Highlights from “Plenary 1: Levers of Change”

April 19, 2010  • Josh Weissburg

Cross-posted from the Global Philanthropy Forum blog.

GPF is kicking off now with its first plenary. It is a whirlwind tour of various creative approaches to large problems. Tim Brown of IDEO spoke of the power of design thinking, pointing out that big problems don’t always need big solutions. Sometimes they just need a bit of creative design: a mother without access to clean water doesn’t necessarily need a complex piece of infrastructure – she probably just needs a lighter and more convenient container to carry it!

Megan Smith of Google urged us to think about the way that networks are already solving problems without any prompting “from above.” She walked us through a stream of examples in which networks have formed to achieve common goals: whether contributing specialized knowledge via Wikipedia, an explosion of online class content for those who couldn’t normally access sophisticated teaching, or the remarkable effects that crowd-sourced transparency efforts can have on problems as nitty-gritty as, say, how to drive supplies through Africa without paying bribes and hitting roadblocks (Smith showed us a snapshot of a web-based map to which people transporting supplies in Africa are contributing their knowledge, thus enabling others to move supplies more efficiently).

Matt Bannick spoke of the power of markets to transition grant-led efforts toward sustainable, private sector-led models that continue to solve a problem long after philanthropy has left. And Carol Larson reminded the audience that technology tools may be expanding our problem solving options, but it is good old-fashioned collaboration – the kind that the Packard Foundation and others are using to tackle climate change and overfishing – that leverage many disparate resources toward a specific set of goals that can spur lasting impact. This was truly a quick tour of levers. Many ideas and discussions will flow from these examples. We will no doubt hear more on each of these examples in various breakouts to follow this week…