By Shanika Gunaratna
Let me start this post by saying that, as a soon-to-be-graduate and journalism student enamored with social innovation, I sat in the audience of David Bornstein’s lecture with my ears open and my mind cluttered with questions and curiosities. How do you forge a career in covering social innovation? How do you help re-frame media coverage away from disaster porn to a healthy conversation about global initiatives that work, inspire and truly enact change? What is the future of social innovation, and what does the life of an innovator practically look like? What can we expect of this field in the next 5, 10, 15 years?
Thankfully, David Bornstein’s keynote address provided some answers.
Bornstein, author of “How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas,” found himself chasing stories of innovation after becoming dissatisfied with status quo journalism. “Ninety percent of the stuff I wrote about was negative information,” Bornstein said of his early career. “[I covered the fact] that the world is lousy – all things that people already knew.”
Soon after, Bornstein stumbled upon the Grameen Bank, a microfinance organization and community development bank that, in the past few decades, has come to symbolize the new movement to finance innovation among the disenfranchised. “It completely changed not only the trajectory of my life, but it gave me a feeling that I’d never had before,” Bornstein said of his time in India covering the Grameen Bank, under the guidance of Mohammad Yunus. “It was amazing to talk to these villagers and spend a year interviewing these people and develop a deep sense of gratitude about my own life.” The premise of the bank, Bornstein explained, is simple: “A poor person can have their confidence completely changed by something as simple as a loan.”
Throughout his keynote address, Bornstein emphasized that we are now experiencing an extraordinary historical moment. “We are living through a kind of enlightenment,” he said. “During the enlightenment, there was a move from fantastical thinking to the rational thinking of the scientific method. Today, there’s an amazing notion that we can actually solve these intractable world problems… The graveyard of failed development projects that we’ve accummulated for the past 40 years will [soon] be replaced by structures that actually work.”
Bornstein sees incredible promise in the fact that, today, social change agents spend their efforts on metrics and analysis, and then orient their resources towards what works. “This is such a radical departure from where we were in the field of social change 20 years ago,” he said. In his keynote address, he called for us to go one step further — to “sew up society” in a new way that will allow us to truly solve problems. All doctors, he explained, need to understand the social determinants of health. Financial institutions urgently need to re-think how they fund social entrepreneurship. And entrepreneurs need to shift their focus from founding new organizations to pursuing “intra-preneurship,” or promoting highly socially responsible, effective practices within existing organizations.
Bornstein ended his address with advice for his audience, an audience of young, pragmatic idealists abuzz with ideas. Allow yourself to be guided by new information and insights gained on the ground, he said. The alternative – meticulously crafting a three-year plan in advance and trying to stick to it – will inevitably fall flat. “As soon as the ink dries on that plan and you apply it to the world, things will change,” Bornstein said.
Bornstein also encouraged young people to unabashedly pitch their ideas to people in power. “Once you’ve crossed that insecurity threshold, the discomfort of thinking you’re imposing on something, you can do that 100 more times in your life,” he said. “If you have a good idea, you’re giving them a gift.”
As innovators, Bornstein argued, we have to redefine our idea of risk. Risk is not about terrorism attacks, cancer, volcanoes and othe apocalyptic visions. The real risk in this life? Doing something you don’t love for 40 years. “That’s the risk that will gut your soul,” he said.
Helpful Resources from Bornstein’s Keynote
The Poverty Action Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
The Acuman Fund
Made To Stick (book)
The Happiness Hypothesis (book)
Common Ground: An organization that creates vulnerability indexes of impoverished people living on the streets and then advises cross-sector organizations on how to help
Roots of Empathy: An organization that is using social technology to create more peaceful school environments (i.e. why not bring a baby into a classroom to instill deep-rooted empathy in children?)
Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World: This book chronicles how we can use social pressures to change norms and behaviors around the world (i.e. how positive, strategic peer pressure can improve sexual health practices in South Africa and reduce the prevalence of HIV)