attempt is the announcement of a $27 million open R&D fund for artificial intelligence (AI) in the public interest. The Fund is supported by the Knight Foundation, Omidyar Network, Hewlett Foundation, among others. It’s apparent that organizations in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley often struggle to balance multi-generational effects and outlook in their work, with a world that is fast-paced, focused on the present, and rewards short-termism. Organizations such as the Institute for the Future play a critical role by hosting foresight labs in food, health, cities, and other areas. The Long Now Foundation, an organization that cultivates long-term thinking through lectures and seminars, also has an active role in this ecosystem as a counterweight to the high-velocity culture. Might the same hold true in Canada? Who is Canada’s counterweight and futures host?

Mesh technical and non-technical ecosystems.

The technology and social change ecosystems in Silicon Valley can seem disconnected and, in many ways divided, with protests around Google buses and protests for better pay for Uber drivers. However, the two ecosystems are more consciously building bridges and becoming more connected. Organizations such as: Kapor Center for Social Impact, HandUp, DataKind, Feed America, Code for America, Hacktivision and NetHope act as important bridge builders between the social services, social impact and the technology worlds. In addition, the World Economic Forum is opening their new Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution in San Francisco focused on the public policy impacts of emerging technologies such as Blockchain, autonomous craft, and artificial intelligence.  Bridge building organizations create opportunities that deepen trust and mutual value through exchange, learning, and co-creating. Could the technical and non-technical ecosystems be more integrated in Canada in order to achieve inclusive growth?

Discovery and problem-orientation.

R&D in the social impact sector can often be centred around defining and solving a “problem” at the outset of designing an intervention or options for interventions. This approach is most prevalent in Canada, often under a ‘labs’ manifestation. While an intentional focus on the problem may get to the heart of a right-sized intervention, organizations such as Kiva, Khan Academy, Singularity University, Wikipedia and the Center for Care Innovations seem more ‘discovery-oriented’ in their R&D. The underlying assumption for this approach is that “possibilities are often hidden and oblique, so curious tinkering might lead to new discoveries that are not so obvious.” How might curious tinkering be empowered in Canada’s social impact sector?

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Vinod Rajasekaran About Vinod Rajasekaran

Vinod Rajasekaran is an engineer and cross-sector leader obsessed with improving systems so we can do good better for the next 100 years. He is SiG's Fellow, exploring Social R&D.

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