Innovation for the Next 100 Years
June 2, 2013 Editor 0
By Judith Rodin
SUPPLEMENT TO SSIR FUNDED BY THE ROCKEFELLER FOUNDATION
A centenary comes but once in
the lifetime of any organization—and it’s a milestone we are
privileged to celebrate at the
Rockefeller Foundation in 2013.
This rare and exciting moment presents
us an opportunity to think broadly about
our rich history, assess our strengths and
achievements, and recommit to our mission
to “promote the well-being” of humanity
throughout the world.
Our first one-hundred-year span has
been marked by incredible scientific discoveries,
medical advancements, and changes
in technology that have revolutionized the
world. Although a great deal has changed
since John D. Rockefeller Sr. founded the
Rockefeller Foundation, our commitment
to innovation has remained steadfast.
Innovation is deeply embedded in the
DNA of all that we do, from advancing the
field of public health to developing the field
of artificial intelligence. Our focus has always
been to incubate those novel ideas,
programs, products, or practices that have a
clear positive impact on the social and economic
well-being of the world’s poor and
vulnerable. This commitment still inspires us today to do more than just foster greater
innovation by ourselves and our grantees;
we also bolster and support the field of social
innovation as a whole—creating more resilient
systems, communities, and people.
In that spirit, we’ve leveraged our centennial
year to convene people from around
the world to help us understand the depth
and scope of increasingly complex global
challenges, as well as the opportunity for innovative
ideas and practices to solve them.
This special supplement of the Stanford
Social Innovation Review is an essential part
of that effort. Within these pages we have
invited some of the foremost thinkers in the
field to share their perspectives on social innovation
and offer specific ideas for how we
can increase impact and improve lives.
Before hearing from these experts, I
want to share what social innovation means
to the Rockefeller Foundation, what we’ve
learned over the last century, and how we
are making needed changes to ensure that
we build a strong basis for innovation for the
next 100 years.
A Century of Innovation
The term innovation has become a ubiquitous
buzzword, meaning different things to
different people. It is used to describe everything
from the smart phone in your pocket
to a new financial service for the poor. Not
only do we describe products and services as
innovative, we use the term to describe ourselves.
A search through the professional
networking site LinkedIn in 2010 revealed
that “innovative” was the second-most used
term to describe a person.
At the Rockefeller Foundation, we define
innovation as a break from previous practice,
occurring when different points of view or
existing practices are framed, imagined, or
combined in new ways. Innovation succeeds
when it creates new pathways for solving
entrenched social problems, resulting in
lasting transformation of the systems that
most affect vulnerable populations and leave
stronger social relationships in their wake.
We believe that innovation emerges gradually.
It is not a bolt of lightning or a light bulb
that suddenly brightens over our heads. Often,
innovation is an improvement on invention,
not the invention itself. It’s adaptable, adjustable,
and applicable to new challenges.
Building an organization that could
evolve with the times and confront new challenges
as they emerged was the extraordinary
genius of Rockefeller Foundation founder
John D. Rockefeller Sr. His foresight to tackle
problems around the globe and “attempt to
cure evils at their source” broke with the traditional
approach to charity that focused on
fixing local ills in isolation. And it’s the reason
the foundation has been able to remain at the
leading edge of innovation for 100 years.
Rockefeller did not believe in innovation
for innovation’s sake. He believed in the
greater purpose of discovery and its potential
to better society and the way people live.
In this manner, he and Andrew Carnegie were not only the fathers of modern philanthropy,
they were the first social innovators.
Only they called it by a different name:
Scientific philanthropy—or what Ohio
State University professor and author
Robert H. Bremner not so elegantly referred
to as charity “purged of its sentimentality”—emerged as a response to the
indiscriminate, ineffective, and often corrupt
giving of aid in the post-Civil War era.
