As SOCAP 2011 – a conference focused on “accelerating the flow of capital to social good” – drew to a close last Friday in San Francisco, there was a prevailing sense of optimism and opportunity. Here are 7 hot topics people were discussing in the halls and along the breezy Bay side Fort Mason conference grounds:
1. Mobile technology opens huge new markets – in developed and emerging countries.
Worldwide, there are over 5 billion cell phones in use. There are now three times as many phones as computers. Increasingly, phones serve as the primary technology for business, especially in large emerging markets. This is no more evident than in applications of mobile money and micro-transactions where the cell phone will be the foundation of commerce. Mobile money will spawn economic development in regions that have not before had the access or infrastructure or capital.
2. Distributed energy does more than replace kerosene; it enables vast market opportunities.
Example: D-light is a U.S. based company that provides affordable, efficient energy and lighting solutions. Its vision: “replace every kerosene lantern with clean, safe and bright light.” This is tremendously important for the health, education and economic development of communities around the world. Other energy technology companies like Econet are providing new ways to charge cell phones, so villagers don’t have to make frequent time consuming trips to town for a charge. The UN Foundation estimates that many emerging markets lost 15% of potential revenues because people did not have continuous access to energy for phone charging.
3. Global interconnectedness amplifies the “butterfly effect” – wherein one small change can generate a much larger impact.
A decade ago, 14 year old William Kamkwamba, built a windmill in his Malawi village in response to the drought crisis. With the help of digital technology and social media, his story became a global fairy tale. He has been a featured speaker at TED and Google, and he now has a grant to hold training workshops such that wind energy can proliferate throughout his country and continent.
4. Cross sector partnerships are increasingly necessary and increasingly common.
Jed Emerson, Executive Vice President of Impact Assets and co-author of Impact Investing, contends that cross sector partnerships are the future: “Dudes, that’s all there is!” He sees a convergence of private and public interests that is necessary for economic growth and social stability, and cites multiple examples of companies, investors, and social entrepreneurs following suit.
5. New, innovative investment structures are gaining ground.
From its roots in Wayne Silby’s Calvert Funds, social investing has diversified and proliferated. Today there are many more active positive social impact investors – Expansion Capital, Equilibrium Capital, New Island Ventures. New financial instruments, like Social Impact bonds, are expected to be issued in Massachusetts this coming year.
6. Systems thinking is more prevalent – among investors and entrepreneurs.
Diane Propper de Callejon is a General Partner with Expansion Capital Partners. She has been investing in sustainability and clean tech for decades. She is highly aware of the unintended consequences of many enterprises, clean tech included. For instance, a rare earth processing plant that supplies electric vehicles and wind turbines is also a key polluter in that China province. Expansion has now shifted to invest in sustainable business processes, not just the end product. They are looking to develop great clean tech products – sustainably. As for entrepreneurs, Jeff Hollender, co-founder of Seventh Generation, is now looking to generate wholly sustainable communities, a vision beyond building a sustainable product or single enterprise.
7. Localized solutions are proliferating in the US and abroad.
Example: BUVs are Basic Utility Vehicles built for transporting cargo and people on the rugged roads of Africa. They are constructed of recycled truck parts and Firestone tires. Although the initial prototypes are assembled in Indianapolis, the vehicles themselves will be sourced and produced in various regions of Africa, near where they are sold. Founder Will Austin’s intent is to drive local employment, reduce costs and contain the production and delivery footprint.