Moving America Forward

Forget Washington: These Innovators Are Solving Our Nation’s Problems—Together

February 25, 2014
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Forget Washington: These Innovators Are Solving Our Nation’s Problems—Together
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The last decade has seen a fundamental shift in the way our nation solves problems. In a new book, government reform guru William D. Eggers and consultant Paul Macmillan explore this modern approach and how we’re all benefiting from it.

Constant gridlock, short-term budget deals and nasty political debates have shown us that politicians are seemingly allergic to compromise — even within their own parties. We know that Congress has trouble working together. But thankfully, as authors William D. Eggers and Paul Macmillan have detailed in their book, “The Solution Revolution,” a number of business, nonprofit and innovative individuals are working together to solve the problems once reserved for government. From traffic decongestion to waste management, “The Solution Revolution” examines how government outsiders are teaming up to bring creativity and innovation to problem- solving and offers ways for organizations and individuals alike to get involved. Here, Eggers talks to NationSwell about what inspired this revolution, how it’s changed the way we confront challenges and why anyone can participate.

Why the title “The Solution Revolution” — what exactly does that mean?

We wanted to look beyond the impact of this new way of problem-solving and focus on the solution ecosystems that were emerging, where you had players from business, government, philanthropy all converging around problems to create value. This is really the antithesis of how society has traditionally solved problems. Now you see people volunteering time toward these efforts, crowd-funding capabilities, the rise of socio-entrepreneurial capital, all aligned around common objectives: from providing safe drinking water to promoting healthy living.

What was the impetus for this change?

First of all, you have technology that’s enabled organizations to scale much more rapidly than ever before and to connect with other organizations and individuals. We’ve radically reduced the cost of getting involved. Secondly, you have a talented millennial generation that has put purpose over simply making money, whether as consumers in terms of what they purchase, or what companies they go to work for.

Millennials are driving changes in business ethos. And No. 3, you have this huge transfer of wealth, which has gone into these giant foundations, like the Gates Foundation, which have professionalized philanthropy in terms of applying business principles to it and creating markets around solving problems.

Are there examples where this kind of problem-solving doesn’t work? Would health-care reform have benefited from a more collaborative process?

You’d be hard pressed to find an issue today that government or the nonprofit sector is fixing all alone. There will be failures — and you want there to be failures because innovation requires experimentation, and experimentation ends up in failure — but unlike the dot-com bust, this isn’t a business-to-business market. This is more of an approach that’s going to be refined over time.

How can someone who doesn’t have an entrepreneurial or activist background participate in the revolution?

They can raise money for causes on sites like Network for Good or Crowdrise. They can match volunteer requests to their skills on a site like Spark. And there are all sorts of opportunities to do micro-volunteerism, to visit social innovation incubators and get to know some of these models.

What does the Solution Revolution look like 20 years from now?

I think you’ll have an even better capability to distribute problem-solving and get millions of individuals all contributing a little bit, which in aggregate helps to solve a problem much faster. We’re taking massive projects and modulizing them into tiny, tiny components that either humans will do, or computers will do, or a combination of the two. Crowdsourcing policy, distributed problem-solving, the mechanisms of engaging lots of people simultaneously — all of that is going to become more efficient.

You survey a number of innovative approaches to problem-solving in this book, such as Citizen’s Connect, a mobile app that lets Boston residents send in photos of problems like graffiti or potholes, which are then used to generate a work order. Is there a particular area of innovation that impresses you most?

I’ve spoken at over a dozen business schools and startup incubators, and I’m absolutely fascinated by the business models that students and young entrepreneurs are creating around solving problems. They’re so creative, so ingenious. Just 20 years ago, they would have been inconceivable.

Everything from Waste Ventures, which is using carbon credits and other models to give a better life to waste pickers and change how waste is picked up, to Recyclebank, which is using gamification to incentivize recycling. I’m also impressed by the various startups working on food recovery — 20 years ago you would have had public service announcements telling us to stop wasting food. Now you have entrepreneurs saying we can create markets around this. And that’s incredibly exciting.

MORE: How Much Food Could Be Rescued if College Dining Halls Saved Their Leftovers?

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