Civilization 3.0

Social innovation and social entrepreneurship are two terms Asheville and Western North Carolina residents are likely to be hearing more about in 2012.

One of the things we might want to thank President Obama for is the White House’s Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation. In 2010 I invited the grants manager in Rep. Heath Shuler's office to educate our region’s social innovators about another Obama initiative: the Social Innovation Fund. I asked that Mr. Shuler personally take action.

But while Shuler’s recent role in securing an innovative $70 million Race to the Top grant for North Carolina’s children is certainly appreciated, I believe a bigger, deeper and more enriching approach to social innovation is available for Asheville and Western North Carolina in 2012 and beyond. Innovations are the products of valuable new or renewing ideas realized through entrepreneurship.

Social innovations employ new thinking and programming to tackle classic social problems such as poverty and related issues. Today, social innovations are often deployed by for-profit enterprises such as iMentor, which taps the power of the Internet to recruit and empower mentors for at-risk high-school students. This Social Innovation Fund awardee is an example of the kind of social innovation that’s not being deployed here in WNC.

Innovation is often thought of only in terms of science and technology. But why not apply the same innovative thinking to finally reverse local trends on stubborn issues such as poverty? If we’re serious about doing something to improve the future of the more than 100,000 adults and children in Mr. Shuler’s district who now live in poverty, innovation principles should be part of a new anti-poverty approach. After all, we’re not looking for business as usual, are we?

Social innovation, social innovation ecosystems and transdisciplinary design can all help address the region’s expanding poverty rate. Applying future-oriented, innovative leadership perspectives and management tools to these kinds of persistent problems means doing something different in order to obtain better results than we’ve gotten in the past. Whatever specific steps may be needed to make the future better, we must embrace new ways of doing things if we really aim to achieve successful civilization.

Asking government alone to design and execute a better future seems like something many local people don’t want or expect to ever happen. But where else can we turn? Is there another system we can rely on? If so, does it merely consist of generalized notions of “community”? Or might there be a new approach, say “Civilization 3.0,” that includes a more ethical business community as well as improved government systems and services, all linked to ideas and working examples from the significant social-innovation community here in Asheville and WNC?

Despite their best efforts, MANNA FoodBank, the Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry, the Eblen Charities and a host of other local nonprofits and government agencies working in this arena haven’t been able to turn the tide on poverty in our community. Similarly, local business owners — whether operating individually or through advocacy groups such as the Asheville Grown Business Alliance, the Council of Independent Business Owners and the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce — are unlikely to reverse the poverty rate, reduce local greenhouse-gas emissions or, for that matter, improve Asheville’s relationship with the North Carolina Legislature. And while science and technology might assist in these efforts, economics, policy management, business-community relationships and quality affordable housing represent new target areas for innovation.

Reading about our many, varied and ever-expanding “wicked problems” in a segregated, one-off news context is interesting and often scary. But wouldn't it be more valuable to coordinate resources and issues as part of what MIT professor Otto Scharmer calls “[human] ecosystemwide innovation and redesign”? Whether we call the solutions social innovation and transdisciplinary design within social innovation ecosystems — or use other, perhaps more familiar terms — I look forward to helping find more effective problem-solving methods for Asheville and WNC in 2012.

The coordinating tools must be analytical and process-oriented. On the Mountain Xpress website, local consultant Sandy Maxey of Beta Regional Systems recently shared the idea of a civic forum discussing the region’s persistent underemployment from a systems perspective, in cooperation with the Plexus Institute. And indeed, face-to-face workshops can be helpful. But whatever is done and whoever makes it happen, our community’s approach to 2012 must include strategic shifts at a scale and speed far beyond the false start to the 21st century we’ve seen so far.

— Asheville resident Grant Millin provides strategic innovation services through his company, InnovoGraph LLC.

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