Panel on sustainability and innovation

I’ll be on a panel tonight at Asheville Green Drinks entitled “Does Social Innovation Support or Stifle Sustainability?” There are a host of really great people on the panel, including my buddy Ian Wilker, a social media expert of great insight.

Those of you with an eye towards precision will immediately ask “what does social innovation mean in this context.” I’ll go ahead and stick a stake in the ground on this question and say that social innovation is a lot more than “Facebook+Twitter.” Social innovation, by my definition, is when one or more different types of innovation (technological innovation, market innovation, cultural innovation, design innovation, etc.) is highly leveraged by the power of a social network.

Even though Metcalfe’s Law was first articulated in 1980 (or 1993, depending on how pedantic you want to be), we have only really brushed the surface of how pervasive it truly is. It is possible to frame technological development in terms of progress as a function of largest polity in existence – from the rise of hunter-gatherer tribes to the first cities, to the multi-city civilization of the Sumerians. As the number of people in the network grew, so did the capacity for innovation of all stripes.

Once the telegraph, then the telephone, air travel, and eventually the internet made the world to become smaller, or rather, grew our networks larger, our capacity for innovation increased commensurately. The innovations the proceeded from this, I argue, were necessary to understand the different facets of sustainability and to develop strategies for getting there. One example of this was the Viridian movement, from which ground grew Worldchanging.

My argument Friday night will be that social innovation is absolutely required if we are to develop a civilization that is sustainable in all facets.  I think this is the case is because I am increasingly of the opinion that a lot of the necessary innovation for sustainability lies in the realm of design and cultural innovation. These innovations happen most rapidly when you build a critical mass of passionate people with similar ideas, a task that I believe requires social innovation.