Try to imagine a kind of World Idol for social entrepreneurs…

As you may have heard, the MacArthur Foundation recently launched an extraordinary initiative, something like a genius grant for a whole project offering an unprecedented level of support. The foundation is sponsoring a $100 million grant to fund a single proposal that promises real and measurable progress in solving a critical problem of our time. The foundation will consider proposals from any field or problem area.  

Nothing like $100 million to get social entrepreneurs and other change leaders talking… In our leadership networks (I-LEAD, Kellogg, Eisenhower, Ashoka), we have been involved in several vigorous conversations.

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Where to begin? A serious challenge to this initiative finds expression in the law of instrument: “To a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Within every discipline, professional and organizational experiences supply a powerful frame that deeply affects and sometimes limits the way we view the most critical problems confronting humanity. Educators tend to focus on learning; health professionals, on disease and wellness; human rights lawyers on rights. The call to change the world requires us to see human problems from a broad, multidisciplinary perspective.

Now, admittedly, MacArthur isn’t saying that it wants to solve the most critical problem of our time, only a critical problem. In selecting a winner, the decisionmakers for this investment clearly need to judge proposals in terms of efficacy and efficiency: What will work? What will provide the strongest return on investment?

Nevertheless, the Foundation will likely receive promising proposals targeted at a broad spectrum of concerns. This reality raises some important threshold questions that embrace values beyond resource stewardship. The magnitude of this investment means that the opportunity costs at stake here are significant. The contextual decision about the domain in which to make this investment really matters as much—or more—than selecting a project promising a high probability of success and efficiency. Either explicitly or tacitly, the judges’ choice of domain will not only reflect their consensus about humanity’s most urgent and important challenges, but also about their perspectives on risk and creativity. Is it more valuable to make limited progress against a problem of enormous importance than to offer a complete solution to a tangential problem? Yesterday’s epic failures often create the ground for tomorrow’s breakthroughs. With its longstanding commitment to genius, does MaCarthur want to pick low hanging fruit, or does it want to be bold, to create some new orchards? As they say in sports, go big or go home.

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Global innovation’s rapid pace makes this judgment about the domain for investment especially difficult. Some of humanity’s most serious problems have readily yielded to scientific, economic, social and technological interventions, though new and unexpected challenges often emerge as a result. So many examples… consider just one. Throughout most of history, communities have struggled to produce enough healthy food. Yet today, we are struggling to address serious world health problems caused by obesity. Imagine how Malthus (who predicted mass starvation arising at a fraction of the world’s current population) would react to obesity in modern China, population exceeding 1.3 billion.

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While our world is confronting extraordinary challenges, it has also made miraculous progress. Think of the unbelievable global gains arising from modern science and technology, extending not only lifespans but also quality of life. Consider advances in energy, transportation, medicine, materials, information technology. Another mind boggling example: over 500 million smartphones in China, over 200 million in India.  The fruits of collaborative innovation are not shared equally, but more people are rising out of poverty and living longer than at any previous point in history. Given the rapid pace of development and progress, we can bet that humanity’s most significant challenges—even those that stem from progress itself, such as poor nutrition, inequality and climate change—can be overtaken by the robust power of collaborative innovation in the service of our shared values.

The exponential promise of human ingenuity reminds us that an effort to address humanity’s greatest challenges must be fully cognizant of our greatest potential asset: collaborative innovation and creativity. Community creativity in the service of our most deeply held desires for collective peace and prosperity is a powerful force, perhaps the most powerful force in nature. And who knows this better than the MacArthur Foundation, with its legions of genius fellows?

So what’s the best way to invest $100 million so as to change human destiny for the better? The answer is straightforward: Remove the largest systemic constraint to productive ingenuity in the service of our shared desires for peace and prosperity. And what is the greatest threat to collaborative innovation around the globe? What is that large plank in our vision that prevents us from removing all the others? It is the prevalence of force and violence as accepted strategies for managing human affairs, especially conflict.   

