05/13/2010 05:20 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Catalyzing the Future at the Skoll World Forum

As we entered the Sheldonian Theatre here at Oxford University on the evening of 4/14, the room was abuzz as the 2010 Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship was about to kick off - the theme this year is Catalyzing Collaboration. We had no idea that Eyjafjallajokull (i.e. ''The Volcano'') would erupt, forcing collaboration on a mass scale to get the 300,000 stranded people home, and causing another forum, TEDxVolcano, but for now I'll stick to discussing the Skoll World Forum.

In chemistry a catalyst is defined as a substance that modifies and increases the rate of a reaction. The question posed at this year's forum was how to speed up the process of working together toward more efficient social impact.

We dream of communities with meaningful interactions between its citizens. But, critical issues such as climate change, water scarcity, poverty, education and public health, stand in our way.

Efficient impact cannot be achieved without forging cross-sector partnerships and alliances. As individuals and independent organizations, we need to push ourselves to become more than the sum of our parts.

Of the 25 panels presented, two in particular stand out: Navigating the Future: Scenario planning for social entrepreneurs; and Next Generation Social Media / Reimagining Networks for Impact.

Navigating the Future: Scenario planning for social entrepreneurs:
Moderator: Rafael Ramirez, James Martin Senior Research Fellow in Futures, University of Oxford.

Rafael Ramirez led a workshop-style session challenging us to imagine alternative possible futures that we as social entrepreneurs will face. Governments and Fortune 500 companies do this exercise on a routine basis to build focused yet responsive strategies to guide their organizations. The following are key takeaways you can use to improve your organizations longer-range vision.

  1. Always remember that the future is something that comes at you independent of your will, not something that you go into.
  2. There are 3 reasons to manufacture scenarios: To set the direction, make sense of a context you don't understand, and determine if you are working with the right values.
  3. To use scenario planning, one must "manufacture" (not choose) potential scenarios that that best fit the purpose of the analysis and are the most challenging. Evaluate a question in the context of 2 scenarios max.
  4. To start out scenario manufacturing, you must identify the central actor (i.e. your org): Look at the transactional environment around you (the people surrounding your org, suppliers, clients, investors), then look at the contextual environment (e.g. factors like the Health Care Bill) around the transaction.

Some great published examples of scenario planning are Shell and the EPO.

Next Generation Social Media / Reimagining Networks for Impact
Moderator: Jim Fruchterman, President & CEO, Benetech
Moderator: Bruno Giussani, European Director, TED Conferences

Social entrepreneurs are using mobile tech and the latest social media tools to loop staff, beneficiaries, and supporters together in new and innovative ways. The panel which included Joichi Ito, CEO, Creative Commons, stressed the need to move beyond Facebook and Twitter and utilizing social media to overcome restrictive governments and set information free. The biggest takeways being:

  1. If you are working in an environment unfriendly to NGO's use the 'Sneaker Net' as your social media tool. I.e. activists in unsafe/restricted environments stick digital info on a USB stick and someone sneaks it across a border for broader Internet broadcast. A great example is
  2. You can use Global Voices Advocacy for anonymous blogging with wordpress.
  3. You can use as a way to access the web and defend yourself against a form of network surveillance.

The Skoll World Forum ended on Friday under a cloud of volcanic ash -- literally -- but that didn't dampen a great conference. You can watch the entire closing plenary (and all the filmed panels from the forum) Here.