The scientific approach suggested—for the
first time—that giving needn’t be an exercise
confined solely to the emotion of the
right brain, but also should encompass the
logic of the left. Aid and relief, when systematized,
organized, and even prioritized,
could make a greater difference in solving
This philosophy was gaining popularity
just around the time John D. Rockefeller Sr.
hired the Rev. Frederick T. Gates to help him
determine how best to distribute his vast
wealth. Among his earliest gifts were funds
to help establish the University of Chicago
and the Rockefeller Institute for Medical
Research, which would later become Rockefeller University.
But his greatest investment was in
creating the Rockefeller Foundation. The
foundation’s focus on the root causes of
problems, along with its broad charter, were
two of the innovations that led to the development
of modern philanthropy.
In 1914, the foundation’s board of trustees
appropriated the first funds for use outside
the United States—$25,000 to create
the International Health Commission. The
commission’s pioneering work helped lay the
foundation for many of the approaches used
today in public health. The following year,
the foundation launched a program of international
fellowships to provide training for
post-doctoral scholars at the world’s leading
universities. At the time, Trustee Wickliffe
Rose called the effort “backing brains.”
One of those brains belonged to Dr.
Howard W. Florey, a former Rockefeller
Foundation fellow and professor of pathology
and head of the Sir William Dunn
School of Pathology at Oxford University.
In July 1936, Florey received an initial
grant of £250 to be used for lab equipment
that would allow him to continue to study
chemical approaches to pathology. In 1945,
Florey, along with Alexander Fleming and
Dr. Ernst B. Chain, received the Nobel Prize
in Medicine for research leading to the development
Perhaps the greatest example of supporting
ingenuity was also among John D.
Rockefeller Sr.’s biggest gambles. When a
young Albert Einstein requested $500 for his
research, Rockefeller told his deputy, “Let’s
give him $1,000. He may be on to something.”
We all know how that story ends.
This idea of “backing brains”—engaging
partners and other institutions to work
toward a strategy or goal—is an enduring
trait of Rockefeller’s approach. The foundation
recognized, and continues to recognize,
that the expertise needed to solve the
problems of a complex and ever-changing
world does not exist within our walls alone.
Investing in the insights of others can unlock
the door to innovation. The foundation
has also long recognized that knowledge on
its own is not enough for innovation. To be
useful, knowledge must be shared among
networks, both internal and external.
In the early decades of its history,
foundation officers were required to keep
a journal of their travels, observations,
and results, which were then shared with staff across the organization.
To build and maintain strong
networks before the advent
of computers or social networks,
staff members wrote
the names of grantees and
contacts on small note cards
that were filed in big oak card
catalogs within our offices—which we maintain still today.
In addition to investing in
insights and sharing knowledge,
another lesson emerges
from our first 100 years—again and again, the greatest
social innovations have been
born from crisis. Rampant
yellow fever and hookworm
led to transformative vaccines.
One billion people on
the cusp of starvation made
a Green Revolution possible.
Innovating for the 21st Century
The crises we face today are
more nuanced and much more
complex than in the past—huge
in scale and scope, with no regard
for man-made borders,
and inextricably linked. Author
Jeffrey Conklin calls this new
brand of interconnected global
challenges “wicked problems.”
Despite their complexity,
these crises also present us
with greater opportunities. Advancements
in technology, travel, and communication
mean we can transfer knowledge
much faster and with a greater degree of specificity
than ever before. We are able to more
quickly warn of shocks and disruptions in one
region, such as infectious disease, that will affect
people in other regions. In other words,
we are able to be more democratic, more global,
and more collaborative than ever before.
In 2007, the Rockefeller Foundation
launched its Accelerating Innovation for
Development initiative, aimed at exploring
the potential of open and user-centered innovation
models to address the needs of the
global poor. The initiative sought to adapt
and test approaches such as crowdsourcing,
competitions, user-centered designs,
and user-driven innovation methods across
various issues and geographies, particularly
in the developing world.
