Ideas from Robin Chase

chasezipI spent part of last week with Robin Chase, founder of Zipcar and author of Peers, Inc. Both in our one on one time together and in her keynote talk at the United States Institute of Peace’s Peace Tech Lab, she stressed two points, both of which we should all take to heart.

The first is the logic behind her book that outlines how a sharing or circular economy can be taken to scale and become a springboard for lasting social change. Her approach has three parts:

  • Identify excess or underused resources that can be brought to bear on a problem.
  • Use the private sector (the Inc.) and others to build open source platforms that can be used to address it.
  • Empower smaller groups (the Peers) to build applications that can take responses to the problem to scale.

Chase draws on dozens of examples, including Zipcar which she sold more than a decade ago and a new startup she works with, Veniam, that intends to create the “internet of moving things” and provide free Wi-Fi access in large urban areas. There are plenty of other examples that use technology as a base such as Etsy, Zappos, or Warby Parker. There are also examples of others that barely use technology at all, such as Delancey Street, which has built networks of success for ex-offenders and others who have been largely left out of the success of San Francisco and other large cities.

As Chase talked at the United States Institute of Peace, a lot of us were left asking how we could adapt her three steps to our field, peacebuilding. Without a doubt, it will be harder if for no other reason than we lack the (relatively) easy to apply metrics provided by profit and loss statements, growth rates in the short and long term, and so on.

Nonetheless, as the buzz in the room following her talk suggested, there is no shortage of possible ways we
could at least begin adapting her three insights. In fact, I will be basing the presentations I’m making around them starting with two dealing with redefining security in the next two weeks.

Second, I was just as taken by another point she made in this talk but only hinted at in the one I’ve linked to here. We live in a world that has more than its share of troubles and an increasingly large number of anger people. Chase worries about the possibility of a political, environmental, and economic revolution unless we find a way to speed human social evolution first.

I’m not as worried as she is about the chances of a revolution. Nonetheless, we do agree that the “trend lines” are driving Americans and others farther apart at a time when we need to find ways to overcome global challenges the only way we can possibly do so—through cooperative problem solving.

In short, we have decided that the “system” can be changed from within and that mainstream institutions—including the innovative  parts of the private sector—can become part of the solution and not remain part of the problem. That said, we also know that neither of us has anything like “the” answer.russellr

So, fire away. Questions. Comments. Criticisms.

I’d love to hear them.

So would Robin.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding or its members.


The Silo Effect

I read a lot about a lot of different things that relate to wicked problems in one way or another. So, when I read something particularly useful, I like to bring it to other people’s attention.

In that respect, rarely have I read a book as thought provoking as Gillian Tett, The Silo Effect: The  Peril of Expertise and the Promise of Breaking Down Barriers.

silo“Silo” is a buzzword for those of us who work in peacebuilding or just about any other public policy issue, the political versions of these agricultural structures are a constant and frustrating obstacle for those of us working for deep and lasting social change. Tett’s book is particularly useful for people like me because she deals with silos in three new, refreshing, and creative ways.

Gillian_Tett_FT_Autumn_Party_2014_cropFirst, silos are a problem everywhere, not just in government bureaucracy. In fact, Tett draws almost all of her examples from the private sector. Everywhere we look, companies are failing because they cannot or will not share information, ideas, and personnel across administrative lines. Whether you are worried about our failure to anticipate big events like 9/11 or the great recession we are now finally emerging from, rigid bureaucratic structures are an obstacle any organization has to overcome in a world in which rapid change is the only constant.

Second, Tett is an anthropologist by training. As a result, it is all but natural for her to cover people like a startup mogul turned police officer or a dyslexic physician who view the world through unusual mental lenses. Although she doesn’t use the term, each of her “heroes” has an uncanny ability to view a previously vexing problem from a new perspective that is more in keeping with the network based world we live in rather than one in which hierarchical, top-down models worked well.

Third, the book is filled with implications for readers who aren’t interested in big data, finance, pubic health, or the other examples she raises. Whatever your field, her conclusions about the fact that new ideas typically come from “left field” and are often introduced by outliers or what some public health experts call “positive deviants” applies to us all.

In closing, it might seem ironic that a book about sweeping change was written by a journalist at the Financial Times. However, it says something about the nature of our times that calls for sweeping change comes from a journalist at a newspaper known for its support of the status quo (albeit one that was just sold). But it also says something that the FT hired and promoted a writer who is as comfortably talking about courting rituals in rural France in the 1950s as she is about high finance.