Google's interesting social innovation

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My buddy Anthony Baxter has been a Googler for a while and has worked on many fascinating projects. But what he’s working on now is not just interesting from a technology perspective, it is interesting from a social innovation perspective too.

He’s working on the Google Crisis Response Team, which is part of Google’s philanthropic activities, and he’ll be talking about this at the next Social Innovation Sydney Unconference on 13 August 2011.

The Crisis Response team is an excellent example of social innovation. Google set it up to focus on technology-driven philanthropy via Google.org.  It is a practical way of helping people who have experienced some kind of disaster or humanitarian crisis.  They work to make critical information more accessible during times of crisis.

As they explain it:

The types of activities we might initiate include:

  • Organizing emergency alerts, news updates and donation opportunities, and making this information visible through our web properties
  • Building engineering tools that enable better communication and collaboration among crisis responders and among victims such as Person Finder and Resource Finder
  • Providing updated satellite imagery and maps of affected areas to illustrate infrastructure damage and help relief organizations navigate disaster zones
  • Supporting the rebuilding of network infrastructure where it has been damaged to enable access to the Internet
  • Donating to charitable organizations that are providing direct relief on-the-ground

Read more about past efforts.

If you’re interested in this kind of thing then register now for Social Innovation Sydney Unconference 13 Aug 2011.

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Local Food or Less Meat?

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A while back I did a Live Local Challenge, attempting to consume only food produced within 100 kilometres of my home for a week. You can check out the results and learnings from the process in a series of blog posts from 2009.

Since that time I’ve been much more conscious of what I consume and where it comes from. Last week we screened Food Inc. at Social Innovation Sydney and that kick started me thinking about the issue again.

Then this article popped up in my RSS feed: Local Food or Less Meat? Data Tells The Real Story.

Andrew Winston summarises the research in a US context:

“Thankfully, a couple scientists took a harder look at the data and published an analysis in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology. The abstract for this article is a prime example of clear writing and good lifecycle analysis — which don’t usually go together — so check it out. But here’s the essence:

  • Food is transported a long way, going about 1,000 miles in delivery and over 4,000 miles across the supply chain.
  • But 83% of the average U.S. household’s carbon footprint for food comes from growing and producing it. Transportation is only 11%.
  • Different foods have vastly different greenhouse gas (GHG) intensity, with meat requiring far more energy to produce, and red meat being particularly egregious, requiring 150% more energy than even chicken.

So the journal article adds this up to an obvious conclusion: if you want to reduce your food’s carbon footprint, eat less meat. In short, “Shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more GHG reduction than buying all locally sourced food.”

As a numbers geek, I love this kind of analysis. Now for the caveats: none of this data should dissuade anyone from eating locally also. The footprint benefits are real, even if dwarfed by food choice. And the benefits to local economies and smaller farms are very important.

But let me repeat: just moving away from meat for one day a week is more effective than buying everything you eat locally. This number will be surprising to most people, but it’s partly why the global call for “Meatless Mondays” is gaining steam, with school systems and universities adopting the approach in cities around the world, from Baltimore to Tel Aviv.

Source: Andrew Winston, Local Food or Less Meat? Data Tells The Real Story

I suspect that the distances mentioned in the research hold for Australia too due to our large land mass and lack of local farming close to most cities. Thus it becomes clear that if you can’t decide to become vegetarian full time then there are substantial benefits to replacing a number of meals each week with vegetarian choices. That’s what we’re doing at my place.

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If capitalism is broken is social innovation a way to fix it?

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Over the past several years I have come to think that capitalism as practised in the western world is fundamentally broken. Even before the global financial crisis (GFC) this feeling was strong. But in the aftermath of the GFC my discomfort with modern capitalism has continued to grow. Nothing I have seen, read or heard has shifted my perception.

