Judging by the attendance this year at the Social Capital Markets 09 conference in San Francisco, there is no doubt the buzz around social enterprise and social investing is gaining momentum. The conference began yesterday with attendance well exceeding last year’s turnout of 650. Over 1,000 participants from 32 countries have registered this year, representing a mix non-profits and for-profits, investors and entrepreneurs, all with a variety of interests, backgrounds and social missions. The conference runs through Thursday and includes over 150 speakers, 40 panel sessions, and a full “unconference” day on Thursday, where participants set the agenda.
SoCap convener Kevin Jones began the conference by welcoming all in attendance and introducing the keynote speaker, Sonal Shah, Director of the White House Office of Social Innovation. “First it’s notable that we now have an Office of Social Innovation,” commented Ms. Shah, assuring the audience that the government now recognizes the importance of the social sector in addressing our most pressing social problems. She went on to describe her Office’s goal of creating a context in which socially innovative entrepreneurs can succeed.
This context covers three focus areas: offering investment through their Social Innovation Fund, catalyzing multi-sector partnerships, and empowering individuals to service their communities through grass-roots civic participation. She also emphasized the importance of developing metrics in order to measure impact. Establishing sector-wide metrics will encourage the flow of investment money toward the most effective ventures, and improve their chances of reaching large-scale impact.
The afternoon’s session on “Disruptive Innovation” continued the theme of scaling your social enterprise for maximum impact. Different approaches were offered by three different ventures. Ripple Effect is a clean water project and collaboration between Acumen Fund and IDEO, the design firm. FrontlineSMS:Medic is a free, open-source text messaging platform used for mHealth applications by rural clinics throughout the developing world. And nComputing offers a virtualization product that taps the unused capacity of a standard desktop computer to allow multiple users to work off a single PC.
Among the many common themes that run through all these successful solutions, the one I find most interesting is the application of appropriate technology: design based on the specific environmental, ethical, cultural, social and economic aspects of the community the solution is intended to serve. These designs are successful because they require fewer resources to implement, are easier to maintain, have a lower overall operating cost and less impact on the environment compared to solutions designed for more developed countries.
At the end of the day came the reception, where I was able to enjoy a glass (or two) of organic wine from New Zealand (more on that to come), and take a closer look at the tote bag I received when I registered. The bag is made by XSProject group, an amazing social venture that makes useful items from trash collected in Indonesia and contributes the proceeds back to these communities. Kevin Jones reminded us that at most conferences, you get a tote bag when you register and it ends up in the garbage. Here at SoCap, you get a bag made from garbage. A fundamental shift in way things are done I would say, and totally emblematic of the social innovators approach to solving problems.
For the remainder of the conference, make sure to follow all the action on Twitter (#socap09) and look for regular updates from Triple Pundit, one of the conference media sponsors. I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s “Embrace Disruption! Media Micro Conference” featuring a keynote from Adam Werbach and a discussion on “Social Media That Moves People to Action.” Stay tuned!