Our World

04-ven-diagram

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.

04-ven-diagram

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.

 

Comments

Why India’s Economic Growth Depends on Vocational Training

India has an enormous population of young people – over half of the 1.2 billion people are younger than 25 years old. Yet, only 2% of its 500 million person workforce has any skills or training. The majority work in the informal sector (90%), where there are few opportunities for education other than what workers ‘pick up’ on the job. This reality limits overall productivity, as well as upward mobility. [Read More]

Letter from Jacqueline: My Week in Ghana

I am writing on a return flight from Ghana. The country has not seen a single case of Ebola, yet the impact of fear is profound. As travelers enter the country, attendants screen for high temperatures. Hand sanitizer dispensers are omnipresent. Hotels and conferences have seen massive cancellations. Everywhere are constant reminders of our fragility and the strength of our connectedness. [Read More]

Six online courses we’re taking this year

+Acumen’s free online courses are a great way to learn tools that will help you develop both professionally and personally. Whether you are a social entrepreneur who wants to market to your customers or a young professional that wants to strengthen your leadership skills, we are offering six courses this Fall that will help you develop the tools, knowledge, and networks to change the way the world tackles poverty. [Read More]

Four Emerging Leaders Building the Future of Pakistan

With 60% of Pakistan’s population living under less than a dollar a day, the external narrative of Pakistan is characterised by what the country lacks; a lack of security, a lack of women’s rights, a lack of access to education, and the list goes on. What this narrative ignores are the individuals who work tirelessly to plug those gaps. From human rights to education to food security, Acumen Pakistan Fellows are affecting change through organizations committed to tackling poverty. Their work is truly inspiring, promising a hopeful future for Pakistan. Here are four fellows that are building this future for Pakistan and come together periodically to share learning experiences and grow as leaders. Through five seminars, the fellows have strengthened skills of adaptability, communication, empathy and problem solving through listening. If you are committed to creating change in your community, apply now to be an Acumen Pakistan Fellow. The deadline is 29 September. [Read More]

Acumen Partners with AlphaSights to Better Access Global Expertise

In our work investing in social enterprises that deliver critical goods to the poor, there is a substantial amount of work to evaluate each investment opportunity. A critical part of the diligence process, particularly when it comes to emerging markets, is speaking with industry experts who can provide reliable information about sector trends, market dynamics and public policy – all of which affect our evaluation of potential investment opportunities. [Read More]

DE-BUNKING THE BURDEN MYTH: IMPACT DATA GOES LEAN

Our manifesto begins, “it starts by standing with the poor.” Yet for good reasons, the sector has found it challenging to measure which customers are actually being served through social impact investments – getting accurate data on incomes is notoriously difficult and the logistical challenge and cost of conducting surveys in person prohibitive. [Read More]

Questions for Aspiring Leaders

Bavidra Mohan, Acumen’s India Fellows Manager, attended this years Aspen IDEAS festival as a Scholar. The Scholarship program was established to invite guests from around the world to bring a diverse set of experiences, voices and perspectives to the rich conversations that take place at the IDEAS festival each year. [Read More]