Common Knowledge

Tech4Society, Day 2

Getting ready to head up to Tech4Society’s final day. I’m on a panel called the tipping point, about how to scale social entrepreneurial success beyond a local region or state. My instinct is to say “pack your suitcase and start traveling” but that’s not very helpful. Even if it’s how I have been approaching the problem.

Yesterday I wasn’t on a panel. It was a good moment to do some listening. I sat in on a few panels, but was most moved by the trends in Africa session. In other trends panels, the trends were things like “open source” – positive trends. In Africa it was all about how difficult the governance problems are, how an innovator or social entrepreneur is looked on with at best skepticism or out worst outright hostility, by both local society and by the government.

It was still amazing to hear the breadth of ingenuity at work. I heard about training rats to sniff out landmines, clay refrigerators that allow girls to go to school rather than hawking the harvest before it spoils…and in the same breath, about how it takes five hours to get one hour of work done, because of the difficulty of keeping a steady power supply.

At lunch I crashed the Indonesian table, where I was asked if I was part of the youth venture group. Nicest age-related compliment I’ve gotten in a while (the youth venture folks are like 16 years old). But it does strip away any pretense of gravitas I thought I might have had.

I also got to spend some quality time with Richard Jefferson of CAMBIA. Richard is a seasoned social entrepreneur who has been hacking away at the patent problem in “open” biotech for about 20 years now. I always learn a lot from him.

At the end of the day the heat and the jetlag caught me, and I fell asleep before the dinner, which is a bummer.

I’m looking forward to having some time off the road in a few weeks to try and integrate this experience with the other travel over the past four months. There’s a long way between the World Economic Forum at Davos and this. The entrepreneurs here are doing what they do against such long odds that it can make the whole “cult of the successful entrepreneur” in the US look kind of lame.

It doesn’t take a hero to make a social networking site, it just takes some Ruby code. We have layer upon layer upon layer of infrastructure that makes it easy to innovate in the US. We have stable power grids, for the most part, and communications lines. You can buy a computer for under $500, slap Linux on it, and you’re ready to start a software company. You don’t have to pay a registration fee that takes six months, or worry that the government is going to crack down on you (despite what some crackpots may think) if you protest or run a business that disagrees with the ruling elites.

That level of social, political, and technical infrastructure lifts us all up who benefit from it. It’s invisible to most of us most of the time, and it’s a good thing to be reminded that it’s not something to be taken for granted.

Off to day 3.