September 25, 2013

What I saw, and didn't, at the #SocialGoodSummit

I was lucky enough to get to this year's Social Good Summit, sponsored by -- and also featuring -- some of the world's leading change agents. Overall, this was an incredible opportunity to hear and cross-tweet vision, goals and implementation strategies for moving our planet to where it needs to be. One cannot help but walk away feeling inspired and hopeful that there are thousands of social entrepreneurs creatively seizing opportunities and addressing problems in ways that can be shared and applied by others -- if we can do a better job of connecting. 

Ericsson CEO Hans Vestberg, Fast Company Editor
Robert Safian, and Hope North founder Okello Sam
Malala Yousefzai, Al Gore, Melinda Gates, Richard Branson, Anthony Lake, David Miliband and Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt were among the well-known VIPs, but every speaker was on the mark and worthy of a million Facebook "likes". On the sidelines, I was also able to engage around a table with a top corporate leader and his partner on the ground, who are using mobile technology to bring stability and education to victims of a generation of conflict in Uganda. The lessons were numerous, and the incredible wealth of knowledge and spirit will take weeks to fully absorb.

My caveats lay in a few areas, mostly not the fault of the organizers. I list them here and now in the hope they might benefit next year's planning.


Though the United Nations General Assembly was hosting world leaders 45 blocks to the south, few steered their motorcades to the 92nd Street Y where hundreds of mostly 20- and 30-something social entrepreneurs, activists and bloggers were convening -- and where, through social media and live streaming, millions were following our proceedings. This was no major loss for the event, but rather an indication that most world leaders still don't "get it", that the world is shifting in the technology and patterns of communication as well as the expectations of an emerging new audience of independent actors. Any head of state could have easily distinguished himself or herself, at the UN and in cyberspace, by claiming access to this network of web-citizens and influencers.


Again, not the fault of the organizers, because the focus had to be on the modalities of communication and engagement, and not on political posturing. However, I couldn't help but cringe when the delegation from "China's YouTube" came on stage for 15 minutes to talk about how they connect millions of users -- with no mention of censorship and the restrictions on freedom of speech. The premise of the digital revolution and social change movements is human rights, transparency and freedom, and perhaps in the future some different kind of balance can be struck. Trivializing these principles as mere differences of opinion undermines and dishonors the brave efforts and success of social pioneers in China and 100 other repressive countries.


The sessions were all phenomenal, but the non-stop procession of TED-style rapid-fire convos was mind-numbing -- and all without any questions from the floor or Twitter. My suggestion here would be to marginally reduce the number of panels and presentations, and find some way to interface what happens on the stage with a few selected questions or comments from Twitter. If there's to be a session devoted to "Click-tivism", then start by recognizing a few of those thousands of clicks in the summit's own Twitter feed.


Virtually none of the remarks or case studies involved religious-based initiatives. More humans affiliate religiously than in any other way, and religious groups are actively promoting social good at every level and on every continent. Ignoring this critical and potent sector at a gathering devoted to "smart" solutions repeats the flaws in the "Dialogue of Civilizations" and nearly every other UN program. The absence of political and governmental control at the Summit should enable an opening to this picture window on humanity and social change.


I found it personally painful to sit for two days of dramatic, transformational dialogue, inside a premier Jewish establishment, with no formal Jewish representation of any kind. While the main hall and the Digital Media Lounge were packed with people, the 92nd Street Y's sukkah was deserted at mealtime, and for good reason: I saw none of the major Jewish philanthropies or service agencies that are promoting real innovation and results on every topic being discussed. Seemingly no Jewish religious leaders were on hand, either to present or to listen. I saw no tweets from Jewish institutions, other than the Y itself as host. My Jewish community colleagues can console themselves that they are in good company with the esteemed UN delegations, but for all the billions -- billions -- we spend each year on preparing the next generation, for all the "ROI" and NextGen and service learning, how can so many Jewish innovators be so absent from their own room

Again, this cannot be the fault of the organizers. Jews should be beating a path to this conversation, and yet we are stuck in conventions of outdated technology and old-school organizing. Web sites remain static destinations instead of springboards for outreach. Twitter is still a tool for pushing out press releases and event notices, Facebook is a vehicle for fundraising and impressing supporters. And 20- and 30-somethings are points to be scored on annual reports, not valued as real stakeholders or decision-makers. 

The sidelines of UN meetings and the reception halls of government agencies are where our organizations still clamor for results, even amid this holiday season, but they could learn from Sweden's Foreign Minister -- that engaging and collaborating with the millions of social innovators represented this week at the 92nd Street Y will not only help advance our fundamental Jewish mission of improving the world, it will also impress those young Jews we claim to care so much about reaching.


[Added October 3:] So obvious, and yet so typically, I neglected to point out a significant and controversial element that was also absent from the Social Good Summit. Occupy Wall Street has become a global movement. Its impact remains uncertain and subject to debate, but we do know it has captured headlines and driven some discussion in traditional and digital media; pioneered new and innovative communications, crowd-funding and media strategies; and raised awareness of some of the same "social goods" that the Summit was extolling.

The establishment and corporate funders for the Summit may have been predisposed to exclude or ignore the Occupy crowd, to avoid undermining their own institutional and political interests, and this is definitely a limitation. It also balances the advantage of harnessing Fortune 500 power players with the challenge of achieving true, sustainable transformation in our societies, when such prime movers of solutions are also invested in the underlying problems.

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