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?

How can we make it easier to discover Social R&D?

We are already a month into 2017, Canada’s 150th birthday year. How exciting! This year, we are committed to building on the momentum to help strengthen the legitimacy, community, capital and capabilities of R&D in Canada’s social impact sector.

Introducing the Social R&D Digest*

*We welcome ideas on a more catchy name!

The Digest is an easy way to discover and promote experiments, insights and practitioners. Sent to your email inbox every two months, the Digest is a curated collection of crowdsourced Social R&D stories along three streams:

1 – experiments & pivots
2 – methods & practices
3 – structures & business models

We believe that by highlighting what works, insights, and pivots by people pursuing R&D in social mission organizations across Canada – that the social impact sector will work even better, and make bolder leaps and advancements to enhancing lives.

The inaugural edition will be sent out February 28th.

That brings me to… call for stories!

What experiments are you working on? What new practices have you implemented? What methods have you discovered? What business models are you trying out? What key lessons have you learned?

Let’s feature them as part of the inaugural Digest.

Send a 75-100 word story, with a photo and any web links to vinod@sigeneration.ca by 5pm Eastern February 15, 2017.

Sign up here to receive the inaugural Digest.

Why experiment, anyway?

A Year of Exploration

From Wikimedia Commons

December has been a month of reflection for many years – not because it’s close to year-end but because I moved to Canada as a preteen in December. I remember the start of my journey in this beautiful country. My earliest memories of Canada are snow, the holidays, and some of the more unique things we have put in place to care for one another as a society. Things like the Canada Pension Plan (CPP), Registered Education Savings Plan (RESP), and a high-functioning public education system were foreign to me. My mother took English as a Second Language from an immigrant services organization that was supported by the local community foundation. The idea of a community foundation was foreign to me.

St. Elizabeth

Today, community and social assets, such as the ones I learned about when I first arrived, are all around us – many invisible. You could say they are in the air we breathe. Yet, once upon a time, they were novel. They were innovations. Some folks somewhere, decided to craft hypotheses, do research, run experiments, test assumptions, take risks, and scale what worked. No asset is designed to operate at its optimal forever, and in a fast-changing world, we often forget how fragile our community and social assets can be. How might they be ready for and evolve in a way that attends to tomorrow’s needs? How might the spark of experimentation that led to the creation of these assets be rekindled, sustained and embedded within these organizations? What conditions are necessary to make continuous innovation worthwhile?

Questions such as these led us to kick-start an exploration to strengthen community and capability, and seed more capital for social impact organizations practicing research and development, or as we are calling it for now, “Social R&D.” The exploration is incubated by SiG, supported by The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, and is championed by a growing movement of organizations including: Community Foundations of Canada, Open North, MaRS, Skills Society, Engineers Without Borders Canada, WEST Neighbourhood House, York University, and many others.

The Social R&D exploration caught the wind this year, taking a multi-sector approach. There were policy professionals, front-line agencies, executives, academics, entrepreneurs, storytellers, engineers, designers, and many others contributing to the journey.

We focused on four primary areas of enhancement to social and grant-making organizations:

Demystifying R&D and demonstrating R&D in action

Through Appreciative Inquiry principles, we researched and shared 50 inspiring R&D practices in Canada’s social impact sector to demystify the practice, surface resonating language, and identify ways for grant-makers and social mission organizations to better activate, empower and build R&D capacity, capability, community and capital. We packaged the practices in a first-of-its kind report in Canada – called ‘Getting to Moonshot’ with a Foreword by Geoff Mulgan, Chief Executive of Nesta.

CommuniTEA

Catalyzing a community

We hosted gatherings, had one-on-one meetings and phone calls, and engaged over 100 people practicing R&D within their organizations. Through this exploration, more Social R&D practitioners found each other. Peer relationships began to deepen and grow, across geographies, sectors and disciplines. This community has its roots in a Social R&D Declaration of Action that was co-created and jointly signed in late-2015.

Advancing practice

We designed and hosted two unique gatherings this year to cross-pollinate, advance, and increase the adoption of R&D practices. In August, we convened approximately 20 practitioners from across Canada to connect with one another and with funders to learn, share insights, exchange methods, and find ways to strengthen their organizational R&D craft. In October, in partnership with Community Foundations of Canada, we led an inaugural study tour to Silicon Valley to learn about R&D practices, emerging technologies, and innovations in the world’s leading lean R&D ecosystem. We also contributed to the development of a new labs and experimentation learning module hosted by Innoweave. The module kicks-off in January.

