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Cultivating a New Generation of Leader: The System Entrepreneur

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Only a few weeks ago, Nepal experienced a 7.8 earthquake that took the lives of more than 7,000 people, destroyed almost 300,000 homes, and left the remaining population with years of rebuilding and recovery. Today, disruptions like this are increasingly common, exacerbated by the triple threat of globalization, climate change, and urbanization. Not a month goes by without a crisis erupting somewhere in the world: civic unrest, an economic catastrophe, disease outbreak, or an environmental disaster. As these events become more frequent—and the world as a whole more interconnected—problems become harder to solve as they sit at the intersection of many fields, geographies, and sectors. It is often unclear who is responsible for or has the capacity to fix these large-scale problems.

The Rockefeller Foundation and the University of Cape Town believe that system entrepreneurs—those who go beyond working to improve existing systems, but focus instead on fundamentally altering the systems that create problems in the first place—will drive the solutions to these problems. We offer three reasons why:

1. Increasingly complex global challenges cannot be resolved in isolation.

We believe that solving 21st-century challenges requires strategies with innovation at the core, looking beyond sector or institutional boundaries for potential answers. We need to draw on best in class tools, theories, and lessons to understand how and when to innovate in complex systems.

2. Too much focus goes into simpler, quick-win solutions.

Often, we’re searching for the silver bullet, and while no social entrepreneur would ever like to admit that their organization is treating the symptoms while neglecting the root, many interventions fall short of addressing the underlying causes that created problems in the first place.

3. We need to challenge the status quo.

We need people with an entrepreneurial mindset—an innovation mindset—to facilitate collaboration among unusual suspects, identify the right moment to introduce an innovation or a radical change, find comfort in discomfort, and bring all of that to bear to tackle complex problems, not just smaller, distinct solutions.

This is why we need to cultivate the next generation of leaders who will drive this change and move the actions of all—but particularly larger and influential institutions—to do the same.

“It’s more important than ever to build and empower a community of change agents.”

To address this need for a new generation of system entrepreneurs, The Rockefeller Foundation supported several institutions to design and launch The Rockefeller Foundation Global Fellowship Program on Social Innovation to build the capacity of system entrepreneurs around innovation, system change, and resilience. Fellows learn new ways of thinking about old problems and figuring out how to put theoretical ideas into practice. We worked with a team of the world’s leading thinkers, led by Dr. Frances Westley, JW McConnell Chair in Social Innovation at University of Waterloo, to design a curriculum based on innovation and resilience theories to help system entrepreneurs answer questions like: When is innovation necessary in solving a problem? And when is it most appropriate to introduce an innovation? How can I identify or create game-changing innovations with the potential to tip systems? How can we influence others to drive more social, political, and financial resources to an innovation? How do I gain high-level support for promising innovations?

The University of Cape Town, the University of Victoria, the Stockholm Resilience Center, and the University of Waterloo will facilitate a second round of the Fellowship Program, which launched this week in Stockholm. They will guide 21 fellows through four modules located across the globe—modules that will consist of workshops, site visits, networking, lectures, and more.

We believe it’s more important than ever to build and empower a community of change agents within a variety of institutions in a variety of regions, to influence the way people work within organizations and better embed innovation and resilience thinking into our programs.

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