Past Global Fellowship on Social Innovation fellowsSunandan Tiwari hasn’t always thought of himself as an innovator. As the Deputy Director of ICLEI (Local Governments for Sustainability, South Asia), Tiwari is tasked with helping cities in South Asia assess their resilience risks and vulnerabilities, and develop strategies to address them. “I never really considered myself an innovator,” said Tiwari. “Just doing some interesting work.”

So when he was invited to apply for a Rockefeller Foundation Global Fellowship Program in Social Innovation, he hesitated. “I got this email out of the blue, and wasn’t sure what to make of it,” said Tiwari. “It’s strange to say that now, because the fellowship has been such a turning point for me.”

“The Global Fellowship Program is intended to identify potential systems entrepreneurs across the globe, and give them the tools and support networks they need to begin fundamentally transforming the systems in which they work.”

The fellowship helped Tiwari and his colleagues create new criteria for selecting cities with resilience needs. They also used a theory called the “adaptive cycle” to help leaders across sectors understand the process of creating resilience. The adaptive cycle was originally developed to explain how ecological systems become stronger and more resilient. Now, leaders in the social sector are learning how to apply it to social systems as well.

Graphic of four stages of a dynamic adaptive cycle
Four stages of a dynamic adaptive cycle.

“I’ve been able to talk to scientists and academics from global universities and present the process to them,” said Tiwari. “Because it’s grounded in solid theory, they see the value of it. And now they’re using it in their own work in India and Nepal.”

People often think of systems as a daunting set of structures, institutions, policies, and norms. But systems are also made up of individuals, like Sunandan, who have the power to change them. We think of those individuals as “systems entrepreneurs.” The Global Fellowship Program is intended to identify potential systems entrepreneurs across the globe, and give them the tools and support networks they need to begin fundamentally transforming the systems in which they work.

In the coming weeks, The Rockefeller Foundation will be announcing the 2016 Fellows, the third cohort to participate in the program. Through a series of three-to-four one-week workshops in locations around the globe, fellows will be empowered with:

  • The freedom to ask questions and look at problems in new ways. Large organizations aren’t always conducive to risk-taking or new ideas. Nor do the individuals in those organizations always have the time to stop and think about their work in a new light. The fellowship brings together innovative thinkers from across sectors, and gives them the flexibility to think about their work in new ways—whether it’s through carefully designed interactive exercises or freewheeling informal conversations.
  • Tools to become intentional about systems change. Innovations are often accidents—but they don’t have to be. Over the course of the program, fellows are equipped with tools and theories to be intentional about creating change. Change can start with with their own colleagues. For example, fellows learn about “inscaping”—a process for drawing on the inner experiences of their team members to surface new, innovative ideas. “I came in thinking, what the heck is that and why do they need a term for it?” said one fellow. “I left thinking, I’m absolutely going to use this.” They also learn how the adaptive cycle can make entire cities more resilient.
  • The support networks to keep learning—and changing systems. Transformational change happens when individuals from different sectors come together to look at problems in new ways. That’s why the fellowship gathers a diverse group of leaders in one place. But the real change happens when fellows return home. They maintain a close network of peers around the globe with whom they can freely exchange ideas, share success stories and challenges, and build transformative partnerships.

In May, the new cohort of Social Innovation Fellows will gather for the first time in Colombia. Like Sunandan, many of them may not think of themselves as innovators. But they all have the potential to inject innovative ideas and processes into the systems they work in. With the support of the fellowship, they’ll leave with the tools and networks to be deliberate about changing systems and tackling complex problems at their roots.

“The fellowship made me realize that we live in such a fast-paced world that we never really stop and reflect and reformulate what we’re doing,” said Sunandan. “The way I look at a problem now, I approach it not with my first impressions but step back and see it’s very often several layers deeper.”

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