Grantbook

Influencing policy

Social R&D can lead to better policy development. We also believe that Canada can drive inclusive growth by strengthening R&D in the not-for-profit and charitable sector. However, this sector remains one of the least supported in terms of access to federal R&D infrastructure, advisory support, capacity and capital. We helped to convene a cross-sector policy gathering with Public Policy Forum in June; participated in policy meetings and consultations, including the pan-Canadian innovation policy consultation, and; submitted a policy brief to the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development focused on enhancing federal R&D support for Canada’s social sector.

We have just begun this journey. Not everything worked as planned, there were failures along the way – there always will be (more on the failures in January). We are thrilled to advance each of the above four areas in 2017 and have you join this exploration as a partner, champion or practitioner.

The funny thing with mainstreaming experimentation is that we will not know what approaches will work best in advance. Only through experimentation, fast learning, and showing how it’s improving lives will they materialize.

INNOVATING INNOVATION: Connecting technological, business and social innovation

SiG Note: This article was originally published on the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation blog and Tamarack CCI.  Earlier Spanish and Basque versions of this blog were published in Spain by Innobasque.

We have reached a watershed moment.

After a century of robust development of technological and business innovation, plus several decades of cracking the code of social innovation, the time has come to create an integrated innovation system.

Nasa_grid Innovation has long been recognized as necessary for a nation’s economic and business success. But citizens have relied on a trickle down approach for the benefits from technological and business innovation to trigger broad societal well-being. Unfortunately today’s social, ecological and economic problems – ranging from preventable chronic disease to social exclusion to youth unemployment to climate change – are escalating in scale, severity and urgency. They won’t wait for laissez-faire innovation.

Society’s needs and innovation’s benefits can be more directly connected and aligned. The opportunity of the 21st century is to harness the combined power of social innovation and mainstream (technological and business) innovation.

Mainstream innovation is an advanced ecosystem of technological, business, financial and human resources wired to produce efficiencies, profit and, increasingly, disruption. Social innovation works primarily at the margins to take on the most pressing social and ecological challenges of the 21st century. Social innovation responds to gaping tears in our social fabric made more visible as aging systems fall behind or fail to use new tools like behavioural economics, human-centred design, collective intelligence, and both open and big data.

The urgent call is to steward a new collaborative mindset and approach. One that integrates today’s tools and technologies with new knowledge emerging from across all sectors on innovation, social behavior, social capital, collaboration and networks.  We need an innovation system driven by a new integrated innovation paradigm and a solutions-oriented economy.

The status quo isn’t working.

The OECD reports that “[i]n 2014, OECD countries devoted more than one-fifth of their economic resources to public social support”.  It is estimated that 17% of Canada’s GDP, or approximately $300 billion, is spent on social outcomes. In the US, that figure is closer to 19.2% of GDP and in Spain, it is higher still, at 26.8% of GDP.

What are we missing by not having a more inclusive, integrated national innovation system, capable of producing greatly improved and robust social outcomes? How can we repurpose the large investments in social programs that are structured mostly to mitigate rather than solve societal challenges? How can we catalyze a purpose-driven innovation ecosystem?

The problem is not that these questions are not being asked. Nor that we are not already deploying social innovation and advancing social outcomes in critical domains. The problem is that these efforts remain marginal to the scale of our challenges.

Something more is needed: we must rewire the innovation system.

We have to be intentional around rewiring the innovation system with a solutions-orientation. This includes its:

  • Purpose: Solving grand challenges in the pursuit of inclusive prosperity and well-being;
  • Processes: Integrated social, business and STEM innovation;
  • Players: Public sector, business, civil society organizations, marginalized communities, media and academia; and,
  • Guiding rules: New paradigms of collaboration and competition, new open and bottom-up principles, new forms of interoperability and sustainability.

This will require a new role for public investment, one that honours the vital role of government in market creation and driving periods of transformative change.

Economist Mariana Mazzucato, in her groundbreaking research on public investment, notes:

“…markets are ‘blind’ and the direction of change they provide often represents suboptimal outcomes from a societal point of view. This is why, in addressing societal challenges, states have had to lead the process and provide the direction towards new ‘technoeconomic paradigms’, which do not emerge spontaneously from market forces.”

