The Innovation Game

(this was originally written for the Skoll World Forum blog; I was invited as a Writing Fellow in 2018. They chose not to post it.)

13:30, Thursday, Rhodes Theatre Lecture Hall, Saïd Business School

Ever since entering the Forum lobby on Tuesday morning, I’ve been playing something I call the Innovation Game. Three rules: you find the word “innovation”; you replace it with the words “new sh*t”; you see if the sentence still makes sense.

It’s simple and surprisingly fun until you consider just how many words there are here with which you can play a variation of the Innovation Game. The Impact Game, for example. The Proximity Game. The Social Entrepreneurship game. It becomes, for someone who is a writer and who remembers their Eric Blair, unsettling. 

I was unsettled as I sat down yesterday for the Farmer-Centered Design: New Sh*t in Sustainable Agriculture panel. And I became confused when, instead of discussing what sustainable agriculture was and how farmers should be at the centre of their work, the participants of the (mostly-male, it bears calling out) panel were invited to give a brief talk advertising their company, then gently discuss the challenges they had overcome.

It would be wildly impolite to comment on the actual activities of any one of the presenters, all of whom have likely worked very hard and are genuinely interesting and well-meaning people. Those who care can look up their companies. Hello Tractor sells tractor-sharing services; Pula sells insurance to smallholders; Proximity Designs sells small-scale agriculture tech; Babban Gona is a franchise for farmer cooperatives; and FarmerLine is a consultancy for farmers. I am not going to summarize their presentations, because in summarizing them, I—a farmer and sustainability researcher—would be tempted to critique and potentially ask questions. And critique, or questions, or precision, are not at the heart of what I’ve seen at the Forum this week.

Farmer-Centered Design: Innovations in Sustainable Agriculture was a nice display of how the Innovation Game, and the Skoll World Forum more generally, seem to work. It was a panel on farmer-centered design which invited no farmers, where sustainability was never discussed, and where agriculture was collectively presented as a narrative where smallholders are launched by forward-thinking companies from back-breaking drudgery into wealth and productivity. And even though there are likely as many theories of change for agriculture as there were panelists—even though you’d think none of these panelists could have had exactly the same philosophy—the sense you got sitting there was that everyone agreed with each other. It was, in short, a room full of people talking about how great their thing was, and the rest of us sitting there and  feeling pretty good about it.

The Skoll World Forum’s About Page says that “each year, the world’s most influential social entrepreneurs, key thought leaders, and strategic partners gather at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School to exchange ideas, solutions, and information.”. So why did I leave feeling like I had just sat through a series of good-natured advertisements?

Call me out if I’m wrong: FCD:ISA was designed to make us feel good about ourselves and each other. Of course it was; these are the necessary conditions to networking and helping potential investors get a sense of the market. And to safeguard those good feelings, you need to be in a room where the words are so wide that everyone fits inside them, no matter how vague agriculture or sustainability have to become in the process. In a world where doing good and making money means playing with this kind of live financial ammo, it seems strategic to want everyone to like you. 

Which makes me wonder: in order to attain its aim, does the Skoll World Forum privilege imprecise language? Are all of us using these words vaguely not because they're impossible to define, but because it's financially and politically advantageous to think of everything as being social entrepreneurship—and therefore, of everyone as being on the same side? Or did everybody else at New Sh*t in Sustainable Agriculture have a shared and well-defined vocabulary, the dictionary for which was somehow never stuffed into the back of my plastic lanyard? 

Before the people at the World Forum who kindly gave me said lanyard and the unlimited lunches that come with it cut me off, let me clarify: I don’t want to disagree about whether the privileged should help make people’s lives better. I do, however, desperately want to disagree about how it should be done.

Social entrepreneurship at its best seems to consist of people who want to make a living while genuinely helping others. But a precondition of genuinely bringing aid and power to the vulnerable is the space to question your practices, and what helping others looks like. If that space privileges other things—just getting along, for example—you get social entrepreneurship at its worst: the broadest church of feeling good which, in trying to unite everyone, stops anyone from asking real questions.

Let’s spare a thought for the dialogue which could have been a part of this panel: Does franchising co-operatives remove power from them? Does insurance actually mitigate risk if you’re still losing on food security? And what, exactly, is each company’s definition of good and prosperous agriculture?

Maybe it would have been worth talking about these things. But we can’t ask these questions until we are willing to draw the line between what is sustainable and what is not; what is socially motivated and what is not; and what doing good genuinely means to each person who sets out to do it. 

To those who wanted a summary of the session: sorry. It’s probably been livestreamed. But give a writer an open ticket it and their work will likely boil down to this: words matter. The words which the Skoll World Forum attendees use to build their work, vague as they are, will make the lives of the people they have chosen to help better or worse. If you believe the Social Entrepreneurship Game, we are, all of us, in the business of caring for life in one way or another. Which will require new sh*t, yes; but  just as importantly will require us to get our own sh*t together first.