Community Is the Key to the Future. Here's How to Unlock It.
How did OpenIDEO grow from a Facebook post to a practice that has engaged thousands of innovators worldwide? The short answer: our community.
By Luisa Covaria and Scott Shigeoka
"I found my new home at OpenIDEO when I first submitted an idea to the Food Waste Challenge,” says Isaac Jumba, an OpenIDEO Community Fellow and Organizer who has spent years working in areas like healthcare, agricultural technology, and education in Kenya. Isaac sees his role as a way to elevate locals’ voices and ideas, so the innovations that emerge from OpenIDEO’s open innovation Challenges can thrive in Kenya.
We’ve been reflecting on how OpenIDEO went from an idea posted on Facebook to a platform that engages more than 150,000 people and sources thousands of innovations from makers around the world. The short answer? Our diverse and far-reaching community of individuals like Isaac, who in turn fold their communities into the OpenIDEO family.
We believe that solutions to today’s toughest challenges can’t scale globally without considering the many cultures and systems that make up our world. None of us can solve systemic issues from our own headquarters or region. This is why OpenIDEO invests in community—it’s a core part of how we drive broad social impact. Though we’re always learning, here are five principles that help us build, grow, and awaken community. Ultimately, these tenets support the progress OpenIDEO and our Sponsors hope to make in the world.
Bring the right people and unexpected pairings together
Our design process—coupled with technology—allows for many people to participate in our Challenges. However, if the purpose of OpenIDEO’s Challenges is to create positive change, the goal shouldn’t be a certain number of participants. It’s rather about getting the right people involved. Challenges bring different people from around the world together. Chris Berger, Director of Communications at GHR at GHR Foundation says:
“Our BridgeBuilder Challenge with OpenIDEO was GHR’s first open call process. By reaching deeper into communities around the world, BridgeBuilder is shifting power and resources to local organizations and their innovative ideas.”
Though these innovators are united by a shared purpose—be it early childhood education or vaccine access—many haven’t met because they’re separated by artificial barriers like geography or industry. Together, these diverse groups have the power to solve societal challenges. They each hold a piece of the puzzle, but uniting the pieces must be intentionally designed.
During the Nike Design With Grind Challenge, a team needed help bringing their idea to life through prototyping. OpenIDEO matched the team with Manisha Laroria, an OpenIDEO Community Prototyper in India with expertise in making ideas tangible. “The team and I were on a video call discussing how to create a poster to help potential funders visualize their product,” says Manisha. “I sketched it out and pointed the drawing at my computer camera. They instantly understood—it was a moment of teaching and connection through making.”
Though living oceans apart, seemingly having little in common, and never meeting in person, this strategic collaboration between diverse stakeholders enabled progress.
Cultivate global networks to generate local insights
Taking a step back, how do you inspire these diverse and bright minds to come together? We attract the key innovators and experts by developing relationships with leaders in areas we want to work in. Ultimately, these networks allow us and our Sponsors to unearth the local insights needed to address global challenges.
Since 2016, we’ve worked to identify and empower social innovation leaders through OpenIDEO Chapters—networks of volunteer-run communities in over 30 cities around the world. Chapters bring local expertise and perspectives to global Challenges by hosting meetups, design research sessions, hackathons, and more. During the NextGen Cup Challenge, OpenIDEO Chapter Leaders—from Kaye Han in Berlin to Luis Delgado in Lima—organized 26 guided design research sessions around the world.
These strong relationships allowed us and our Sponsors to surface local insights to design a next-generation fiber to-go cup to be recoverable on a global scale. OpenIDEO Chapter Leaders in Kenya took Challenge participants to villages around the country to observe how Kenyans use cups. They saw how cups are used in indigenous rituals and how young people in Kenya use them in cafés.
By investing in relationships and efforts like Chapters, OpenIDEO quickly uncovers findings that are typically difficult to access and helps our Sponsors better understand the complexity of global issues.
