By Anna Dimitrova
We live in complex times. Everything functions in between the chaos and order and nothing is quite what is seems. Problems are easy to spot on the surface but digging deeper reveals a maze of interconnected factors which make it hard to understand their real causes. We live in a time of transformation where the old models do not work anymore, where the systems designed before no longer serve our needs to their best and where there are new types of issues- social, economic, environmental…It is clear that solving one problem at a time would not be effective. In order to deal with this complexity we need to spot the root causes and to challenge the existing systems.
This is why new actors start to appear and to disrupt the status quo from within. They look for solutions in a new way and have different names- social entrepreneurs, systempreneurs, intrapreneurs, changemakers, benefit corporations, social businesses, etc…So far, we’ve tried to determine their nature by opposing them to the already existing models- profit vs. non profit, creating value for stakeholders vs. creating value for shareholders, entrepreneurs vs. social entrepreneurs. This is why many of them operate in a “parallel reality”- outside of the “system” or trying to fit in a legal or financial format- usually “pushed” to be a NGO or a company, due to the lack of a more appropriate fit. But here is the issue. These new players are not just entrepreneurs who add a social element to their ventures, or NGOs which are trying to become companies. They usually hold spaces outside of this reality and create solutions which work. To define them, we need to re-think the way they are created, the way they operate and the way we perceive them.
The activities they undertake vary and the challenges they focus on are different. Nevertheless, we can spot some common patterns among them.
“The Whole is greater than the sum of its parts”
They realise systemic change cannot be achieved on their own. They know they do not have all the answers and all the skills. For them, the purpose is bigger than the ego. This is why; they believe in the importance of synergy and promote the culture of collaboration. They often act as hosts of conversations that matter between people who have nothing in common at first sight.
Bringing together architects, mechanical engineers, ethnographers, communication designers and education specialists to build schools might sound unusual, but it is exactly this kind of synergy that creates groundbreaking solutions.
“Connect to” vs. “Connect”
Creating networks and horizontal connections person to person rather than vertical ones enables co-creation and impact. This is what system change needs- a tribe of like-minded people, who are ready to experiment together, to fail and to help each other. This is why places like the Impact Hubs all over the world and regional hubs like Nahdet el Mahrousa in the Middle East have turned into a sort of social labs for reinventing the status quo. The core of these networks is the concept of co-creation and collaboration. Often, there is no even need of a fixed space for the changemakers toself-organise and allow collaborations to emerge in a natural way, through conversations and common practice. It is all about networks, built with shared purpose in the core.
“Walk a mile in one’s shoes”
Tackling complex problems on systemic level means working with all actors and institutions in the system itself. True collaboration requires listening and understanding with intention and here is where empathy comes in place. Understanding how the different actors feel and what they need is crucial to designing solutions. Approaches like design thinking put empathy in the core of the design process. Ashoka defines empathy as one of the most important skills for aspiring changemakers. Many examples have proven that designing solutions ‘for’ and from ‘outside’ rarely work. The real changemakers have a story, personal experience, a burning question and this is what makes them authentic.
These new actors make change happen one step at a time, one place at a time. In Cairo, you can spot them being busy:
• Challenging the traditional roles in society. For example, THAAT blends culture and tradition with contemporary design while enabling women from marginalized areas to gain the confidence and skills to change their role in their communities and families.
• Bringing art as a means of co-existence in public spaces. Outa Hamra takes theatre out of the halls to the streets of Cairo. This often happens in poorer areas where refugees and locals live together but not as a community. They use social art for change as a way to create common ground, understanding and peace.
• Creating global citizens one child at a time. Safarni workshops take children on imaginary journeys where they meet people from other countries and are introduced to their culture, food and language. They bring the travelling experience to children who otherwise would not be able to experience it and encourage children to be more curious and open and to challenge the existing stereotypes.
Of course, there are many more courageous changemakers out there doing little revolutions bottom-up every day.
“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”-Buckminster Fuller
These actors of change do exactly this- challenge the existing models and build new paradigms. And they need support to keep doing what they are doing. Are we ready to support them in creating new models as partners, customers, co-founders, funders, critics, investors?