Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Connecting Great Minds and Big Problems

Bill Gates gave a talk at the University of Chicago tonight in which he outlined the call to mobilize the brightest minds for the biggest problems. He also spent a significant amount of time fielding input from the audience and challenged us to offer our own ideas. These are mine.

First, social movement research has given us three principles of mobilization that may help us solve the big question. Give the brightest minds the frames by which to identify and solve the biggest problems and the culture to pursue them with vigor. Give them the resources to fully pursue their cause. Lastly, enable them to identify and pursue the opportunities for change that arise. The society of philanthropy is a renewable, self-reinforcing activity that can create its own resources and culture and seek out its opportunity. Anything you contribute to building the social good is returned in-kind.

So, of the biggest problems, he left them, in general, open. My theory is that, rather than framing them as problems, we should see them as the biggest solutions. I think, the biggest solutions are those that provide the capacity to have capacities. As the saying goes, teach someone to fish and they can eat for a week. The biggest solutions are those which give people the capacity to solve their own problems. For that, I applaud the Foundation's focus on childhood mortality. Life is the fundamental capacity that allows us all to have the chance to solve any problem. Health and education are the building blocks for a good society.

And, who are the brightest minds who you should invest your resources? He left this relatively open, but pointed to us (UChicago, and I’m sure Stanford and Berkeley and surely will MIT and Harvard). I respectfully and partially disagree. Much can be said for intelligence and strenuous intellectual engagement, but they can only work with information, knowledge, and appropriate values. The brightest minds are those who know how things work and value the work of social beneficence. Hence, it is crucial, as he mentioned, to work with local women on economic development projects because they tend to know how and want to maintain their own house. The brightest minds are not just astute, but also appropriately informed and directed. You can find them at Harvard and a tiny village outside Mogadishu.

On a final, more self-referential note, I have my own practicable ideas for such a better connection between great minds and solutions. First, entrepreneurship and incubation centers for nonprofits to support the great innovations in philanthropy of the future. The infrastructure and know-how are there. We just need the resources. Second, technology has been championed for “flattening the world,” but I believe that it can also enhance the local. I expect the Internet to include more localized content and augment our day-to-day interactions in our community. That’s why I am starting a website focused on cultivating and streamlining individual donorship in Chicago. I believe that technological localization, like I'm attempting, may offer a new way of enhancing local capacity in a new, self-reinforcing way.

That’s my educated two cents.