Building a Better Filter Isn't What's Holding Us Back: An Interview with blueEnergy’s Mathias Craig
Over on the Stanford Social Innovation Review blog, I will soon publish a post entitled “Innovation Obsession Disorder”. My basic point is that we get all hot and gooey about great innovations but we tend to lose interest after the innovative pilot has been launched. The world is full of great innovative projects that can’t move beyond the pilot stage. And we, the world, are the losers.
I think there are some practical steps that could be taken to address this problem and I will get into them in my SSIR post. But first, I thought it would be useful to hear from two great social innovators who have encountered this issue on the ground.
We’ll start with Mathias Craig who started blueEnergy in 2002 while he was a graduate student at MIT. blueEnergy works to ensure that even the most isolated poor get the energy, clean water and sanitation they need to live a healthy, productive life. blueEnergy’s model is to adapt appropriate technologies to the local context while emphasizing deep community engagement, local capacity building and working through partnerships at the international, national and local levels. blueEnergy has worked with 18 communities, mostly on the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua, bringing energy, water and sanitation services to over 5,000 people, with many receiving multiple services.
A key to blueEnergy’s model is engaging international volunteers and financial support to complement locally available resources. Over 250 international volunteers have worked with blueEnergy and financial support has been provided by Hivos, the Good Energies Foundation, Renewable World, Danida, Christianadelphia Meal a Day Foundation and L’île de France, among others, as well as a small dedicated group of individual donors.
Here is Mathias in his own words.
The Poison of the Social Sector
I've always had mixed feelings about the concept of Innovation unless it includes adapting existing technology, processes and methodologies to new places. Because why should inventing new things be a priority over just making existing solutions work in new places? I see this all the time in the world... the need exists, the solution exists... but there is no bridge between the two and they don't naturally connect on their own. The competition to be "innovative" is often at the detriment to collaboration and cooperation between institutions - which is just a real killer. I often call it the "poison of the social sector" – a situation in which organizations have to out-compete others in being shinier, newer, sexier rather than sitting down together and figuring out how to amplify their common strategies to create more net impact.
Too much ‘doing’?
I think there is too much emphasis on "doing" in the development space, and not enough on "reflecting", "sharing", "planning", etc. It's a human bias - we want to see concrete things get done. But just charging out there building stuff and installing it, without all the other actions, leads to marginal impact at best. The world is a showcase for this kind of failed development. Of course the end goal is to "do", but without the other parts often the wrong things get "done".
We need more collaboration, more sharing, more reflecting. And that effort requires different skills from doing and it needs to be funded. Social impact organizations are all under-funded and over-worked and simply asking them to do more unfunded work is generally not very productive. So social impact organizations need to capture and communicate the critical "non-doing" work they do and funders need to understand the value in funding these fuzzy, "soft" activities that lead to much deeper, bigger impact in the long-term.
Einstein said it best, “Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.” Intuitively we know this, yet the sector continues to overly fund the tangible, and underfund the critically important intangible, with predictable consequences.
One of the most important lessons I have learned in my nearly ten years of working on blueEnergy is the importance of being able to effectively communicate your impact. For a long time I assumed that our good work would be noticed on its own and that this recognition would automatically lead to us getting the resources we needed to grow our impact. But I have learned the hard way that being able to package your impact in simple messaging and communicate it aggressively and strategically to the outside world is critical for engaging people and attracting the support you need to grow your impact. Without it, “interest” doesn’t convert into “support”. This is a great example of a “soft” activity that is as important as the work itself.
New culture, new politics, new natural landscape, new everything
Personally, I think there is too much emphasis on organizations expanding geographically, rather than building effective regional and global networks to strengthen existing organizations where they are -- where they have the experience and relationships and already understand the context. In many contexts, it is a lot easier to build skills to help organizations improve their programs and even expand into new program areas, than it is for an organization to move into a new geography -- where they have to deal with new culture, new politics, new natural landscape, new everything. This isn't a universal truth; big, strong, for-profit enterprises selling consumer goods can expand more easily into new geographies because they push their pre-established "brand" and they have the resources to create culture change top down through marketing. But for social enterprises working in the most marginalized places to create fundamental change, this is not the case.
Tomorrow: “Growing and Scaling Impact”