Innovations in markets and financial
products have also created new opportunities
and sources of capital that we couldn’t
have imagined decades ago. The acceleration
of impact investing, a practice the Rockefeller
Foundation has helped to grow, has provided
access to greater amounts of money to
solve pressing social problems. For example,
the Rockefeller Foundation played an important
role in creating the New York City Acquisition Loan Fund—in which a group of
foundations put up the initial high-risk tier
of $36.2 million in capital for new affordable
housing projects. This allowed commercial
lenders such as JP Morgan, HSBC, and other
large banks with lower risk tolerance to
provide approximately $190 million in second-
tier debt. In only a few short years, this
partnership enabled New York City to build
thousands of units of affordable housing.
Lessons We’re Learning
Over the years, we’ve learned
a great deal about what works
and what doesn’t when it
comes to creating and catalyzing
opportunities for innovation.
First, there must be room
for experimentation and risktaking.
Providing this flexibility
requires more than just
betting on the next Einstein—it means creating space for the
next Einstein or Paul Farmer
to take risks with his work and,
if needed, a place to fail safely.
For philanthropy in particular,
it’s about mitigating the risk
by using the capital and other
means at our disposal to provide
an opportunity for others
to invest and collaborate.
Second, in addition to
space, innovation needs time
and demands patience. The
Rockefeller Foundation’s work
to eradicate yellow fever began
in 1916, but the vaccine that
would ultimately achieve this
goal would not be developed
for another thirty years. Even
with the advanced technological
capabilities and the immediacy
of the Internet, innovation
still requires incubation
and an enabling environment
to develop. This continues to
be an opportunity for foundations,
which, because of broader missions
and flexibility, have traditionally been able
to commit to programs for the long haul.
That’s not to say, however, that ideas
should be given a boundless timeframe to
develop and scale up. This leads to the third
lesson: defining clear outcomes. Goal setting
and impact measures need not be the
enemies of innovation. In fact, when framed
in the context of who will benefit and how,
goals and measures can help us achieve even
Successful innovations come from a process
where the people who will ultimately
benefit from a product or service are given
a voice in its development. For example, the
foundation funded the for-profit company
IDEO to work with nonprofits. One of these
is Conversion Sound, a social enterprise that
develops hearing aids for poor people in rural
The Rockefeller Foundation has funded many health programs, including
(top) dispensaries treating hookworm disease in Alabama, United States,
and (bottom) researchers in Accra, Ghana, investigating yellow fever.
Innovation for a Complex World 5
India. Through the IDEO process they discovered
that because authority commands
such respect, particularly in the rural parts of
India, hearing aid technicians would be more
effective if they wore uniforms. That wasn’t
an idea that could have come from any lab or
research facility, but it made a huge difference
in the success of the program.
Last, we have learned that although these
new approaches to social innovation hold
unprecedented promise, in many instances,
the thinking and the technology have outpaced
the ability of organizations to effectively
implement and scale up the solutions
in the real world. One thing we’ve seen consistently
is that the capacity for implementing
new approaches in the field often cannot
keep up with the pace of innovation methods
in development. We believe that innovation
must be just as much about capacity-building
among organizations, communities, and
individuals. And that is the focus of our current
work at the Rockefeller Foundation,
driven by our twin visions: ensuring that the
benefits of globalization are reaching vulnerable
populations, and building the resilience
of those populations against the shocks and
disruptions of the 21st-century world.
Innovating for Resilience
As I mentioned, one of the important lessons
we’ve learned is that big, systems-changing
innovation often takes great patience—time,
quite frankly, that we don’t always have when
helping vulnerable populations. As we spend
time searching for the next vaccine or the
next mobile technology, people are suffering
under the weight of extreme poverty, dirty
water, droughts, and floods. They are struggling
to maintain their crops, educate their
children, or access the health care they need
to keep their families safe and healthy.
