Live From Independent Sector Conference: Innovation Coming Faster, Needs Collaboration

Innovation requires disruptive partners, often opposites who get together and then make change happen. Musician Wynton Marsalis said change comes from recombinant innovation and since life is evolving we “live in a constant state of innovation.”

While innovation and collaboration is vital for the next 100 years of philanthropy, the speed of change requires resilience in the face of risk, according to Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation. Rodin and Marsalis teamed from an extraordinary plenary session at the official opening yesterday of the Independent Sector annual conference.

The session was opened with a welcome to New York City from Lorie Slutsky, president and CEO of the New York Community Trust. She turned the program over to Rodin who spoke of innovation in a complex world where speed can both cure and kill. Philanthropy has always been for risk-takers but the world now requires bigger risks. Risk means not everything will work.

“The laboratory is everywhere and everywhere is a laboratory,” said Rodin. She called it recombinant innovation. She cited one example: New York City traffic is nothing compared to rush hour in Abidjan, the capital city of the Ivory Coast. A lack of centralized traffic flow and pure volume of bad drivers snarls traffic, slowing not just commuters but commerce in general.

She spoke of a social entrepreneur who had to get a friend to a hospital during such a traffic jam. The person survived and “the idea for CivRoute was born,” she said.

CivRoute is a web-based platform where drivers can send text messages and Tweet traffic conditions, alerting other drivers just beginning their commutes to potential problems. “This is a new face of innovation in the 21st century,” she said.

“We live in a rapidly globalizing, disruptive and complex world,” she said. “These trends provide new potential for growth, but they also accelerate inequality and environmental degradation that will not reverse without intervention,” said Rodin.

Innovation isn’t always invention, she said. “Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) didn’t invent the Internet. Steve Jobs (Apple) didn’t invent wireless technology. Their innovation came from leveraging those existing technologies,” said Rodin.

There are four distinct types of innovation: product innovations, market innovations, process innovations and organizational innovations.

Take the long view of the world but before doing so executives need to look inward at their organizations; recalibrate and disrupt business models to prepare for the next century; embrace diverse perspectives and ideas — not all of the best ideas will come from inside our four walls; look for opportunities where infrastructure and resources can be shared to accelerate new models; and finally, open the door to greater collaboration and connection.

Collaboration is what jazz is all about. It comes from stories and skills passed down and adapted. Often those pieces were from people who did not like each other very much, according to Marsalis. Vendors on the streets of his home, New Orleans, would sing their wares and horns to make those sounds. Marches were an important form of entertainment and horn can replicate the tapping of the drums. Before you know it, you have music.

“Innovation takes communal aspirations,” said Marsalis.

Jazz works, he explained, because the loudest player is always on the same beat at the softest. People need a more holistic understanding of each other and their communities to foster collaboration. Technology changes, but the technology of human beings has not.

Collaboration means answering the question: Does it benefit the community?