Just over a year ago Google announced 10 to the 100th. Timed to celebrate their 10th anniversary this competition called on people to "suggest a unique idea that would help as many people as possible." They were going to sort and prioritize the ideas and then allow people to vote on the ideas they wished to see implemented. Voting was going to start on January 27, 2009. Google would devote $10 million to the winning ideas, although not necessarily to those who submitted them. Instead they would look for the most appropriate and credible organization to implement the idea. As you could imagine people got quite excited by the open-ended nature of the challenge and the considerable financial commitment to positive social change. Then a funny thing happened: Nothing.
The January timeline came and went and now, finally, we know why. Google were overwhelmed by over 150,000 ideas which were submitted. Apparently it ended up taking 3,000 Google staffers to vet and categorize the ideas (you'd think they could have come up with a very clever piece of code to help with this) but at last the finalists have been announced. Only instead of them being the "unique ideas" originally requested they have released a list of 16 general concepts, ranging from "Create more efficient landmine removal programs" to "Enhance science and engineering education" to "Build better banking tools for everyone."
This makes voting an interesting exercise. You need to choose between the relatively specific ("Encourage positive media depictions of engineers and scientists" and "Make educational content available online for free") and the very broad ("Work towards more socially conscious tax policies"). Some of problem-focused ("Create genocide monitoring and alert system") while others are aspirationally-oriented ("Provide quality education for African students"). The submitted ideas these 16 concepts are based on are more specific but only marginally more "unique". This all makes it pretty hard to select amongst the ideas or to know what might really happen to an idea if it is selected. In other words, to decide what will make the greatest difference for the greatest number.
I, however, will be voting for the broadest "big idea" of them all: "Help social entrepreneurs drive change".
To me this idea stands out from the others as social entrepreneurship is a methodology for creating change, not a specific change. This may seem kind of vague but this is why this idea has the potential to create massive change beyond what is possible for most of the others. Social entrepreneurs, properly supported, are the people who can solve all the other problems, who can accelerate the removal of landmines or the opening-up of government, alert the world to genocide or "build a real-time, user-reported news service." In fact, they already are.
Supporting social entrepreneurs has a catalytic effect on communities. Successful social entrepreneurs are usually community-based; they are focused on addressing problems that affect them and their community and they do so in new and innovative ways. They are also experts at making small amounts of funding to a very long way, so you get bang for your buck. They inspire those around them to become changemakers, helping to not only address one problem but create an environment of adaption and innovation that is ready for the next challenge. This is the kind of world we need, a world of changemakers, and social entrepreneurs are the highly-infectious carriers of the idea virus of changemaking.
When I think about the social entrepreneurship sector it brings to mind how science was conducted in the 15th Century: brilliant innovators spread across the global, often working diligently on the same problems, regularly unaware of existing breakthroughs in their field. Smart people would lose decades of their lives working on problems for which solutions already existed, there was just a lack of opportunities to disseminate these breakthroughs. Compare this to the science sector now: a tightly inter-networked set of universities, government research institutions and corporate R&D labs with, IP not-withstanding, rapid dissemination of new knowledge and scaling of the best inventions.
Many of the problems we face are similiar across the world, from teenage pregnancy to landmines to living more sustainably. Imagine a world where we can learn from the best social innovators and apply those innovations at a scale to address these problems. Where we can stand on each others shoulders and step over some of these intractable problems.
It is easy to imagine how the technological know-how and financial resources of Google can help us support, empower and network the world's social entrepreneurs. Ashoka, where I work, has spent the last 28 years working on this challenge, building a network of over 2,200 visionary social leaders along the way. But as impressive as this is there is so much more to do in a world full of problems, but also full of smart dedicated people working on those problems. We need to help them to drive the changes we need.
Please be sure to vote by October 8. You can also nominate an organization you think would be best placed to receive funding to carry out the idea. I think you can probably guess who I'm voting for there.