Think about it. In the past century, force and violence gave us countless bloody revolutions, genocides and two world wars, leading to the development of nuclear weapons, the only technology ever developed capable of snuffing out not only human life, but almost all life on the planet. In this sense, the human tendency to resolve conflict through force and violence has produced evolution’s singular existential threat. Beyond the persistent risk of worldwide annihilation, force and violence have been responsible for more avoidable human misery than any other modern phenomenon.

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But the challenge confronting global communities transcends this baseline of suffering, destruction and death. We must also consider the incalculable opportunity cost of unrealized gains. Imagine how much better the world would be today if the money spent, assets destroyed and lives lost through force and violence had instead been liberated for research, innovation, collaboration and development. Now imagine the future losses we face as a global community if we cannot reduce the impact of force and violence in human affairs. Of course we face major threats from disease, natural disasters and so forth, but other than the harm we inflict on one another, can you think of any human problem that has not steadily yielded to human progress, especially in recent decades?

Looking at the big picture, we can see clearly that our most painstaking problems persist due to a lack of concerted human will to supply focused, creative resources. The critical point is that this palpable lack of focused resources—the willpower deficit for collaborative creativity—directly manifests as a perverse love for hegemony, conflict, force and violence. Imagine this choice as a fork in the road: One way leads to shared progress, the other to a power conflict employing force and violence. Communities that choose the path of force and violence not only live by the sword, they die by it, with losses exponentially compounded into the future. Every sword that we choose to wield today is a lost plowshare tomorrow, yielding a bumper anti-crop of human failure. The human love affair with power, violence and force serves as the primary cause of stasis and backsliding in addressing humanity’s most pressing concerns. From a systems perspective, tackling the problem of force and violence is the ultimate gamechanger.

What could one do with $100 million to tip human communities around the world away from power-hungry, force-focused violent conflict, instead toward embracing peace, understanding, collaboration and shared innovation? Many will view this a naive dream, beyond practical reach. But this pessimistic perspective masquerading as worldly pragmatism fails to comprehend the daily, worldwide, tangible role of collaborative innovation in modernity.

Productive, collaborative peace is in fact highly feasible, and we know this with great certainty. Ironically, we know that collaborative innovation toward shared prosperity, informed by a vision of peaceful growth, is feasible because throughout history all meaningful progress has depended on it. In other words, the awesome power of human social and technological innovation, everything that has contributed to our quality of life—from the United States Constitution to the countless productive fruits of well-regulated markets, to the shared circles of love and concern within our communities, houses of worship and families—has required individuals to work together peacefully and productively. The truth is that, from a historical perspective, the cup of plenty produced from collaborative innovation is much more than half full. Humanity’s addiction to force and violence represents a last mile problem. One hell of a problem, but nevertheless, the tail, not the dog.

We know the system can be tipped around the globe because we do it every day. The challenge is not to begin, but rather to extend  our know-how in order to reach situations that today are dominated by the use of force and violence.

Unfortunately, what we see in the world is that, all too often, this unstable boundary—between the productive energy of innovation and collaboration, on one hand, and the destructive energy of force and violence, on the other—oscillates in a pattern that moves toward increasing damage, rather than away from it. To move this needle in the right direction changes everything.

At this moment, we stand at an awesome leverage point in the global system of human affairs. How would the world be transformed if there was a systemic breakthrough that rapidly scaled collaborative creativity, overcoming the remaining barriers to productive innovation, compounding the peace dividend in communities throughout the world? What would it really take to flip this switch, to steadily gain more productive peace rather than more violence and destruction. In light of current events, can we afford not to do so?

Call to Action

Are you involved in work relevant to these challenges? Are you interested in joining a conversation inspired by 100&Change, to think about how to redouble the strategy of collaborative innovation and apply it self-reflexively to the cause of moving from conflict to creativity? If so, send us an email and join our group on LinkedIn.

Yes, we are working on a grant application.


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