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Solution Revolution: A Conversation with William D. Eggers and Paul Macmillan

William Eggers and Paul Macmillan wrote a book called “The Solution Revolution“, described as “a burgeoning new economy where players from across the spectrum of business, government, philanthropy, and social enterprise converge to solve big problems and create public value.” Read on for a Q&A with the authors about the topic, and learn about what the solution revolution is, what role the government plays in the solution economy, and how you can play a role in the solution revolution.

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What is the “Solution Revolution?”

Over the last decade or so, a dizzying variety of new players has entered the  societal problem-solving arena. Acumen and Ashoka, Kiva and Kaggle, Zipcar and Zimride, Recyclebank and Terracycle, SpaceX and M-Pesa, Branson and Bloomberg, Omidyar and Gates—the list is long and growing briskly. Where tough societal problems persist, these new problem solvers are crowd funding, ride-sharing, app- developing or impact- investing to design innovative new solutions for seemingly intractable problems. They operate within what we call a “Solution Economy.”

Why is this a “revolution?”

The solution revolution is the antithesis of how society’s toughest public challenges have traditionally been approached by large institutions. In no other space do we see such diverse resources—volunteer time, crowdfunding, capabilities of multinational corporations, entrepreneurial and social capital, philanthropic funding—aligned around common objectives such as reducing congestion, providing safe drinking water, or promoting healthy living. By erasing public-private sector boundaries, the solution economy has the potential to unlock trillions of dollars in social benefit and commercial value.

Isn’t it government’s job to solve societal problems like poverty, crumbling infrastructure and climate change?

In today’s era of fiscal constraints and political gridlock, we can no longer turn to government alone to tackle these and other towering social problems. The massive government projects of the last century from the Hoover Dam to the Great Society’s War on Poverty are no longer feasible financially—nor are such approaches the best way to solve wicked problems in the digital age. Fortunately, government is no longer the only game in town when it comes to societal problem solving. Society is witnessing a step change in how it deals with its own problems—a shift from a government-dominated model to one in which government is just one player among many. There are still important levers governments can use, whether through policy, investing in innovation-driven research and impact-creating programs, or convening the right players to team up. But there is a growing recognition that the government-led approach isn’t necessarily the only way or the best way to tackle a social issue.

So what is the role of government in the solution economy?

Government is poised to play a powerful role in the solution economy but it’s a very different role than it has today. Instead of sole problem solver, government’s role is to create an environment where problem solvers can flourish. Government’s willingness to forge partnerships (and vet those partners with accurate metrics), to make data more open, to contract for outcomes, to reduce regulatory minefields, and to convene diverse groups of contributors will hold tremendous sway over the scale of the solution economy within its borders.

You focus considerable attention on the role of technology in enabling the solution revolution? Why?

Disruptive technologies like analytics, social media, mobile phones and cloud computing enable the rapid mobilization of massive resources around big challenges. The challenge of organizing talent to tackle big problems is no longer the burden of bureaucracies, but today a consequence of systems. Today, distributed, technology-enabled systems, when designed well, can divide up big problems and spread the labor among millions. As technologies evolve, we are seeing a dramatic spike in the number of organizations and citizens engaged in societal problem solving, while costs plummet.

How can an ordinary citizen participate in the solution revolution?

Citizens are the cornerstone of the solution economy. Never before have individuals been able to converge around common objectives with such speed and effectiveness, catapulting social issues into global recognition in a matter of hours. By drawing on advances in technology, individuals can now contribute to the public good from anywhere. Citizens who start initiatives themselves can raise money for their causes on sites such as Network for Good or Crowdrise. They can match volunteer requests to their skills on the website Sparked. They are empowered to act, whether through apps built from government data, policy input derived from their own analysis, or online campaigns used to advocate for issues they care about. Such knowledge enables greater influence over what services are provided and how they are delivered, signaling a shift in power.

The city of Boston employs the eyes and ears of thousands of citizens to enhance its awareness of public works problems that need attention. Boston Citizen’s Connect, a cell phone app, allows residents to take a photograph of potholes, graffiti and other problems and send it to the city. The app automatically collects GPS information and allows the city instantaneously to generate a work order for a public works crew. It even notifies citizens when the work has been completed. Boston City officials call this approach urban micro-volunteerism: empowering citizens to make small commitments to the public good, with a huge aggregate impact.

 

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