Thursday, October 29, 2009

Design Thinking, Part II

So my few loyal readers will know that given a choice, I'll always opt for working with my hands--I'll make it or fix it or refurbish it rather than buy it. Mostly because I just like doing things with my hands, and I tend to be pretty good at it.

But I've been reading Matthew Crawford's book Shop as Soulcraft lately, and I'm tempted to find even more virtues in the hands-on approach than I was. One important point he makes is that mastery over things is, for better or worse, a key component of our psychological makeup, such that it feeds our spirit (as Eli noted in her comment) and makes us happier, more empowered, and in the end truly creative. (Crawford has some scathing comments to make about the faux creativity of Build-a-Bears and customized Scions).

But the point I want to highlight here, is an implied point. He points out the difference between theoretical and conceptual knowledge (as exemplified by his physicist father) and empirical, real knowledge (as exemplified by his knowledge of his exasperatingly old and dodgy VW bug) and how these two types of knowledge part company. I can draw an analogy to the conceptual knowledge that I used to rely on for my work at the World Bank, and the hard-won empirical knowledge that social entrepreneurs on GlobalGiving use day in and day out.

Crawford's point is that life today provides much less of the latter than it used to, and that it is a dangerous thing--for the spirit, for sustainability, for our ultimate fates. While I don't see a concomitant shift in the development field--having come into existence really in the 20th century it is a product of its time and the lion's share of resources in development are put in service of solutions based on conceptual knowledge--I think the discounting of knowledge on the ground is equally dangerous in development. But like the motorcycle repair guy, most social entrepreneurs just go on about their business without much flash or renown. But they sure make the lives of their community better. They have to--they are right there and either they deliver results, or the community will move on.

Monday, October 19, 2009

A matter of faith

GlobalGiving was founded on the realizations that:

  • there were entirely too many potential social entrepreneurs all over the world that needed to be given a chance to test their idea of fighting poverty

  • for one rock star social entrepreneur, there were probably at least a hundred people who had tried something like, and failed

  • international development badly needed more than one Nobel Peace Prize winner in the sixty plus years since colonialism

  • and try as we might, there was no way for even the best and the brightest to know who would succeed, and who would fail, much less why

So what the world needed was a platform that made it safe and easy for all these bottom-up efforts to be visible and accountable to the outside world, and whose mission it would be to continuously lower the barriers to entry so that we didn't inadvertently leave another Mohammed Yunus stalled for lack of support. Of course, you can argue for development Darwinism, that the social entrepreneurs who aren't crazy or committed enough to keep going against all odds weren't going to succeed anyway--but clearly there are economies in the world that provide a hospitable environment for small-scale businesses and others that do not, and most of the economies that don't pay the price in lower prosperity overall.

So it's my vision for GlobalGiving that we play a small role in making social entrepreneurship just a little less crazy, a little less quixotic, and that we thereby make it possible for more innovation and change to happen in development. We won't know ahead of time what those innovations will be. We won't even know who will lead those innovations. We might know if someone one day can trace a rock star social entrepreneur back to their beginnings on GlobalGiving, but there's no guarantee we will be directly responsible, nor even that they might have succeeded without us. So it comes down to a matter of faith--an ironic position for me, as basically a non-believer with a Buddhist heritage.

This is, of course, a restating of Dennis's latest post (which in turn is really a hat tip to Bill Easterly), but here I am restating what we're about because we had two retreats last week, and in reiterating what inspired us to start GlobalGiving, I was struck by the fact that most of my colleagues encouraged me to state it, and state it again. So here it is.

(It's also a way for me to get back to blogging. I realized how bad it was when I saw that I had unmoderated comments from June--eek. Eli, Dibyendu, my apologies!)