Listen to needs and give back
When different people come together, cutting-edge solutions aren’t necessarily guaranteed. We can collect insights by cultivating relationships all over the world, but we must also provide meaningful opportunities for our community to develop their ideas.
Across topics, Challenge participants tell us that they’re looking for learning, visibility, funding, or partnerships. By meaningfully giving back to them, we ensure our practices aren’t exploitative. We see our community as people first. Community members frequently share that the people they’ve met through a Challenge pushed their thinking, or gave them access to skills like prototyping or storytelling, developed into a partnership, or even helped them get funding.
For example, Bertha Jimenez was interested in reducing food waste by repurposing spent grain from beer production. She felt alone and uncertain how to proceed, so she attended an OpenIDEO Food Waste Challenge event, which was designed to help participants find partners and collaborators. There, Bertha met Ashwin Gopi, who ultimately became her co-founder. Later, when seeking funding for Bertha’s original idea, the two met Aitan Mizrahi through OpenIDEO, who works at an organization that promotes environmentally-progressive projects.
“We shared the big dreams we had, but realized we couldn’t afford to implement them,” says Bertha. “Aitan offered to pitch the idea to his boss for some grant money—a $1500 request. Aitan’s boss immediately provided the check.” With Aitan’s support and this first check, Bertha and Ashwin launched RISE, a business that upcycles used grain into nutritious ingredients. Today, RISE has secured $150K in funding, developed partnerships with breweries, restaurants, and bakeries, and been accepted into leading food Accelerators to scale operations and impact.
When we listen to what our community needs and give back, everyone can win. Whether it’s learning a new skill or finding a co-founder, winning isn’t only about taking home a share of the prize money.
Create a sense of belonging
Fostering belonging supports our work and allows design to have greater impact in the world. We experience less burnout when we’re connected to others, which helps us work on tackling challenges for longer periods of time. In addition to making us feel healthy emotionally and physically, belonging creates the conditions for more effective collaboration. Ultimately, stepping away from our silos to collaborate is required to address systemic issues.
We do many things at OpenIDEO that seem unrelated to our work at first glance: community check-in calls, community retreats, and small moments of ritual and joy. But these activities develop intimacy, nourish and sustain people, and create belonging.
One of OpenIDEO’s primary goals is to build a culture where people feel seen, heard, and supported as humans.
We’ve found that creating a physical space and inviting others inside is a powerful way to create belonging. In January, we invited OpenIDEO community leaders to a retreat called Gather. “At Gather, I realized that we are connected beyond what we can possibly imagine,” says Isaac. “I felt a sense of belonging, authenticity and intentionality. It was a reaffirmation of the work that we do every day. After Gather, I felt reassured, excited, and more collaborative."
One of OpenIDEO’s primary goals is to build a culture where people feel seen, heard, and supported as humans—it’s a need we all have. For us, this feeling is the truest definition and manifestation of community.
Practice new models of community leadership
Who leads a movement or community? Many say there’s a single individual at the center who makes decisions and whom others rally around. However, when we rely on a single person, team, or organization, change is unsustainable—there’s too much risk and stress on one plate. If that leader shifts priorities, withdraws from the work, or the movement crumbles.
Many folks in our space talk about “leaderless” movements. But we rely on a “leaderfull” framework that’s existed for hundreds of years in indigenous communities, women’s cooperatives, and social movements.
We invest in distributed groups of leaders around the world and work to provide them with frameworks for collaborative and more transparent decision-making, giving more power back to the community for the allocation of key resources like grant funding.
We recently expanded our core Community team by adding four new freelance positions. These Community Fellows from Kenya, Lebanon, and the Netherlands, expand our ability to serve the larger OpenIDEO community. Through their leadership, OpenIDEO recruited the largest cohort of volunteer Community Prototypers for a Challenge to date, to help bring participants’ innovations to life. We hope to continue to scale this model in the coming years, transforming not only our business model but the way we continue to engage innovators and connect them to opportunities around the world.
