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Reflection: Social Innovation Summit 2017

On June 7 and 8 I was given the opportunity to attend Landmark Ventures’ Social Innovation Summit at the JW Marriott in downtown Chicago. I was interested in the summit because social innovation is a concept that repeatedly comes up in the world of philanthropy. As people seek to develop new and unique solutions to both emerging challenges such as cyber-bullying to age-old issues like equity and equality in the education system, social innovation has become trendy. There are social innovation incubators, corporate efforts to address issues with cutting-edge strategies and not for-profit organizations founded on forward-thinking and creative programs. Similarly, foundations have followed suit and it is not uncommon now to see funders not only taking risks on new ideas but sometimes even setting aside funds specifically for innovation, a switch from the traditional funding of evidence-based programs and low-risk funding.

While not every presenter at the Summit was involved specifically in philanthropy, all were inspiring in that they took initiative to follow their dreams. Presenters included a diversity of people and ideas. For example, a representative for Vodaphone presented a video about one of its social impact award winners for innovative uses for wireless technology to solve pressing problems. The award winner, Wiper, is comprised a small team of entrepreneurs who invented wireless collars for elephants that can sense gunfire and call wildlife authorities in real-time, decreasing the number of poached elephants by 20%. Also presenting was Marley Dias, an 11 year-old African American girl who realized it was difficult for her to find books with black or brown-skinned girls as protagonists so she came up with the idea of a book drive to collect 1,000 books featuring strong girls of color. She exceeded her goal with 4,000 books and counting and has since created the 1000 Black Girls resource guide and has plans to grow her idea with new endeavors including a book she has written herself. There were also non-profit leaders and well-known personalities like Van Jones, the activist and CNN reporter who has founded multiple nonprofits such as Color of Change, a web-based grassroots organization to empower members to advocate for fair treatment from the government, and Green for All, dedicated to creating “green-collar jobs” for Americans living in poverty.

The Summit certainly encouraged attendees to take risks and to think outside the box. I have since come to several conclusions. First of all, I noticed how most innovative ideas were either based in or dependent on technology and new ways of reaching people. Technology also serves as a vehicle for people to communicate with each other and collectively galvanize change; when previously, these same people would not have a public platform to express their views and ideas or easy ways to meet others who are interested. Secondly, some of the innovative ideas were actually revivals of or new spins on bygone strategies that have somewhat faded away in popularity. For example, one presenter highlighted the idea that it is more profitable when employers value their employees and treat them well because they will be more loyal and work harder if they are invested in the company, enjoy their jobs, have the potential for growth, and are afforded excellent benefits such as superior healthcare and leave.

Another example is that meaningful education involves collaboration, problem-solving, hands-on projects and ties to real-life applications. There were several education-themed presenters, all taking this concept but employing it in innovative ways and being accessible to students who are economically challenged. Lastly, I learned that it is okay to not be serious 100% of the time – humor, camaraderie and positive environments are productive ones that inspire creativity and teamwork.

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