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The Rainforest: Creating an Ecosystem for Impact at the Global Innovation Summit in Silicon Valley

   /   Aug 3rd, 2012California, National

Victor Hwang, co-founder of the Global Innovation Summit, addressed the audience.  (Photo Courtesy of Subject)

The rainforest was at the heart of Silicon Valley last month.

Greg Horowitt and Victor Hwang, authors of a new book, The Rainforest: The Secret to Building the Next Silicon Valley, assembled a mixed group of entrepreneurs, policymakers, nonprofit management, venture capitalists, and impact investors to discuss the successes and the failures of the “Impact Economy,” an economy that prizes inclusivity and focuses on social impact along with financial returns.

In simple terms, Chad Lipton, Program Manager of Energy Initiative at National Geographic, described it as building the ideal garden.  “You can’t just grow what you want, you have to grow certain flowers that draw the bees, which help with pollination, which will then help you grow veggies and fruits.  It’s an ecosystem that you have to perfect.”

But it’s not merely a case of networking, said Mark Newberg, Director of Impact Strategies at Stella Group, Ltd. “What you need are the connectors who understand all the moving parts, and how to assemble them to create a working machine.  Think of it as the difference between a symphony and a discordant cacophony.”

To create that harmony, Global Innovation Summit, in its first year, brought together an eclectic group of 400 participants, traveling from over 40 countries, all guided by a passion for social impact.  “We have artists here, students, social entrepreneurs, policymakers – the spectrum,” Greg Horowitt, one of the founders of GIS, explained.

“We don’t want people here to be giving speeches at you. That’s not the idea of this Summit.  We want people to debate, discuss, connect, reassess their ideas, and then have a call to action, something that we can follow up on next July.”

And indeed, instead of rows of seating, facing the stage, the ballroom at the San Jose Marriott was broken up into “house” numbers, each house consisting of a hodgepodge of people whose professions, backgrounds, and nationalities didn’t necessarily coincide.  Their task: to determine the shortcomings of the Impact Economy’s ecosystem and try to resolve them.

Much of the discussion, and the book which framed the Summit, looks at the factors that have made Silicon Valley a success story but can these factors be replicated elsewhere?  Furthermore, can the ecosystem be expanded to include enterprises that focus on social impact as much as profitability, learning from emerging markets where frugality and necessity have spurred innovation.

One of the largest players in this ecosystem is the private sector.  Renee Kaplan, Director of Skoll Foundation, said that some corporations are beginning to understand the importance of this –financially and socially, such as McDonald’s which switched over to sustainable fish after a pressure from environmentalists, or Pepsi, which has invested heavily in water projects globally.  “But those are just a few that are getting it to some extent.  How do we convey to the others that this is in their interest?”

But this “Rainforest” for impact will require not just the participation of the private sector, venture capitalists, and replications of the “Y Combinator” incubator model globally, but also civil society, and non profits, Randall Kempner, Executive Director of ANDE, a network of organizations that push for small-medium size social enterprises worldwide, pointed out.

Thus, while all the chatter about Impact Investing and CSR is encouraged, it cannot alone drive social innovation.

Paul Basil, CEO and founder of Villgro, an incubator for social enterprises in rural India, said that replicating the ingredients of Silicon Valley is not that simple.  Speaking from his experiences in South Asia, he singled out the importance of empathy – living the life of the customer, before designing a product for him/her.  “Even in urban India, we don’t always know what it’s like for the farmer, or the rural Indian.  So, the problem isn’t always a shortage of money.”  Rather, capital alone cannot fuel impact.  It’s not necessary to have highly-financed R & D labs.  Instead, frugality breedsinnovation.

Krista Donaldson, Executive Director of Palo Alto-based D-Rev, echoed this the following morning of the conference.  D-Rev which has developed low-cost innovations for the developing world; these include inexpensive jaundice treatments for rural hospitals, high impact mechanical knees for amputees, affordable microscopes for detecting malaria and TB, and rural solar technology.

All for low-cost, though.  Thus, these are the lessons that Silicon Valley can draw from emerging markets in framing an ecosystem for impact – even here in the US.

“We want to build a middle class globally, not an asset class,” said Kempell, and for that you’ll need a variety of players, each bringing their expertise to the “Rainforest.”

2 Responses

  1. Vishnu says:

    Rainforest theme is a good one.

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