We cannot predict the future form and
scope of the shocks that communities and
systems will have to withstand and recover
from—whether they result from climate
change, financial crisis, armed conflict, or
social upheaval. In the face of these challenges,
innovating for resilience—resilient
networks, communities, and organizations
better able to respond to and adapt to these
unexpected events—is among the most important
kinds of innovation we can pursue.
Take climate change, for example. These
shocks will continue to increase as warming
temperatures heat our planet, and as global
populations shift to cities and areas closer to low-lying coasts. By 2070 about 60 percent
of the world’s population increase will be
in Asia, which will be home to seven of the
ten cities most exposed to flooding. At present,
Asian cities lack the resources to prepare
for and manage the shocks of weather
events. But fortunately, innovations in flood
management that are both affordable and
effective may help mitigate the disastrous
impacts we’ve seen in the aftermath of previous
floods in the region. Among them is the
concept of failing safely. With proper plans
in place, transportation lines and electrical
grids can be shut down in advance of major
weather events to ensure that they can be restored
much more quickly than if they were
allowed to fail on their own.
Innovating for resilience is critical if
we are to protect against the disruptions
of a 21st-century world. As we do so, we
should keep in mind the qualities resilient
networks, communities, and organizations
share. Among them are:
Flexibility | able to change, evolve, and adapt at a rapid pace.
Redundancy | able to change course and adopt alternative approaches.
Resourcefulness | able to identify problems, establish priorities, and mobilize resources and assets to achieve goals.
Safe failure | able to absorb shocks and the cumulative effects of slow-onset challenges so as to avoid catastrophic failure if thresholds are exceeded.
Responsiveness | able to re-organize and re-establish function and order following a failure.
Learning | able to internalize experiences and apply those lessons to decrease vulnerabilities to future disruptions.
The goal of social innovation, and those
who work in the field, should be to make our
world more resilient than it is vulnerable;
to do what we can to reduce the shocks and
disruptions; and most important, to ensure
that all people, particularly the poor, can
withstand that which we cannot prevent or
The Next 100 Years
We all have a role to play in fostering innovation.
Governments can enact smarter policies,
businesses can open new markets and
distribution channels, and investors can
infuse greater capital into products that deliver
social as well as financial returns.
Here at the foundation, we’ve begun
thinking about our own strategy and the role
we will play in fostering innovation over the
next 100 years. We’re putting in place a model
and a strategy that will allow us to be much
more nimble, and that will build our ability to
test new ideas and learn from our experiences.
We are asking ourselves tough questions, not
just about what we do, but how we do it. How
are we using our tools and our history for innovation?
Are we using these effectively?
The articles that follow describe more
ways of thinking and catalyzing innovations
for the betterment of humanity. I urge
you to read these not simply as an academic
exercise—after all, innovation is about
changing realities for people, and must be
considered in real contexts. Instead, consider
what concrete, practical steps you can
take to enhance flexibility, redundancy, and
resourcefulness in your own organizations
or ones you work with. Then push yourself
and those around you to share with and learn
from one another. Just as one actor cannot
solve problems alone, innovation is not a job
for a single mind. Work to create an environment
where collaboration is interwoven in
the culture, and a commitment to innovation
is clearly communicated and measured.
However we move forward, we must not
be afraid to experiment, to make strategic
bets, and to take chances. As John D. Rockefeller
Sr. said, “If you want to succeed you
should strike out on new paths, rather than
travel the worn paths of accepted success.”
The insights that follow will help us take
those next steps.
- Chocolate innovation: Sweet tooth hackers solve cocoa farmers’ challenges
- Approaching Business Models from an Economic Perspective(Wei et al.)
- Avoid the Deadly Temptations that Derail Innovators
- Disruptive innovations and new business models: The role of competition policy advocacy
- An Optimist’s View of Global Health Achievement
- Appropriation Instruments and Innovation Activities: Evidence from Tunisian Firms
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