* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
By Sally Osberg, president and CEO, Skoll Foundation
Like many children, my granddaughter resists bedtime by sharing fears that get her parents’ and my attention. Recently she was worried about her brain. She was afraid “school-learning” and “all the rules you have to remember” would crowd out her creativity and compassion. While she is yet to understand the brain’s infinite complexity, she has grasped its role in shaping what makes us sentient, sensitive beings.
As psychologists and neuroscientists have demonstrated, we humans are wired to be compassionate and altruistic. Children as young as three, across contexts and cultures, will attempt to “right” what they experience to be unfair. Areas of the human brain linked to recognizing emotions in others operate according to a sort of ‘neural golden rule’, responding with generous and altruistic behavior in direct correlation with the ability to share feelings.
Proximity with our fellow humans awakens our feelings of empathy and compels us to respond. Person to person, in groups and communities, we are better able to understand each other, relate to one another’s needs, and feel moved to act. But faced with injustice and suffering on a large scale, we can feel overwhelmed. When our individual impulse to give and then give more begins to wane, we draw back and look for ways to turn problems over to the agencies we believe have the mandate to develop solutions commensurate with the scale and scope of what’s needed.
As Jean Monnet—one of the architects of the European Union—once said, “Nothing is possible without humans, but nothing lasts without institutions.”
That’s an important touchstone for me. Proximity is a powerful force at both levels. It triggers empathy in individuals. Institutions, too, best fulfill their missions by keeping close to those they serve, where they can appreciate the results of their efforts, learn from experience, and respond to changing contexts. When ideology or complacency blocks this feedback loop, institutions can become remote, bureaucratic, and ineffective.
I have always believed that the institutions upon which democracy depends must be resilient, able to learn and adapt so that they can emerge from episodes of upheaval better able to advance societal progress. Living in Silicon Valley and working with social entrepreneurs around the globe, I have also developed an unshakable belief in innovation and entrepreneurship.
But I worry about the current distance, which sometimes seems like an unbridgeable gulf, between the institutions of democracy and policy, and those of the market and free enterprise. Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and Washington, D.C.—and their equivalents in other countries—are further apart than we might care to acknowledge.
Yet, the structures and principles of democracy must have proximity to interact with the structure and models of free enterprise if we are to realize our ambitions for equity, justice, and shared prosperity.
Much as the twisted strands in the double helix of a DNA molecule reinforce one another thanks to their connective molecular bridges, government’s resilience, and progressiveness depend on an economy spurred by invention and the will to improve the human condition—and vice versa.
Recently my faith in this model has been challenged. Attacks on our democratic institutions by forces aiming to increase their political and economic power are increasingly taking more from the many to enrich the few, and intimidating or punishing those who resist. Instead of reinforcing society’s interests, the two strands of our ‘social helix’ have pulled further and further apart.
Like others, I am heartened by how many have embraced the challenge to regenerate the institutional pillars of their democracies. People of all ages, across all backgrounds and from communities the world over have come together to hold the powerful to account, to insist on more just and sustainable societies. I’ve been moved—and shamed—by students determined to end the scourge of gun violence in the United States and by all who provide sanctuary for immigrants and rights for refugees.
I am encouraged by the groundswell of change born from women who’ve decided enough is enough, who’ve come forward with their stories of abuse and pervasive bias, and who’ve registered in record numbers to run for office. And I’m struck by ever more convincing signals from investors that they are factoring impacts on the environment and society, both negative and positive, into their financial decisions.
Trust may be at an all-time low, but its stores can be replenished. Isolation depletes trust. When we are close to each other, break bread together, listen to each other’s diverse views, and share our dreams for the future, we build trust. On the strength of those interactions, we gain the energy needed to counter demagoguery and strengthen all that binds us to one another.
The Skoll Foundation’s years of supporting social entrepreneurs and learning from their experiences have shaped our understanding of successful social entrepreneurship. Social entrepreneurs must commit to proximity to gain knowledge of the contexts affecting the communities they serve and the institutions that can help them scale their solutions. They don’t try to be the smartest people in the room but to ensure that those most engaged in and affected by their societies’ challenges come together in order to forge the alliances that will accelerate true and lasting equilibrium change.
The social entrepreneurs who gather at Oxford, and virtually around the world, have sparked conversations leading to real action. This community has helped us see ourselves not as philanthropic protagonists, but as fellow travelers—as proximate partners.
As we all look to step up our game, let’s start with reclaiming our proximity to each other. Let’s re-commit and re-energize our shared power in pursuit of ever more effective approaches. Those ideas and experiences—and fresh insights awaiting discovery—are available to us, here and now, to find, embrace, and pursue in solidarity with those we serve.