I know and understand the world of capitalism. I like capitalism and think that it has been good for us in many ways. I respect profit and the law of compound interest. Most of my work experience since leaving school has been with large corporations (mostly large enterprises, Fortune 500 or S&P/ASX 200) – what I jokingly refer to as ‘the belly of the beast’.

But business models that were effective for organisations in past centuries are no longer relevant to the conditions that face the world today. We must find business models that are sustainable, equitable and fair to replace them.

A few things to consider:

  • Western business has been like a cargo cult for too long and has elevated shareholder return as an idol.
  • What good to shareholders (a.k.a. human beings) if the profit that is returned to them comes at the price of the environment their children and grandchildren must inherit?
  • What good to the shareholders if the people who work in the business to generate those returns are broken by corporate politics and are called upon to undertake immoral or illegal acts (for example #hackergate)?
  • What good if those returns to shareholders are generated at the cost of social bonds and the common good?

For many years I’ve pondered: surely it must be possible to generate profit sustainably and to create social good while generating profit?

Over the years I’ve also noticed a growing number of people thinking along similar lines. These people have talked about, among other things, the idea social innovation.  They have also discussed concepts such as sustainable or resilient communities (checkout the MiiU wiki); and concepts like open source innovation are becoming increasingly important.

Even if the US manages to sort out its internal issues with the debt ceiling, there remain serious economic issues in Europe and North America.

We need to take collective action to create profit and abundance that is sustainable on a social, economic and environmental basis.

For too long we have let run rampant a corporate ideology that exalts profit as a deity and we have allowed worship at the altar of shareholder returns to dominate our thinking and ways of doing in business around the world.

It’s time to create better ways for organisations to be more sustainable, more humane, and more planet friendly.

UPDATE 7 AUG 2011

An interesting article just popped up on The Guardian from the UK: Our financial system has become a madhouse. We need radical change. Here Will Hutton argues that “As a new global crisis looms, and political paralysis worsens, genuinely bold solutions are required to overcome the malaise”. I recommend this article.

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Don’t forget to sign up for the next Sydney Social Innovation BarCamp 26 Feb

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Join us for the next Social Innovation BarCamp in Sydney. It’s free registration so sign up now and participate in a day of ideas, conversation and creative thinking.

Register for Social Innovation BarCamp 26 Feb 2011 in Paddington, Australia  on Eventbrite

Again we’ll be crowdsourcing ideas for creating new business models for social good and building up our community network of changemakers.

Like our previous Social Innovation BarCamps this one will provide a place for facilitated conversations (details of the session format here) where anyone can share:

  • a story or an idea
  • kick off a discussion on something they are passionate about
  • share about a cause they want to rally support for
  • road test new social innovation ideas and workshop them with a group

This is your chance to get your ideas out into the open amongst a friendly crowd, as one of the participants said after our last BarCamp:

“thanks #sibsyd, without the barcamp I would never had courage to actually talk about my ‘silly’ idea with somebody else let alone pursue it.”

When: Saturday, February 26, 2011 from 9:30 AM – 5:30 PM
Venue: COFA Cnr Greens Road & Oxford Street, Paddington 2021 Australia

Register for Social Innovation BarCamp 26 Feb 2011 in Paddington, Australia  on Eventbrite

Social Innovation Sydney
This post was originally published on Social Innovation Sydney and is reproduced with permission.

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Sydney’s inaugural Social Innovation BarCamp #sibsyd

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Sydney’s inaugural Social Innovation BarCamp went well yesterday.

The day kicked off with an opening talk by the Hon. Bob Carr, who kindly gave his time to support this event.

Throughout the day we had some amazing networking and discussion sessions focused on creating sustainable futures and directing innovation towards social good.

We also had a lovely lunch sponsored by Cisco and coffee sponsored by AskHer.

I’m very grateful to everyone who helped out to make this event work, in particular my co-un-organisers  Selena Griffith and Michelle Williams.

There are already some amazing photos up in the Social Innovation BarCamp group on Flickr:

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