14224001703_03a3ba6ee6_zMazzucato identifies the role that government must continue to play as a key, and often more daring, partner of the private sector, derisking critical directions for market development. Recognizing government as a public investor opens up the opportunity to re-deploy vast resources (currently being spent on shoring up frail systems inadequately serving public needs) toward a common mission of integrated innovation for shared and inclusive prosperity.

It won’t be easy. As Mazzucato’s colleague, Essex University’s Andy Stirling, notes:

“The more demanding the challenges for innovation (like poverty, ill health or environmental damage), the greater becomes the importance of effective policy. These challenges of innovation policy go well beyond simplistic notions of governments trying to ‘pick winners’…This is about culturing the most fruitfully cross-fertilizing conditions across society as a whole, for collectively seeding and selecting across many alternative possibilities and together nurturing the most potentially fruitful. This involves collaboratively deliberating, negotiating and constructing what ‘winning’ even means, not just how best to achieve it.”

From adhocracy to transformed systems.

There are exemplary cases of social and mainstream innovation converging to produce transformational social and economic outcomes, such as the Grameen-Danone Partnership, the co-operative movement, and the Toronto Atmospheric Fund. But we need to support a move from  exceptional successes on the margins to a mainstreamed mindset of, and approach to, integrated innovation.

light-bulb-ideaTo succeed, we will rely on new agile innovation hosting platforms where business, STEM and social innovation can actively come together with shared accountabilities and support systems. The opportunity here is to build on local experiences, capacities and knowledge assets, as well as global insight, evidence and models. One groundbreaking Canadian example of this is Grand Challenges Canada, tackling global health challenges affecting the developing world.

In the near term, this requires  a new narrative about the origin and the role of innovation, as a process that facilitates direct, not laissez-faire, public benefits. Aligning our innovation systems more tangibly with inclusive prosperity and social outcomes depends on shifting how we understand, value, practice and apply all streams of innovation

This is the watershed moment: a multi-sector opportunity and imperative to unleash the full potential of our creativity, research capacity, knowledge and resources on our most pressing social, economic and ecological challenges to foster lasting, sustainable well-being and prosperity.

 

Shooting for the Moon: How can we make Social Missions as inspiring as Space Missions?

SiG Note: This article was originally published on Medium on January 21, 2016. It has been cross-posted with permission from the author.

In the last couple of months, the world has seen the successful SpaceX ORBCOMM-2 launch and landing, heard US Vice President Joe Biden’s ‘moonshot to cure cancer’, and witnessed the unsuccessful SpaceX attempt to land first stage of the JASON-3 rocket on a drone ship.

Now, I haven’t done a thorough analysis, but a quick check on Twitter shows that Joe Biden’s cure for cancer moonshot announcement received 1,792 retweets and 4,307 favourites while Elon Musk’s successful landing announcement received 5,494 retweets and a whopping 11,100 favourites. I’d argue that far more people are impacted by cancer than they are about the future of space exploration. So this delta is intriguing for me, and raises a variety of questions.

How might social moonshots be as inspiring and compelling as, well, actual moonshots? What if we followed social missions as closely as space missions? What if we embraced social mission failures as learnings, in the same way as we did the recent unsuccessful drone ship landing?

As a trained aerospace engineer, having worked in the field for a few years and now working on things that help us do good better, I’m intrigued by these questions. There is such excitement, inspiration, and sense of possibility during a space mission launch. So where’s the wonder during a social mission launch?

I believe social missions can be as compelling and as inspiring for the future as space missions. For anyone who’s passionate about solving the world’s toughest problems, there are a number of course corrections (see what I did there) that we must consider for the future of social impact to be an exciting and inspiring one. Here are 10 ways that come to mind:

1. The narrative can’t be one of scarcity. 

People don’t say space exploration is needed because Earth has a scarcity problem or it needs fixing. This is almost never the narrative. It’s always been about extending human potential and building human capability. However, the narrative in the social impact space falls under “not having enough X” or “fixing Y.” Entire campaigns are built and run on this narrative.

The take-away: The scarcity narrative isn’t an inspiring one.

2. It’s about high-risk and high-value. 

There is a recognition of the quantum of investment and risk that’s needed to build a vehicle that can reach outer space. There is no room for ‘drip funding.’ One doesn’t hear, “Let’s commit to fins this year, perhaps guidance system next year, and maybe nose cone the year after. And to qualify for year 2, submit a report on how the fins are doing.”

