Skoll World Forum of Social Entrepreneurship: 2007 round-up

OK, so the round-up of this year’s Skoll Forum is well overdue. I’ll start by saying that there’s much more online coverage this year, so for an overview start at Social Edge which gives decent summaries and overviews of each sessions, if not much comment (beyond the star bloggers). You can also view videos of quite a few sessions online, which is inevitably going to give more information than any blogger could.

Other coverage includes Kevin Jones comparing it to alien abduction (it makes sense, trust me), some good coverage from Bruno Giussani, and comment from Sustainability’s John Elkington (who was also chairing/presenting a couple of sessions). I’ll add any more that I come across.

The event was split into three strands this year: social innovation (this year’s theme), evergreen (aka stuff this sector always discusses), and research (the academic wing). This is partly as a result of the event’s growing popularity (600+ people) and an associated need to split across venues, but also to try and give a snapshot of the sheer amount of activity happening across the world.

This for me is the primary value of the Skoll Forum. As a four-year veteran since its inception, I value its ability to give time for reflection, for networking across borders, and for challenging embedded thinking. As with any conference, people will always say that the most value comes outside of the main sessions, in the breaks, at dinners and in the wine receptions. This is true (or at least was for me this year) but there was also much to be learned in the more formal arenas.

In the opening ceremony, Jeff Skoll welcomed us (referencing his ambition last year to get Muhammad Yunus as well known as Britney Spears, he dryly observed that "Britney has raised the bar in the last year"), as did the Oxford head honchos, before we moved on to the substance.

This started with Geoff Mulgan on social innovation, which was very strong, and communicated with passion and clarity. And not to mention some great quotes (on the cross-sectoral nature of this work, he observed that "only cemeteries have people in tidy rows"). Obviously, the content was fairly familiar to me, as we are increasingly working closely with the Young Foundation, and SSE is a founding partner of their social innovation exchange (which was launched at Skoll; could be the first and last time I am ever a ‘thinker in residence’), but there was still some interesting new tidbits to me: particularly Michael Young always taking ‘no’ as a question, and seeking objections as a method of idea refinement. More generally, he called for an expansion of horizons and greater investment in the different routes and methods of social innovation.

Charles Handy gave some interesting examples from his new book, the New Philanthropists. I’ll try and review the book at a later date, but this was an interesting view into one part of the growing spectrum of social entrepreneurship. And the different philanthropists (or philanthrocapitalists or venture philanthropists or philanthropreneurs) are working in an incredibly diverse range of areas.

David Galenson then gave an interesting overview of his theory of two types of innovators (the one, conceptual young geniuses; the other, incremental old master experimentalists). It is interesting, but took a little too long for me to apply this in the social sphere and social innovators.

Next up was Muhammad Yunus, who got a standing ovation from the massed ranks of the Sheldonian. There’s been so much written about him, that I won’t add to it, but I was glad that amongst scenes of great celebration of him as a star social entrepreneur, he reminded us that "you can solve a neighbourhood problem, not a global problem", and that all "citizens can solve problems".

Finally, we had the Queen of Jordan who introduced us to her concept of Corporate Multicultural Responsibility (or CMR). She started by talking about Star Trek (to say that we are boldly going etc with ‘enterprise’), before espousing the need to address "the poverty of multicultural knowledge and respect".

As we exited, there was amusement at Nigel Kershaw (of Big Invest) thinking that the aformentioned majesty was in fact an actress from Star Trek ("I liked it, but couldn’t work out why they’d invited her"), before the stampede back to the drinks reception….

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Day two started early for us as we were presenting our "Long Tail of Social Entrepreneurship" proposal in the 8am slot. [I’ll blog about this separately, as promised: thanks to all those who attended and contributed]. I attended a couple of sessions: one was Social Entrepreneurs in Education, which I thought was great. It was only an hour, but each speaker was limited to just three minutes to talk, before facing questions: which meant a fruitful discussion (other sessions would have beenfited from stronger chairing!).

Eric Schwarz of Citizen Schools talked about the interface between policy and grassroots delivery (and the need to be able to meet the changes in the former with the capacity of the latter), while Ann Cotton said that CAMFED’s policy work was rooted in practice, which gave the credibility and legitimacy. This is what SSE has argued in our field and was good to hear that it has really worked from an SSE Fellow (and now Skoll Fellow) herself. Ann also said how important it was to ask questions with government rather than of them.

Martin Burt of Fundacion Paraguaya (and Teach a Man To Fish) detailed his sustainable schools of entrepreneurship: the schools currently cover 71% of their own costs, and the children learn (and earn!) through doing. Martin is such a great character, with a contagious enthusiasm and charisma. Teddy Blecher, of CIDA in South Africa, which works to increase the numbers of black people in university through making it virtually free, was another inspiring speaker: his ideas about consciousness-based education and university-in-a-box (to create town economies) were really thought-provoking. Finally, J B Schramm of College Summit gave his views on philanthropists (and how to scale your economic model)….

Great session, and good audience interaction (the two are connected).

I then went to Moving Capital, which featured several speakers including Penny Newman of CafeDirect and Arthur Wood from Ashoka. This was more of a mind-stretcher, with financial jargon and statistics aplenty, and I see that I took few notes, mostly through my brain being unable to cope with writing and understanding at the same time (particularly when Arthur unleashed another terrifying barrage of jargon and stats). I’ll revisit this online, because there was much of interest. Penny was great, and kept it grounded and connected to the world we operate in.

The awards were held in the Sheldonian, and were inspiring although, as with the opening plenary, one can often spot the cultural differences. Those from the UK and Australia tend to be slightly less enthusiastic for the celebratory stuff, whilst the US and others tend to relish it a bit more. The setting for the reception was equally spectacular, on the grounds of Trinity College, with much networking again. And drinking continued onwards into the night: Kevin Jones of Xigi and I crossed paths in a bar, and I agreed to contribute to their mapping endeavours (as far as I remember, something about mapping the value of networks to our students….but I’ll trawl the memory banks…).

I was off to our Aston graduation on the Thursday so missed Larry Brilliant (though I’ve heard he was, well….you know, by name, by nature etc) from Google.org, and missed Ed Miliband on Social Innovation, though I’m told he was good as well. Will check out online once my broadband improves…

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Overall, and I am aware that this is a hugely long post, so if you’re still with me, thanks…..overall, I enjoyed. Skoll is great for giving a good snapshot of the scene, for creating intersections, for sparking off new thoughts and for providing a space for reflection. It’s also interesting how you have different conversations there, even with the people whom you know very well….

It was welcome, though, to go to our Aston SSE’s first programme graduation in the heart of inner-city Birmingham. 8 completed the programme, 7 of whom are women, 6 BME, all unemployed and, without exception, all were utterly inspiring, confident and ambitious for their future. It reminded me of what SSE is in this business for, and how the movement (to steal a bit of Whitman) encompasses multitudes….and it must continue to do so.

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