Institute Insights

Institute Insights: Harvard Igniting Innovation Summit

Chris is a Program Coordinator at the NYU Entrepreneurial Institute, where he develops programs and organizes events for faculty and student entrepreneurs at NYU. Prior to joining the NYU Entrepreneurial Institute, Christopher studied Public Administration and Non-Profit Management at NYU's Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. 

Social Innovation conferences have become increasingly popular on college campuses, as students are looking to learn more about careers that make a difference and have an impact. Harvard University is not a stranger to the trend: over the past five years, the Igniting Innovation Summit has grown to be the nation’s biggest undergraduate-led conference on social innovation.

Harvard draws a lot of people and so the panels and keynotes are filled with some of the most prominent thought and practice leaders in the field, while participants join to explore the intersections of topics such as business and sustainability, education and technology, or social good and development. It is unfortunate that one-day conferences often do not leave a lot of time for deep, engaging conversation and dialogue, and are more meant to spark ideas, offer new insights, and provide space for quick networking opportunities. The real impact of the conferences shows later, once participants return home and put inspiration into practice.

I was invited by the host committee to attend and it was a great opportunity to get an update on where the industry currently stands, and where it is headed.

Take for example education and technology. There is a massive shift going on: education systems across the globe are struggling to move from a traditional, industrial model towards one truly reflective of the 21st century challenges and needs. But nobody knows what that will look like and there is currently a lot of noise in the sector as many actors are competing for relevance and influence. One thing, however, will be certain: technology will play a much bigger role than it currently does, and it may play a different role than we expect.

There are hints that we will see a gamification of education that takes cues from online gaming and the way people interact and work together online — we will move past the MOOC. It may also mean that western systems of education will have a much more difficult time transitioning, as they are so well-established that there are a lot of cultural and mental barriers to overcome. One thing will be sure: 21st century education will see dramatic changes in the way we test proficiency. As one professor put it: “We will not close for inventory,” meaning school programming and teaching will not be put on hold to test students’ skills and capacity (think final exams, GREs, LSATs). Institutions will much more likely rely on process data to make proficiency recommendations. When and how it will happen will be an incredibly interesting development to follow.

Or take sustainable production, whether that regards food or clothing. Doug Rauch, CEO of Conscious Capitalism and President Emeritus of Trader Joe’s, and Rick Ridgeway, VP of Environmental Affairs of Patagonia Clothing, made enthusiastic pleas for more sustainable and conscious consumerism and business. The overarching question is: how can you reduce constraints on the planet while still conducting business successfully? This requires a close look at supply chains, business mechanisms, consumer behavior, technologies, and production processes. We have become used to the commoditization of everything and expect high quality products and services that are instantly available, for low prices. This begs the question: is business sustainable on a planet that already uses 1 ½ times its own capacity (7 times its capacity if at US levels of consumption)? The challenge for businesses, and social enterprises in particular, is to devise business models that are sustainable and work within the constraints of a planet with limited capacity.

In order to meet the challenges we have created, advancements and innovations in technology and (social) entrepreneurship are critical. The impassioned plight of all people at this conference (as well as others around the globe) is that we need to find solutions that integrate business, technology, education, and activism to build a world that is livable for all. Let’s get to work!