“At OpenIDEO community events, there are people who are passionate about creating a better world,” says Naman Mandhan, the OpenIDEO Detroit Chapter Lead. “We come together to learn, grow, and strengthen each other and our communities to address the social challenges of our time.” Imagine the power of this purpose when it extends across five continents. Though we don’t know what the future holds, we know one thing: We have a purpose-driven community that is eager to co-create a better future with us.
These five tenets are not exhaustive and are often difficult to keep in balance—we don’t apply them perfectly each time. However, we hold ourselves accountable to these principles because our community is one of the keys to our success. Community has made OpenIDEO’s and our Sponsors’ impact greater than we ever could have accomplished alone.
During our community check-in calls, we usually conclude with a gratitude share. So, in conclusion, we’ll share this: Being surrounded by purpose-led, talented, and diverse people in this work—what a gift. May we never lose sight of this.
There’s never been more momentum for change. As millions of young people flood the streets around the globe to demand urgent climate action, cities and social entrepreneurs have taken matters into their own hands. Feeling this rising bottom-up pressure, governments, corporations, and multilateral organizations, like the UN, are accelerating their efforts to address massive global issues. The UN Sustainable Development Goals have provided a clear framework for action, and they’re helping align more actors than ever in the systems change we need.
OpenIDEO’s leaders, Jason Rissman and Luisa Covaria, spent the week diving into events and conversations, and came back to our team (and now you, our community) with three main themes they wanted to share as we work together to build a better world:
Since kicking off the Climate Strike a year ago, 16-year-old Swedish environmentalist Greta Thunberg has been extraordinarily influential in striking up fierce conversations around climate change and inspiring millions of young people to start taking action. She delivered an unforgettable message at the UN Climate Action Summit, telling world leaders:
"You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you."
There’s a new urgency and commitment to addressing the climate emergency, and it’s translating into actors at all levels—from individual young people to national governments—starting to take more ownership. As UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stated, “We have been losing the race against the climate crisis. But the world is waking up. Pressure is building. Momentum is growing. And—action by action—the tide is turning.”
Countries have moved past negotiation and toward ownership, showing up with their own commitments in unison with this year’s theme for UNGA: "Galvanizing multilateral efforts for poverty eradication, quality education, climate action, and inclusion." During the week, 77 countries committed to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, and 139 banks—representing a third of the industry—signed up to align with the Paris agreement objectives. The UN member states also adopted a landmark declaration on universal health coverage. These are just a few of many examples of stakeholders proactively bringing forward their solutions.
HOW WE'RE THINKING ABOUT THIS
Sharing his observations from listening to diverse groups of Americans this past year, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio told the audience that he saw a “tremendous urgency and a tremendous spirit of do-it-yourself … a deep sense that it had to become a matter of personal responsibility right down to the local level.” Echoing his statement, we’re proud of OpenIDEO's globally connected innovators for taking initiative and developing a sense of ownership around local problems. They’re tackling issues related to food waste, people on the move, education, public health, circular economy, and so much more, with dedication and ingenuity.
As we move forward, how might open innovation be a conduit for increased ownership and visibility into the work different stakeholders are taking on? How might the work of so many of the incredible innovators in the OpenIDEO community inspire leaders to develop a mindset around design and prototyping in the work they are owning?
"We will have wonderful machines and dumb people if we don't invest more in education,” cautioned musician and entrepreneur, will.i.am, during a World Economic Forum panel focused on the potential of the Fourth Industrial Revolution—or the multiple technological revolutions that are transforming the way we live and work—to meet global development goals.
“It’s not about connectivity—it’s about access,” noted Kate Wilson, CEO of the Digital Impact Alliance at the UN Foundation. “How do we provide access to 50% of the world not connected to the internet? SMS and voice won’t do it. How do we create content and opportunities that are relevant?”
