Social Innovation is Starting to Look Like LEGOs: A Pattern is Emerging

Posted by on February 11th, 2013

Is there a science of social innovation emerging? Or is it at a phase right before that, where certain techniques have been proven to work and are replicable in multiple places for the same kind of problem? After talking to David Green, I’m wondering about it. I’m not sure which it is, but I do see that something is happening.

David is – without a doubt – among the world’s most accomplished social entrepreneurs. Businesses that he has founded do approximately $100 million a year in revenue while bringing eye and hearing care to more than tens of millions low-income people around the world.

David is not as well known as many people who are far less accomplished. He doesn’t spend time on the speaking circuit. And, while he has won awards, they’re probably fewer than his accomplishments deserve. Some of his projects have Wikipedia pages, like the Aravind Eye Hospital, which performs cutting edge but low-cost cataract surgery for millions of people. But he himself doesn’t have an entry, or even a website of his own.

His approach, as Cheryl Dahle described in a Fast Company article a few years ago, is: “startlingly simple: enlist leading scientists to lower the cost of a technology, then price the result on a sliding scale.”

David has just launched two for-profit businesses taking that approach to the next level – selling a product to people in the developed world, and subsidizing the delivery of hearing and sight technology and medicine to low-income people in the developing world.

Those two businesses are Sound World Solutions and Quantum Catch. Quantum Catch is a social enterprise focused on the design, manufacturing, and sale of affordable, medical devices to make detection and screening of diseases, as well as measurement of the progression of chronic diseases, easy and convenient. Sound World is an unobtrusive occasional hearing aid for boomers that looks like a blue tooth headset and can be worn in noisy places like bars or in meetings.

What’s new is that David thinks his model is proven enough that other people should be able to follow it. And, he’s ready to stop and explain it. As Phil Auerswald of MIT Innovations Journal puts it, “Green has come up with some modular bits of social innovation, kind of like LEGOs; some techniques and methodologies that are replicable.” Auerswald, an astute trend watcher, thinks that he’s seeing the same thing emerge around the world. It’s not a blue print for innovation, for using the market to alleviate poverty, but small, replicable LEGO pieces that are adaptable to many places.

For the first time, Green is ready to talk about what he’s figured out and proven. He’s going to put up a website in order to talk about it. (I volunteered to help him work on how to tell the story on his site, and he will also explain more about it on the main stage at SOCAP13.)

“I use price disparity to figure out how to get sight or hearing or life itself to places where people are not getting their needs addressed, where there is extreme dysfunction in the health care system,” Green said. Using top quality medical technology and “pricing disparity, we can make medical care accessible to a poor person just about anywhere.” A heads-down doer, Green is realizing that it’s time to stop to tell the story and share his methods, his LEGO pieces of plug and play social change.

When one of the most accomplished social entrepreneurs decides it’s time to put down his tools and explain his methods, it signals a phase change in the world of social enterprise and impact investment. Something interesting is emerging. It is not a science, but maybe it’s a stage right before it becomes a science.

4 Responses

  1. kevin jones says:

    they mostly share at convenings

  2. kevin jones says:

    they don’t have sharing mechanisms other than events, mostly.

  3. Evonne says:

    Looking forward to seeing this modular approach in action across sectors. Two of my co-founders are PhD-level researchers and scientists who understand the complex relationships of information, insight, organization and pattern expression within our natural systems of learning and sense-making.

    I design the modular structures of networks inspired by biomimicry: seeing the folded, fractal growth within an interconnected network moving and growing together. We can create a map and a picture of how the LEGOS fit together. There are many of us now deeply engaged in enmeshed innovations and ways of working within this world.

    I’d like to hear more on creating shared value and capacity within the plug-and-play building blocks. How do they share insight effectively?

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