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The Power of Innovation

Video and excerpt of Rockefeller Foundation president Judith Rodin’s keynote address on innovation at the Independent Sector National Conference.
We have a proud record of innovation to build on: launching the field of public health; funding the scientists who woulddevelop the yellow fever vaccine; supporting the conference that would launch the field of artificial intelligence; and breeding the crops that would spark the Green Revolution and feed a billion people in Latin America and South Asia.

The list goes on.

But as we approached our Centennial, we recognized that the Rockefeller Foundation—indeed, the entire social sector—was facing a much different set of challenges than we did 100 years ago.

We live in a rapidly globalizing, disruptive and complex world. These trends provide new potential for growth, but they also accelerate inequality and environmental degradation that will not reverse without intervention. In some cases, change will be for the better, but not for everyone, and not everywhere.The poor and vulnerable people will disproportionately bear the brunt of sudden shocks and disruptions, climate-related, natural or man-made, which are growing in frequency, scope and intensity each year.

Just as people must adapt to these new realities–so must we. Fortunately, we don’t have to start from scratch.

The social sector has the capacity to use many of the same traits that have made us successful for the last century–characteristics that position us to continue to be a driver of innovation for the next 100 years.

For one, we have the ability to take risks—really the bread and butter of innovation. The bigger the risk—the higher the reward. We have the capacity to find and fund the best new ideas wherever they emerge.

Today, the laboratory is everywhere and everywhere is the laboratory–and by leveraging technology we are able to reach a wider range of voices and perspectives. And unlike business and government, we have the capacity to take the long-view, to test, to pilot—and to change course if something isn’t working. But before we get into HOW we can apply these assets to accelerate transformative innovation, let’s take a minute to define what innovation is—and importantly, what it isn’t.

Innovation isn’t always invention. Mark Zuckerberg didn’t invent the internet, Steve Jobs didn’t invent wireless technology; their innovation came from leveraging those existing technologies. It isn’t synonymous with social entrepreneurship – though they are closely intertwined. It’s not only a top-down process, but a bottom-up, collaborative and user-generated process.

And it isn’t innovation for innovation’s sake. Without impact, innovation is just an idea with promise. Without scale, there is no opportunity for transformation. So then what is innovation for the 21st century? We’ve come to define it as: “A break from previous practice, occurring when different elements, ideas or processes are framed, imagined, or combined in new ways.”

There are four distinct types of innovation: Product innovations, Market innovations, Process innovations, Organizational innovations.

Product innovations are what most people think of when they think of innovation. The iPad, the e-reader, the clean-burning stove, the life-saving vaccine.

Market innovations change or create new markets to provide new or reallocated resources. Social impact bonds are one example.

In this innovative financing model, the private investor or fund pays for critical prevention programs that governments have paid for in the past, and receives a return based on the program performance.This opens up new funding sources for governments, helps NGOs scale up proven interventions, and saves tax payer dollars.

Process innovations are the application of methods that yield new solutions. I’ll dig a little deeper into process innovation in a moment because I believe it’s a particularly ripe area for social innovation.

Finally, organizational innovation changes internal processes, structures and mindsets to enable us to approach our work more effectively. It also includes new kinds of partnerships where partners leverage each other’s unique capacities to tip an entire system. I want to spend some time on process innovations.

In 2006, we launched an initiative that explored three types of process innovations, largely employed by the private sector, to see if they could be applied successfully to the social sector: crowdsourcing, design-thinking, and user-led.

Crowdsourcing is a process innovation that engages thousands of minds, each approaching a problem in a different way to address complex social challenges. Two Sundays ago I was reading my New York Times, and came across in the Style Section — not really a hotbed for innovation —  a fascinating article detailing the ways in which fashion designers have embraced Instagram as a way of testing new product designs and crowdsourcing for consumer feedback in real-time. The social sector can apply this kind of thinking in a number of ways.

For example, we funded InnoCentive to take its successful private sector model, which developed competitions among a global community of engineers, scientists and other experts to help pharmaceuticals finish that difficult last mile in their R+D pathways, and we provided the prize money for organizations posing social sector challenges. In one example, a U.S. diplomat living in Texas had invented a small, solar powered flashlight for use in communities without electricity. But when he sought to modify his prototype to light up an entire room, he was stymied. He described his problem to Innocentive’s online community.

An engineer from New Zealand responded with a promising idea – and a year later, the light was being manufactured in China and in use to light up rooms across sub-Saharan Africa.

Another kind of process innovation is design thinking — innovation that engages thinkers in a more organic, design-oriented, right brained way to solve social problems. Again we tested the application of this process to social problems. For example, IDEO worked with VisionSpring to help the social enterprise design a new kind of eye exam for children and adolescents by observing children’s interactions with authority figures and one another.

What they found was that children loved to play doctor. By giving them an opportunity to examine their teacher’s eyes and their friends eyes, they were more excited to have their own screenings, and hundreds have received life-changing, affordable glasses.

The third of the trio of process innovations is “user-led” innovation, which elicits and nurtures the user’s innovations and then supports its expansion.

For example, we funded Positive Deviance, the same group that discovered that handwashing practices by all staff, not just those in operating rooms, were the determining factor in infection rates in hospitals. They traveled to poor villages in Vietnam to get to the bottom of a perplexing finding: while most children were malnourished and dangerously skinny, there were a few that were particularly robust. They observed that in those households, the food-preparer didn’t wash the rice before it was cooked – leaving crustaceans stuck on the rice and provide these children with a source of protein that others weren’t receiving. With this knowledge in hand, Positive Deviance launched an expansive public health campaign to encourage more households in all Vietnamese villages to cook unwashed rice.

Crowdsourcing, design-thinking, user-led innovations.

Based on our findings, we are now embracing all three – running innovation challenges, using gaming to source new ideas, funding crowdsourcing and crowdfunding websites, and yes, even exploring Instagram as a new portal for bringing design thinking to philanthropy. But to fully achieve the power of these types of innovations, we and our sector will have to do more. Because as fabulous as our unique traits are — the risk taking, the long-view, the flexibility — we need to even more fully develop a 21st century innovation mindset.

First, we must look inward—reconfiguring our own business models and operations to meet today’s challenges, rather than those we may have been originally founded to confront.

Second, by recalibrating and disrupting our own business models, we are better positioned to seize new market opportunities.

Third, while innovation starts inside, we must embrace diverse perspectives and ideas — not all of the best ideas will come from inside our four walls.

Fourth, look for opportunities where infrastructure and resources can be shared to accelerate new models.

Fifth, open the door to greater collaboration and connection.

Innovative partnerships are a critical 21st century organizational innovation. Partnerships are critical for innovation — but often the partnerships themselves are the innovation — recombining the unique capacities of each sector for new ways of bringing about more powerful solutions.

Indeed, it is the partnerships among incredibly diverse actors – beyond the standard engagement of humanitarian and food security institutions – that is equally groundbreaking. New kinds of partnerships, reconfigured business models, recombining existing assets and existing approaches and more openly seeking and sourcing new ideas…These are the innovations that will create the transformations to define the next century.

Innovation is no longer about going it alone – and there is a good deal to learn, replicate, build from and scale.

To create more effective, more responsive governments, create products and services that improve lives in addition to markets, catalyze transformations across entire systems, and to truly lead for the next 100 years.

This is our opportunity, our obligation, our moment.

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