The take-away: It’s easy to get distracted by drip funding but this often leads us to mediocre and piecemeal, not high-value solutions.

3. Find a sustained energy source. 

A sustained energy source is required for long space missions. Flying by Pluto takes time. In fact, New Horizons launched in 2006 and it only approached Pluto in mid-2015 — almost 10 years later. So, the spacecraft must be designed with the ‘right-sized’ energy source that can deliver on the mission as well as mild course-corrects, and not with a source that can only get it half-way. Spacecraft are built to mission and ambition specs.

The take-away: Building to ambition specs is inspiring.

4. Celebrate escape velocity (output), not securing the parts (input).

Reaching escape velocity (minimum speed for a spacecraft to break free from gravitational pull of Earth) is everything in a launch. This is celebrated by everyone. However, in social change, there exists a strange practice of, to use a food analogy, congratulating the chef for getting the ingredients. This is not inspiring.

The take-away: Let’s be mindful of celebrating inputs and be present to celebrate reaching escape velocity.

5. Jettison items that no longer add value. 

In space missions, the payload is exactly what is required (weight is everything) and in cases where redundancy is needed, extra equipment is worked in. When something is no longer relevant, it is shut down or jettisoned. Obsolescence is part of the design of a mission. Space missions cannot afford to service obsolete items or items that no longer add value as it might jeopardize the mission. However, more often than not, social programs and services are built with a sense of permanence in mind.

The take-away: We must design-in active obsolescence management such that programs and services stay relevant and inspiring.

6. Share the mission in real-time. 

Major space launches have been broadcasting live ever since live broadcasts were possible on TV and then on the internet. Today, anybody from anywhere in the world (this is key) can go to NASA’s website to get updates on any active missions. Launches, delays, blow ups, lost communications — you can see it all. In social change work, much of real-time progress is shielded, progress is typically shared in a closed-loop fashion with funders or donors. We have become accustomed to shield experiments, failures or delays from the public.

The take-away: When we share by default, we inspire.

7. Build with foresight. 

SpaceX could easily make a compelling business case just launching satellites — and potentially accelerate reaching profitability. Instead, they have decided that this isn’t enough. They bring a high degree of foresight to their work. SpaceX doesn’t just want to launch satellites the way we know how to do it today, but set the pace and build for how space missions might happen 25 years from now.

The take-away: If we build for how we want social programs 25 years from now, we would inspire millions.

8. Use natural forces as a slingshot. 

Gravity is our friend but can also be a nightmare. Once we reach Earth’s escape velocity however, gravity can be amazing and be used to our advantage — to boost the spacecraft farther and save energy. In space missions, everything (even natural forces) are viewed as assets. With an open mind, and a bit of creativity, we can look beyond classic forms of assets for social change. We could flip something that might appear to be a nightmare in one context but could act as a ‘gravity boost’ in another to advance the mission.

The take-away: Assets are everywhere in social missions.

9. Design to dock with a larger system. 

Interoperability is critical in space missions. Europeans, Russians, Canadians, Japanese and Americans all contribute components to the International Space Station. The parts are designed a bit like LEGO pieces — they are designed to “dock or connect” with one another. This level of interoperability makes platforms like the Space Station possible. Imagine organizations in different sectors working toward a shared social change ambition designed projects, programs or interventions with interoperability as a core function…we might have shared knowledge, shared assets, and shared human capital. We might even look at liabilities, governance, empathy, and risks in a shared way.

The take-away: Interoperability levels the playing field, gives us all peripheral vision, and allows us to bring our best ‘LEGO pieces’ to solving complex problems.

10. Steward ambition. 

People might come and go but leadership around an ambition stays. It is rare that a long-term space mission, like New Horizons gets unmonitored or falls to the bottom of the ambition stack upon change in people. Nothing is protected 100% of course, as there are always economical, political, and other factors at play. However, there is a recognition that space missions require a sustained level of ‘ambition stewardship’ by a variety of actors, and that a “start, stop, start” approach causes disruptions that ultimately causes setbacks to the mission.

The take-away: What if we moved beyond the 1 year, 2 year or 3 year support approach in social change and curated ambition commitments that last 10 or 15 years? This is inspiring.

This note is a thesis. My intention is to push us to disrupt ourselves, and to provoke a more nuanced way of thinking about our practice of generating social change. I hope you can use this to reflect on how you might make your social moonshot more inspiring, engaging, and compelling.

Author’s note: Thanks to Jason Pearman.