On Monday, I spoke at the Social Entrepreneurship Summit held at the MaRS Centre in Toronto. Although, as the name suggests, people came to learn about social entrepreneurship, they were also really curious to discover how people can stay inside their field or organization and drive change from within. I call these people New Radical Innovators. (New Radicals are people like you and me who've found ways to put the skills acquired in our careers to work on the world's greatest challenges; for more, see archived articles [http://www.huffingtonpost.com/julia-moulden/]).
Innovation is a buzzword at the moment. In the New Radical sense, here's how it's popping up. There is Innovation that's bubbling up from the grassroots. And Innovation that's coming from what's being called the grasstops, or the corridors of power.
Last week, I wrote about a grassroots example - that is, someone who gets an idea and works quietly away until they're far enough along that they can make a business case, or have a prototype to share. Ed Sutt is the example I love to cite: Ed is an engineer with Stanley Bostitch. Deeply moved by the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, he knew he wanted to do something to help, but wasn't sure what. Not long after, he had what he calls "front row seats" to hurricane damage on a Caribbean island. And it was there that he had his light bulb moment. "In house after house," he told me, "I realized it wasn't the wood that gave way, but the nails that were holding it together."
So, Ed was seized by an idea: he wanted to create a better nail. No-one handed Ed a big pile of money and told him to go ahead, reinvent the nail. Instead, he came in early, stayed late, and put in time on the weekend, bringing his vision to life. A gazillion prototypes later, the HurriQuake nail was born. The head is 25 percent bigger than on traditional nails, the shank is spiral, and there are angled barbs to keep it in place, even under the extreme duress of a hurricane or earthquake. And it fits into standard nail guns.
When people in the audience at MaRS asked me how to persuade their boss that New Radical Innovation is a good idea, that's what I told them. Do your homework, and then make the pitch once you've made a really strong case for what you want to do. Of course, having to offer proof for what you want to do can be difficult - and some would say that it kills the innovation - but it's the reality in most organizations today.
But not all. I'm working with clients who want to introduce New Radical Innovation throughout their organizations. They recognize that people are motivated by the chance to do things that have an impact on the world. These pioneering leaders recognize the value of introducing such programs on a number of levels, including as a way to attract and retain the best and brightest employees. Such programs - helping people throughout the organization find ways to do good -- also allow organizations to strengthen relationships with customers, investors, and the full range of stakeholders. And, surprise, surprise, they often go straight to the bottom line.
One example that's particularly interesting, and makes it clear that the so-called "contribution revolution" (making the most of the contributions of the many) is at work, comes from an unexpected quarter. IBM hosted a pair of corporation-wide, egalitarian brainstorming sessions called "innovation jams". They created a special section of the virtual-reality game, Second Life, and invited their 300,000-plus employees (along with their families), clients, and suppliers to take part. Each participant created an avatar, and was invited to dream up inventions in four areas: staying healthy, better planet, transportation, and commerce. Nearly 40,000 ideas were floated, and water was among the most popular - including a proposal to use nanotechnology to purify drinking water. Take note, this wasn't just a game - these were real solutions and real products.
Where New Radical Innovation goes from here is anyone's guess. But my view, as I said at MaRS, is that Innovators are the ones to watch. If you think about it, we can't all leave our jobs. We can't all become ecowarriors, goodwill ambassadors, aid workers, or solar energy salespeople. The world needs plumbers and firefighters, sanitation workers and bus drivers, ballerinas and IT specialists. Someone needs to keep the trains running, and the lines of communication open. How will environmentalists get to conferences or aid workers get supplies into the hands of people who need them without infrastructure? Yet each of these people wants to do good, too.
I'd love to hear from those of you who are making inroads in this area. Or what your hopes and dreams might be.
Please comment below, or email me directly at email@example.com.
Follow Julia Moulden on Twitter: www.twitter.com/juliamoulden