It's crucial that no one is left behind. While technological innovation is surely part of the answer, uneven access and unequal digital skills will lead to adverse effects. For tech to improve lives in a responsible and even way, and to avoid even greater increases in inequity, we'll need new models of targeted education, responsive innovation, and real cooperation between economic, political, and social systems.
HOW WE'RE THINKING ABOUT THIS
Tech needs to facilitate inclusion in addressing societal problems, by involving those who are most proximate to the problems that well-intentioned new technologies are aiming to solve. We believe that collaborative thinking leads to greater innovation, and that including the voices of those with lived experiences will generate even stronger solutions. Open innovation is in its infancy, and we’re excited to help it advance to better surface and support the social innovators our future needs.
Today’s problems are interconnected, and only through systems change can we hope to make real progress. This will require more cross-sector collaboration than ever, but first, we need to improve how these collaborations are created and sustained. It’s time to introduce new models of collaboration that distribute leadership and allow all sectors to pitch in.
The SDGs have provided a powerful framework for what needs to get done, and some of the biggest players in the public and private spheres are putting their heads together to unlock the resources necessary to meet them. During UNGA, Google and the UN launched a partnership to develop real-time maps on weather patterns and SDG development activity, while the Gates Foundation and the World Bank announced a multi-million dollar commitment to support small-scale food producers in the face of mounting climate impacts.
Public-private partnerships are a necessary ingredient, as are new collaboration models that offer participants more shared ownership and flexibility.
The road to healthy collaboration is fraught with challenges, from getting past cultural differences to agreeing to common goals to making the long-term commitments needed for systemic change. Making collaborations work is hard work -- it takes empathy, grit, and a real understanding that it’s the key to sustained progress.
HOW WE'RE THINKING ABOUT THIS
We’re excited for open innovation to provide a unique opportunity to rally diverse stakeholders and together explore new possibilities. By providing shared learning opportunities, clear timelines and processes, along with compelling incentives, open innovation holds the potential to mitigate against these common obstacles and to quicken the pace at which solutions are being developed by scaling the design process globally. Direct competitors collaborating in a pre-competitive space to address environmental challenges is a promising sign, but we need to go further. We all need to adopt an experimental mindset as a collective and work to continuously improve our ability to collaborate.
It is incredible to be in a room where you can feel a community reach a turning point. This year at UNGA we felt that shift tangibly across fields and sectors. We look forward to a year of collaborations with our partners and community that reflect this movement.
What Do We Hope To Accomplish?
The Rockefeller Foundation has partnered with SecondMuse and OpenIDEO to amplify the discourse on the state and the future of the world’s many food systems, and to empower communities globally to develop actionable solutions and become protagonists in their own food future. Creating a compelling, concrete and actionable Vision for the future of our food system requires a culture of collaboration that rallies industry, policy, academia, and society to act as one. When we come together, we can deliver sustainable, nourishing diets for people and the planet by 2050.
Why Food Systems?
Aside from air, food (including clean water) is the most vital resource for life on Earth. And when you look at the food systems data and 2050 projections, the future does look bleak. But Humanity has more knowledge, technology, social intelligence, and human capacity than ever before—all of which can be harnessed to create a food system that nourishes all people, grows the global economy, and nurtures a thriving environment.
A Systems Approach
The Food System Vision Prize invites organizations and entities (called Visionaries) to imagine a hopeful, inspiring Vision for their chosen Place—town, state/province, region, bioregion, watershed, or country—through a systems approach. The goal for the program is to develop Visions that reflect the views of different stakeholders and that address the following six Themes: 1. Environment 2. Diets 3. Economics 4. Culture 5. Technology 6. Policy
Successful Food System Visions will be stories of contrast. They will illuminate the difference among food systems as they exist today and as they could be in the year 2050 “if we get it right” (science, policy, advocacy, behavior, etc.). Visions will unlock inspiration, knowledge, networks, and innovative solutions that have the potential to transform the future course of humanity and the planet. The purpose of the Food System Vision Prize is to light the way for populations across the globe to realize a more promising, nourishing, and healthy future.