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Judith Rodin, President of the Rockefeller Foundation, on the Evolution and Promise of Social Innovation

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Recently, I sat down with Dr. Judith Rodin, President of the Rockefeller Foundation, to discuss, in great depth, the evolution and promise of social innovation, and the role that the foundation is playing to systematically advance the field moving forward. Dr. Rodin has been president of the Rockefeller Foundation since 2005. She was previously president of the University of Pennsylvania, the first woman to lead an Ivy League institution, and provost of Yale University.

Below is an excerpt of the transcript, while the full interview can be found here.

Rahim Kanani: What is Rockefeller's relationship, in terms of its investments, with the modern sector of social innovation?

Judith Rodin: We are very systematically trying to advance the field. I think all philanthropy invests in product innovation, whether in a vaccine or a new kind of product of one sort or another, and I think we'll all continue to do that. The private sector's really good at that too, so there's more of a convergence and the establishment of public/private partnerships in product innovation in the social space. The vaccine developments are one example where it's philanthropic institutions but also large for-profit multinational pharmaceutical companies, and that's really to the good in product innovation. We've been investing in the other three types of innovation differentially.

With regard to process innovation, we are investing in the how, rather than the what. We've been very taken by the demonstration of the power of user-driven innovation. So, we have a partnership with InnoCentive, and we're trying out crowd-sourcing platforms for solving problems in the social space: new kinds of anti-malarial devices, a missing piece of a puzzle in a particular vaccine development cycle, and new kinds of cook stoves, among others.

InnoCentive, a for-profit that spun off from Eli Lilly, has now registered almost 400,000 scientists and thinkers from around the world, and they crowd-source a problem by offering a prize. Through the challenges we have worked on with InnoCentive for the social space, we have gotten some really amazing, inspiring, and surprising solutions. There have been lots of demonstrations now of really great challenges solved, and a lot of other foundations are now starting to use either InnoCentive or other kinds of crowd-sourcing platforms.

Additionally, the government is increasingly trying to use crowd-sourcing to solve problems, and I think if we can show that policy isn't only formed by 12 smart people sitting in a room, but that if you open up to the general public ideas about policy, that you get great policymaking as well. And you also get more committed citizens.

There's a lot of work being done through the innovation arm of the World Bank, at the World Bank Institute. There's a lot of work that we at the Rockefeller Foundation are doing and funding towards that end, and increasingly, the U.S. government is getting engaged. But we're collaborating with them, and we now have six or seven heavily funded pilot innovation process grants to the U.S. government and increasingly to other governments around the world.

Another kind of crowd-sourcing we're funding is the Ashoka work on collaborative competitions. So rather than a complete competition, which is what InnoCentive is, the hypothesis that Ashoka had, which we also have found really interesting, is that if you post the problem and everybody's posting their solutions, all of you can identify where there's white space where other people aren't thinking about things, but you can also iterate to a better solution. So, we funded a global water challenge for them. And they had 340 entries, and you could see people in all different countries, working on the solution. You could see the iteration occurring and the winning solution came from people in seven different countries, who had never met one another, who were collaborating and competing sort of virtually, but wound up as the collaborators in this solution, which was then taken to scale in a very significant way.

Based on this success, we funded a collaborative competition recently for the G20. The G20 asked for help in creating a collaborative competition on the Ashoka platform for the best ideas in the world on how to finance small and medium sized enterprise. As you know, there's a lot of attention to micro finance, and it's wonderful, but we're not going to get growth and poverty reduction without starting to go to scale and SMEs, along the continuum, are the next sized growth engine and next sized business entity. And the G20 wanted to invest, but they felt that they didn't have a good line of sight on what the best financing models were. So, they decided let's crowd-source it.

We opened it up to the world to see what ideas there are. They got hundreds of applicants and ideas. They picked 17 winners and they committed half a billion dollars to fund them. So, you know, here are entities that have resources and are looking for innovative ways to open themselves up to new ideas for their funding. It cost us about half a million dollars to mount the competition. So for us, we say, "What amazing leverage: half a million to unleash $528 million." That's a dream for philanthropy, that you really are leveraging and that in itself is a kind of innovative process.

The third process that we're excited about really comes out of design thinking and is also another kind of user-driven innovation, which is instead of inventing something in the research lab and then doing a focus group with the consumers to see if it works or if it'll sell, you work in reverse. You actually go out first to the users, and you engage them in the design in some way either intentionally or by observing them. And then you develop the solution based on engaging them in the problem solving.

Rahim Kanani: What are some examples of analyzing an issue in reverse in hopes of discovering a solution?

Judith Rodin: We started with one that is really just based on observation and not on direct engagement with a grantee called Positive Deviance, based at Tufts University, and made up mostly of anthropologists. Their hypothesis was that if you observe in places where there are problems and focus on the successes rather than the failures, and then you ask what is it that they are doing that's different, you can then take what they're doing and teach it...more.

The full interview can be found here.

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