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The Rockefeller Global Fellows in Social Innovation: Halfway to Systems Change

The Rockefeller Foundation Global Fellowship in Social Innovation is designed to help leaders build long-term resilience while they navigate complex challenges and contexts. It’s no small challenge to develop the skills necessary to tackle huge, systemic social and environmental problems, but the Fellows’ progress towards that ambition is evident—both as individuals and as a group. Four times a year the Fellows sit together to map out what it means to be the new generation of system entrepreneurs. Their task is to move beyond simply improving the status quo, and focusing instead on understanding and altering the systems that create social challenges in the first place.

Recognizing Innovation

So how do they do this? One of the tools that resonated with the Fellows in their first two meetings was the “adaptive cycle,” a framework that describes the four phases that social and ecological systems need to go through to strengthen their capacity for resilience and growth. In order to remain relevant in changing times, most organizations and systems need to evolve constantly. The adaptive cycle provides the mechanism through which innovation can reach a stage of maturation, yet keep abreast of changing needs.


While the adaptive cycle was first used to describe the dynamics of natural systems, the framework is just as powerful when applied in the context of an organization, a problem area, or even projects pursued by individuals. Put these analytical layers on top of each other and the exercise becomes a catalyst for self-awareness and decision-making. It answers situating questions like, ‘where am I in the cycle?’, ‘where is my project or organization?’, and ‘What about the larger system within which I operate?’ Applying the lens of the adaptive cycle has enabled many fellows to come to important decisions regarding their projects and career paths.

Fellows Group Pic
Another byproduct of the fellowship—which brings together 21 people from 14 countries—is the creation of a space for shared language and a community of practice. It has also been critical in building meaningful relationships among the fellows themselves.

Learning From the Ground Up

The fellowship isn’t designed to take place just in classrooms and on virtual platforms. It fosters experiential learning, where destinations across the world provide case studies and opportunities to see key concepts in action, instigating a visceral understanding of abstract ideas.

For example, the Fellows were asked to learn about “inscaping” through an article titled ‘Social Innovation from the Inside Out’. Inscaping is a process through which organizational members can see their work for what it really is, by voicing their innermost thoughts, fears, questions, and concerns.

At first, this seemed like an indulgent exercise that had little bearing on the goals that the Fellows aim to achieve. But as they learned about the operating methods of RLabs—a Cape Town based organization tackling unemployment, gang violence, and drug abuse, relying on inscaping to derive a nuanced and productive relationship with their stakeholders—they began to see how important reflecting on internal experiences becomes in an innovative environment, especially as the social realities one seeks to change are not purely external.

Visit to RLabs

This immersive understanding into RLabs’ operations left the fellows thinking concretely about how the processes of inscaping could be implemented in their own organizations and networks.

Although we are only halfway through the Fellowship, the change in the individual fellows and in the communities in which they’re working is palpable. The fellowship offers this new generation of leaders concrete ways to build their capacity to champion new approaches and create environments to catalyze lasting change in the lives of those most in need of it.

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