What would happen if the social sector took two familiar disciplines - communications and knowledge management - and flipped them on their heads?

This Throwback Thursday post provides a glimpse into our early thinking about Open-Sourcing Social Change. The piece was originally posted in March 2014.

Despite all of our best efforts in the non-profit, government, impact investing and other sectors, forty six million Americans are still living in poverty. The pace of social change is simply too slow; the scale, too small. But - given the incredible advances in technology and a new information sharing landscape - what would happen if we in the social sector took two familiar disciplines - communications and knowledge management - and flipped them on their heads in an effort to help us exponentially accelerate and extend our impact? Living Cities asked itself that question almost three years ago and has worked since then to experiment with doing just that.

We started with three core assumptions:

  • Passionate and committed people all over the world are working on the same problem or sets of problems, yet we constantly reinvent the wheel;
  • Complex interconnected problems require interconnected solutions
  • From twitter to the blogosphere, the means for producing, sharing, and consuming information have been widely democratized. These channels are not only increasingly connecting people and institutions, they are informing and framing public dialogue. As such, they have tremendous potential for accelerating knowledge transfer and must be part of our solution set.

We then set out on a course to experiment with “open sourcing social change”. It’s still early days, but the results have already been extraordinary: Working this way has opened doors to new and unusual partnerships, informed our own practice in an ongoing way, and significantly extended our reach as a valuable resource for how major change can/does happen in places. And, it has helped us to develop and refine a vision for the future of a much more collaborative social sector—one that works together in new ways to harness and build upon the best ideas and thinking available towards expanding the adjacent possible.

In this information and technology age, Knowledge Management - the process by which organizations generate value from their intellectual capital and knowledge-based assets - is a growing field. Indeed, corporations are increasingly acknowledging that robust knowledge management systems have the potential to strengthen their competitive advantage and bottom lines; with Fortune 500 companies losing over $30 billion a year by failing to share knowledge. Many government and non-profit entities have also jumped on board the knowledge train in an effort to ensure that institutional knowledge is “banked” (i.e. it doesn’t disappear when someone retires or goes on vacation), shared, and used to make informed decisions.

But what if we as social change agents didn’t just adopt these knowledge management systems within our own organizations, but instead deliberately adapted this concept to best contribute to our social (non-profit-driven) goals? Unlike a private sector company - where protecting and strategically deploying informational assets can mean the edge over the competition - our ultimate bottom line at Living Cities is improving economic opportunity for low-income people in cities. Meanwhile, as our President and CEO, Ben Hecht explains: “We are part of a much broader problem-solving network, with many high-performing organizations and individuals—public and private—working on different parts of the same problem or even the same part of the same problem.”

Presumably, then, the potential contribution we could make to improving lives and cities through harnessing and sharing our knowledge (i.e. what we, our members, and our partners are seeing and learning across our diverse portfolio of activities) in real time does not begin or end at the boundaries of our own organization. Non-profits, philanthropy, and government have been sharing best practices and participating in/supporting communities of practice for years. These activities add tremendous value but they haven’t kept pace with how to lead and engage in this increasingly hyper-connected world and are too often reserved for the pressure-tested, fully vetted case study or the evidence-based white paper. Indeed, much like those Fortune 500 companies, we in the social change business are leaving a lot of value on the table by failing to share knowledge more consistently, honestly, and broadly.

So, what’s really possible when we strive for “open sourcing social change” beyond organizational boundaries - with close partners, funders, across places, the general public - in real time? That’s the question Living Cities has been experimenting with answering over the last couple years. Our President and CEO, Ben Hecht, outlined the overarching theory behind our approach and three key principles guiding our work in an SSIR blog and webinar in April 2012. In order to move into the future, he asserted, we must embrace the fact that knowledge is king and collaborative leadership, the new normal.

Applying this theory into our practice over the last few years has made us increasingly resolute that truly disrupting inequality in American cities at a pace and scale that is meaningful, demands that knowledge and communications not be an “add on,” a centralized PR function, or a “nice-to-have”, but instead must be a core part of how we all do our day-to-day work. Only through this “new normal” of openly sharing and engaging around ideas and information in real time —from an early-stage hunch or idea to an emerging approach that requires more testing – can we extend our impact beyond the limitations of our resources and inspire others to join us in doing the same.

But here at Living Cities, shifting to an open source approach to social change hasn’t happened overnight, nor has it come without some creative tensions. When we have gone out into the world to talk about this work, we see a lot of interest in/appetite for this kind of approach, but also a lot of questions about what it actually takes to do it in practice. We don’t have all the answers by any means, but stay tuned for a future post that speaks to our experience with embedding a knowledge strategy into our work across Living Cities.

This post originally appeared on June 16, 2014.