Recently, I was intrigued to find an email in my inbox from Living Cities member, the Ford Foundation asking “Will you join the Ford Forum?” I scrolled down to find that the topic to be explored was a provocative and timely one: “Where markets lead, will justice follow?”
Eager to learn more, I read on to discover that the foundation was curating a conversation around this question, starting with eight unique perspectives from diverse thought leaders and change-makers; and that they had decided to use these articles as the substance of their ‘un-annual report.’
I’m excited about this platform for two reasons that are very much relevant to Living Cities’ work:
1. Exploring an important question about a fundamental tension
In his message introducing this forum and its purpose, the foundation’s President, Darren Walker, states “In an era in which mass inequality has become a recognized economic phenomenon—one that separates the haves and have-nots in a way that the ‘lift all boats’ economy of an earlier era did not—I feel it’s incumbent upon us to examine in equal measure the foundation’s obligations to our economic systems and our economic systems’ obligations to all of us.”
This is a tension that is ever-present at Living Cities too as our mission is to harness the collective power of philanthropy and financial institutions to improve the lives of low-income people and the cities where they live. Central to this mission is the belief that, despite how we as a society have failed to do so in the past, it is possible to drive private markets to bring material benefits to the lives of people who have historically been disconnected from them and disenfranchised by them.
Doing so will require unprecedented levels and forms of cross-sector collaboration. And, it will require us to strengthen and develop innovative and new models of investment and social enterprise.
The conversations on the Ford Forum both emphasize this need and showcase some promising approaches. Raymond Offenheiser, President of Oxfam, asserts that the shift from foreign aid to developing countries to a greater focus on direct investment of private capital requires development organizations to re-think how they work with and influence private corporations. He offers insights on what this can look like from Oxfam’s experience. These lessons are also deeply relevant here in the United States as the energy around expanding and nurturing the domestic impact investing field builds. Living Cities is very active in that movement, using our Catalyst Fund to deploy concessionary, flexible debt from socially motivated investors. We have invested in areas from equitable transit-oriented development to bringing fresh food to underserved communities, to energy efficiency retrofits. We hope that these investments, some of which we think of as ‘proof of concept’ vehicles can create new possibilities, both in terms of what we can invest in and how we invest. For example, we are investing in Pay for Success partnerships to test new ways of investing in human capital, and to develop a commercially viable market for doing so.
And, Otto Scharmer, Senior Lecturer at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, outlines a four step process designed to help cross-sector leaders work together better towards systems-level social and environmental change. His article was definitely food for thought for us because Living Cities is committed to supporting ambitious data-driven, results-oriented cross-sector partnerships committed to solving complex social and economic problems. As Schramer underlines, “what we need is a mindset shift that moves from ‘ego-system awareness’—thinking only about your own community or your own institution—to ‘eco-system awareness.’”
2. Open Sourcing Social Change
Relatedly, at Living Cities, we believe firmly that interconnected problems, like poverty and inequality, require interconnected solutions. That’s why we have built a body of work around what we call ‘open sourcing social change’. This work is at the intersections of learning, information, story, and technology. It aims to bring people and resources together to deepen and accelerate promising solutions to social problems. In practice, it means taking disciplines like knowledge management, network weaving and building, and communications and reimagining them for this hyperconnected world that offers previously unimaginable ways of shared learning and co-creating solutions.
The Ford Forum is a great example of what this can look like. Creating this kind of un-annual report harnesses communications platforms to publically grapple with a question that has very real implications for the foundation’s work. By posing this question to others outside of the institution’s walls, they are working to collect the best thinking possible from across sectors, geographies, philosophies, and experiences. Working in this way– acknowledging that we are all part of a broader problem-solving network and rejecting the notion that it is possible that any one institution can solve our wicked problems on its own–holds great promise for achieving dramatically better results, faster. Throughout the fall, the Ford Foundation will be growing the conversations started on the Forum with blog posts, online chats and events, digging deeper into the themes.
I’m planning to stay tuned!