There’s a really great recent post on the Stanford Social Innovation Review blog by Mario Marino, founder of Venture Philanthropy Partners, a venture philanthropy fund in Washington, DC. Mario’s post is the best attempt I’ve seen yet to frame the current state of America (deepening recession, crumbling institutions, etc.) as a tremendous opportunity to reinvent ourselves. And although Mario set out to write a post about the new White House Office of Social Innovation, he realized that what is happening in America is a much larger need for innovation:
Instead of focusing on social innovation, I feel compelled to lift up a level and talk about innovation more broadly. I am convinced that, amid the many challenges facing our President, nothing is more important for the long-term strength of our nation than driving greater levels of innovation across all sectors of our economy, including the nonprofit sector.
Indeed, Mario points out that although we are a country of innovators, we have lost our urgency to innovate. The current crisis we are in will force us as a country to find innovative solutions to all that ails us:
Through radical innovation in our commercial, nonprofit, and public sectors, we must break the status quo that is too often miring us in mediocrity—from how we manufacture our products to how we educate our children, from how we consume energy to how we provide health care. We have no choice but to discover and deliver new, different, and better ways of dealing with our most vexing challenges.
He suggests that three trends will enable us to seize the moment and innovate our way out of this mess:
- Influx of Talent: The increased entrepreneurial spirit and drive of 20-40 somethings, the energy of the Baby Boom generation, and immigrant talent and expertise will create a large group of people with energy, interest and initiative to develop new solutions
- New Mindset: The new generation of entrepreneurs is more interested in innovation for social good than innovation for individual gain (I wrote about this trend as well).
- New Networking Technologies: Web 2.0 and social media have made coordinating and scaling innovation much easier and faster.
These three trends create a huge opportunity for America to take our crushing problems and innovate our way to solutions:
If necessity is the mother of invention, then this crisis, which has laid bare the depth of our needs, provides us the dramatic necessity to drive innovation and spur entrepreneurs of all types and sizes to find ways to deal with our challenges. The real change makers will be those throughout the land in small and big enterprises, the new and the old, the scientific innovator to the obsessively compelled entrepreneur, across all sectors, who take up this challenge.
And Mario tasks the Obama administration with leading this movement towards innovation :
So while I could not be more supportive of the Office of Social Innovation, I believe this is a chance for the President to systematically foster a mindset in America that is nothing short of a cultural and economic ground-shift. He must broaden the focus across and among the private, public, and nonprofit sectors—to seek and spark the most promising innovations whether they come from commercial or social entrepreneurs, executives or line workers, community leaders, public servants, researchers, or citizens who don’t fit into any of these categories. The real opportunity before the President is to supercharge innovators from all walks of life and make commercial and social innovation our national imperative.
However, I don’t think it is all up to the Obama administration. Rather, this national need for innovation is up to all three sectors, not just the public sector, to lead. Venture capitalists and angel investors can seek out and seed great solutions (for profit or not), nonprofits that have found solutions can create growth plans, corporations can take a larger view of how they measure success to include social profit instead of just financial profit, foundations can harness their corpus towards innovation through mission-related investing, and the list goes on. A White House Office of Social Innovation is a start and Obama encouraging a new spirit of innovation would be great. But to truly become an innovative nation again we’ve all got to take the lead and explore how we can use our respective resources in new ways to encourage solutions.