A Conversation with David Bornstein

David Bornstein is a journalist and author who focuses on social innovation. He co-authors the Fixes column in The New York Times Opinionator section, which explores and analyzes potential solutions to major social problems. He is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network, which supports journalists who report on constructive responses to social problems. His books include How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas, The Price of a Dream: The Story of the Grameen Bank, and Social Entrepreneurship: What Everyone Needs to Know. He is currently completing a book on social innovation in the U.S. and Canada. He lives in New York.

David Bornstein is a journalist and author who focuses on social innovation. He co-authors the Fixes column in The New York Times Opinionator section, which explores and analyzes potential solutions to major social problems. He is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network, which supports journalists who report on constructive responses to social problems. His books include How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas, The Price of a Dream: The Story of the Grameen Bank, and Social Entrepreneurship: What Everyone Needs to Know. He is currently completing a book on social innovation in the U.S. and Canada. He lives in New York.

Jennifer Prescott: What drew you to writing so intensively on Social Innovation?

David Bornstein:  While working my first five years as a computer programmer it was all about solving problems and looking for interesting approaches to solving problems. When I hear about or research a problem, I go to those same questions immediately; what might we do? Or what could we do? As a journalist covering the world for the past 25 years, I’ve observed that 95% of the stuff you read tells you that there is a problem, it explains the problem, and is aimed at getting people outraged about the problem. But I’m particularly interested in the ways that people could respond to the problem? What are the policy ideas or the individual behaviors or the businesses or the non-profit organizations that people could be starting? What is the teachable lesson that we need people to understand and what could we do differently? Those seem to me the most interesting questions and the questions that if you report on them well, will release the most imagination, creativity and energy around these big problems.

There are a host of problems in the world that elicit a lot of awareness, outrage and frustration while there’s very little sense of possibility. People are much more aware of the problems than they are of the potential solutions. This is, in most cases, the missing information in every conversation. So I think it is very important to inject that information into the narrative. I believe that it will unleash people’s creative energies.

JP: What is a Social Entrepreneur?

DB: It’s a broadly used term and there isn’t a single definition, but the basic idea follows what everyone knows an entrepreneur to be: Someone who gives themselves the permission to change or create something. A person who sees a problem and pulls together a bunch of resources and/or people and has an idea about achieving some goal. We tend to think of entrepreneurs in the frame of people advancing innovative or novel ideas – building something new, something that doesn’t exist. What we are seeing is that we’re aware that this happens all the time in the business world, but we aren’t aware that it’s also happening all the time with regards to social problems.

The same qualities and talents of a Steve Jobs are in evidence all over the world by people applying their talents to reduce homelessness or to deal with environmental problems or to make sure that street kids have protective services.

The social entrepreneurial frame was introduced by Bill Drayton – the founder of Ashoka — and it’s been useful in showing that these talents, which every society produces, can be repurposed for social good.

JP: Can you talk about the role of Social Entrepreneurship in the Environmental Sustainability movement based on what you’ve encountered?

DB:  The environmental movement is a perfect example of a field that requires social innovation in order to get through the transition that we have to get through. To define the environmental problem you can look at many aspects, but let’s look at climate change as an example. There’s actually a lot of awareness and a fair amount of outrage on the street with regard to climate change, but if most people were asked to list ideas and solutions to the problem, they wouldn’t have a big list.

What’s happening worldwide is that people aren’t hearing about the new systems and solutions being invented. We have to know what the tools on the table are before we can build the bookshelf.

In addition, we have an entire economy that has basically been developed around burning things. So how do we develop a whole new set of companies in the business of service? We have to repurpose a million companies. Well, what kinds of people create new companies? Entrepreneurs! So, if you are really interested in building a new economy that is more “green”, you must tap into the idea of who the people are that are most naturally suited to doing that kind of work?

JP: Your experience has allowed you proximity to real “game changers” such as Bill Drayton, founder of Ashoka and former assistant administrator of the EPA. In your book, How to Change the World, you call these people “transformative forces: people with new ideas to address major problems who are relentless in the pursuit of their vision.” I’m curious how experiencing these “forces” colors your personal outlook for the future? And how might that vision differ from those of us who feel like we are constantly bombarded solely with problems and dysfunction – with no discernible solutions and no one to support our desire for change?

DB:  There is much more agency in world today, which is to say that individuals and small groups are far more powerful than they ever were in the past – for many reasons. You can look at the women’s movement, technology and nearly all human rights movements for example. They have all conspired to make individuals around the world more powerful people. So you can conclude that that’s going to create new forces in the world. Terrorism happens to be one of them. A couple of people can do some really bad stuff and blow up some things and destabilize entire nations. We know that story. That story’s been told a lot. But if you look at how many social entrepreneurs exist around the world as a ratio to the number of people who use their agency for terrorism – it’s probably 1000 to 1 – if even that. And yet the story has been so dominated by the negative, destructive destabilizers as opposed to the constructive destabilizers.

Change is inherently destabilizing but a lot of people are trying to build something better, while others are just trying to blow something up. You could say that none of them like what exists but they have very different models on how to go about changing things. That dominant story has caused people to become fearful, defensive, creating political polarization and a whole negative dynamic that causes us to circle the wagons, which leaves no oxygen in the room to fuel creative ideas.

If more people had more exposure to creative problem solvers, the way they build systems and the processes they utilize, you could literally transform a culture very quickly just by making that visible.

Take the Dotcom movement for example. Five years – and everyone in the U.S. wanted to start one. It’s possible to change cultures through aspirational models rather than frightening models. Unfortunately the news focuses 95% of its energy on what we should be worried about.

JP: I view you as a Social Entrepreneur just by virtue of disseminating information on social innovators, informing people and illuminating what they might not otherwise see or think about. Would you agree with that assessment?

DB:  I think so. In this new role of co-founding the Solutions Journalism Network, I see that I’m applying the principles and practices that I’ve been studying for years. I can see that there’s an art and science to changing people’s practices and behavior and to spreading new ideas. It’s not magic. It’s not happenstance. The reason entrepreneurship is a useful frame for effecting change – more useful than humanitarianism or do-goodism – is that there is a method to it. You can study it. There is more than one hundred years of business research on what entrepreneurs do.

So the idea that we can move the needle on social change in a more predictable and systematic way is more powerful than basing the change on the charisma of a few special people. This is something that anyone can do. Anyone can start a business or organization. The story of dramatic change has historically been focused on the few that can get on the covers of magazines – when in fact, in today’s world, it’s a much more doable proposition for the majority of people.

Click here for the entire podcast of this interview.

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