What’s Your Unreasonable Advantage?

By Marc Stoiber, originally for Fast Company.

By now, you’ve most likely heard the term cognitive surplus. You understand the concept of harnessing worldwide brainpower to solve business problems. You can probably even cite some famous examples of cognitive surplus. The case of AG Lafley, who threw down a decree to source 50% of P&G’s innovation from ‘outside’. Or IBM’s Global Idea Jams, which continue to bring thousands of volunteer thinkers from around the world together to crack problems posited by Big Blue.

But with the blinding pace of global communication, and the unfolding complexities of a ‘people planet profits’ world, corporations often have a difficult time even imagining what questions to ask. It seems we need to move beyond cognitive surplus, to a global grid of social entrepreneurs who are asking questions we didn’t know needed asking, solving problems we didn’t realize we had, and hybridizing solutions to create incredible innovations.

Enter the Unreasonable Institute.

The What?

The Unreasonable Institute is, simply put, an accelerator of global next generation thinking.

Its name was inspired by George Bernard Shaw, who believed only the unreasonable man could shape the world to his vision and drive progress.

The Institute delivers on Shaw’s vision by discovering and bringing together the most forward-thinking international social entrepreneurs every year. Then, in an intensive six week boot camp, it accelerates their ventures, priming them to transform our planet.

In 2010, the Institute sourced entrepreneurs from over 105 partnering organizations around the world–including TED, the Aspen Institute and MIT. Ultimately, thousands of hopefuls from over 60 countries were narrowed down to 45 finalists working on ventures in seventeen countries on six continents.

60 mentors, from venture capitalists to the co-founder of Google.org and former head of brand marketing at Coca-Cola, work with these finalists to turn their early stage ventures into solid businesses. In fact, the mentors actually come to the Institute to live with the finalists, creating an atmosphere of intense collaboration.

“We think of ourselves as pathological collaborators” says Institute Founder Daniel Epstein. “To date, we have partnered with over 140 organizations around the world. Through these partnerships, we are able to reach the world’s most promising, innovative, high-impact entrepreneurs.”

It seems the Unreasonable Institute would be an incredible resource for any company. Which is quite possibly why HP signed on as the institute’s first and primary corporate partner.

Could This Become HP’s Unreasonable Advantage?

HP VP Wayne Surdam sees a clear connection between the Unreasonable Institute and his own company.

“We started as an entrepreneurial company, and we’ve never strayed from our roots. We want to be inspired by these social entrepreneurs — not only by their ideas, but by their attitudes toward making the world a better place.”

But the benefit to HP could end up being more than inspiration. The Institute provides a wellspring of innovation thinking, and new business models that address both recognized issues and emerging global problems. In short, it could become a hotline to new intelligence in developing markets.

As Surdam says “This year, our goal is … to create an unprecedented level of global exposure to–and engagement with–these ventures.” Epstein explains: “We received applications from entrepreneurs in over 60 countries, and after 112 interviews we narrowed it down to 45 finalists working in eighteen countries.” Currently, these entrepreneurs are being put through what is called the Unreasonable Marketplace.

In the Marketplace, the entrepreneurs are vetted. Then, the world weighs in and ultimately selects which will attend the Institute. In partnership with HP, Epstein’s goal is to drive over 1 million visitors to the Unreasonable site in the 50 days it is open. If those visitors see a venture they like, they can help the entrepreneur raise money to cover the cost of attending Unreasonable. In fact, raising investment is key to guaranteeing a slot.

Surdam says that “to date, over 2,600 individuals in over 40 countries have contributed funds – and we’re leveraging HP’s global network to drive thousands more to do the same.”

Where Are Your Global Ideas Coming From?

Most large companies know they need to reach new markets, but are baffled by emerging market dynamics. As Epstein says “Entrepreneurs are the rare few who are undeterred by these challenges and are blindly determined to meet the needs of the four billion people who sit at the base of our world’s economic pyramid. They are spearheading a campaign that will unleash the potential of the largest emerging market in the history of humankind.”

HP’s partnership with the Unreasonable Institute is part of the company’s longstanding commitment to supporting entrepreneurs.The fit is natural – the tech giant believes its products enable people to pursue goals passionately, and social entrepreneurs are creating professions from their passions. HP’s partnership with the Institute will certainly lead to a wealth of insights and innovations. It’s precisely this sort of hybrid partnership that leads to new thinking and drives business forward.

So, is your innovation thinking outside the box, and outside your border? Will you be able to match the idea generation and social impact incubated by partnerships like HP / Unreasonable?

Or do you belong to the perfectly reasonable companies that will find themselves left behind in the global market?

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