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Seth Godin calls for an end to the age of conformity

   /   May 10th, 2010Education, Government, News, Tech

In India, so many people suffer during dry spells that the government uses farmers’ suicide rates as an official measurement of drought, marketing guru Seth Godin told a gathering of business, government and social sector leaders last week at the NYC Symposium for Social Change.

Yet drip irrigation systems could ameliorate much of this suffering, so why haven’t we implemented them widely? And for that matter, why is there such a gap between our intentions and outcomes in the world today?

Godin’s answer: we’re too obedient. The powers that be have socialized us to work in their factories and consume their products. We don’t rock the boat enough by pushing new ideas like, say, drip irrigation.

Admittedly, Godin’s explanation was a bit facile. There are all sorts of structural factors that leave Indian farmers highly vulnerable to drought (drip irrigation systems cost money after all). Yet, his overall message was spot on: the brutality of the problems that rack our world makes social innovation a moral imperative.

Godin was upbeat about the future. He described a groundswell of positive deviance bubbling up all over. The digital age has made it more difficult for elites to impose their will from above. The most powerful leaders are no longer oligarchs, but people with potent ideas that inspire followers and create movements.

Godin concluded by challenging everybody to think about ways they can disrupt the world and spread a little positive trouble. He offered no blueprint (giving directions for nonconformity would be an oxymoron), but many of the other speakers at the Symposium had ideas:

  • Create new technologies that empower individual changemakers. Ron Gonen explained how RecycleBank’s intel processors encourage green stewardship by measuring how much households recycle and rewarding them with gift coupons. Meanwhile, Gregory Gunn of Wireless Generation spoke of new tools to make it easier for parents to help their kids with homework. DonorsChoose founder Charles Best described his crowdsourced fundraising platform through which teachers have raised over $50 million to purchase resources for their classes.
  • Redefine governments as portfolio managers. Joel Klein, Chancellor of Education for New York City—America’s largest school district—said he no longer sees the city as the operator of schools, but rather as a hands-off manager of a portfolio of schools. He has embraced charter schools and increased the authority of principals to make decisions like ‘should we invest in afterschool programs or reduce class size?’ At the same time, he holds principals accountable by shutting down underperforming schools—a move that has drawn criticism, but which Klein claims has led to an unprecedented increase in student performance and graduation rates.
  • Enlarge the scope for businesses to act as change agents. In the past, there were only two legal formats available to entrepreneurs: nonprofit or for profit. Each had their constraints: nonprofit ventures had difficulty raising private capital, and for profits could be sued by shareholders if they put principles above profits.
    Enter B Lab, an organization that seeks to carve out a sector of the economy that uses business approaches to attack social problems. Just in the past month, B Lab celebrated two victories: the passage of “benefit corporation” legislation in Maryland and Virginia, which will offer greater legal protections to business that place principles over profits and President Obama’s endorsement of GIIRS–a new global rating system created by B Lab and its partners that will make it easier for investors to compare the environmental and social performance of “not-only-for-profit” businesses.

All of these trends echo Godin’s point that the greatest leaders do not command and control, but rather set free pent up changemaking energy from many actors.

Have we been living in an age of conformity? Is it now waning? Let us know what evidence you’ve found in favor or against Godin’s argument.

Photo: The Guardian

3 Responses

  1. Sam R. says:

    Great post. I love the concept of positive deviance–I’ve studied about it in education classes.

    One thing that caught my eye: In this week’s New Yorker there’s an article about an inventor who got a MacArthur grant after inventing a machine that could produce eyeglass frames cheaply, but then he realized that the problem with people in poor countries not getting glasses was economic/political–they weren’t getting diagnosed. It wasn’t a technology need, because they could get cheap frames from plants in China. Anyway, it ties in–sometimes we look for the technological solution when that’s not the frame (no pun intended) that’s needed.

  2. Amanda W says:

    Really interesting piece, and definitely poses important questions to someone like me who’s trying to rock the boat with building a consumer movement in India. However, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from living and working here, it’s that social innovation, building movements, and empowering changemakers works differently in different places. I wonder what the blueprint for a little positive deviance would look like if they were written for social innovation in other countries. I would think that they would be at least somewhat, or maybe even entirely, different.

  3. Hunter says:

    good solutions, this is what I called brilliant