Two great social entrepreneurs, Nobel Peace Price winner Mohammad Yunus of Bangladesh and British activist Michael Young, were outstanding experimental innovators, David Galenson told the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship this week at Oxford University.
As typical seekers, they achieved their successes by trial and error and often were unsure of themselves. Here are excerpts from Galenson’s talk:
“The late Michael Young, who has been spoken of several times today, was perhaps the world’s most prolific social entrepreneur and was an archetypal experimental innovator. He had the basic uncertainty of the experimentalist, as he once declared that ‘I have never had an idea that I was sure about.’ As a result, in all his activities he proceeded cautiously. In the introduction to his doctoral thesis, he compared his scholarly method to the experience of finding his way through the dense London fog that had enveloped him on his first visit to the East End community that became the subject of that thesis: He wrote, ‘I felt my way along, tapping my foot against the kerbstones as I went. I am still tapping.’
“Yet his uncertainty never prevented him from making an effort to achieve what he understood to be the best option, no matter how much opposition he encountered. He attributed his accomplishments to a combination ‘of perseverance and bloody-mindedness.’ Above all, however, he reserved the right to change his mind as he went, for his tapping in the dark was not aimed merely at moving, but at making progress. In 1998, at the opening of his School for Social Entrepreneurs, in his inaugural speech the 83-year-old Lord Young offered a remarkable definition that captured the essential humility and open-mindedness of the experimental innovator, as he explained that ‘Introducing an innovation is an exercise of entrepreneurship, and for me entrepreneurship is best thought of as a concentrated and targeted kind of learning… . The idea has to be subject to continuous examination, a continuous trial and error.’ Appropriately, Young made that speech in Bethnal Green, where decades earlier he had learned about the problems facing the English working class by talking to the people who lived there.
“Over time, Young had become more and more deeply engaged with these problems, for as his friend and biographer Asa Briggs remarked of Young, he was ‘a traveler who becomes increasingly involved the longer he continues his journey.’
“Nor should Young’s experimental orientation be considered in any way surprising, for the complex problems faced by social entrepreneurs can often be expected to require perseverance and bloody-mindedness in the face of both external opposition and internal uncertainty. And perhaps the key is Michael Young’s emphasis on entrepreneurship as learning, not with a fixed goal but as an open-ended process, with continuous examination and constant trial and error. Michael Young was a successful scholar, but Asa Briggs noted that he was never completely comfortable in a university setting, for he needed to be in the field learning about the problems he wanted to solve. Michael Young would certainly have agreed with the metaphor of another important social entrepreneur, Muhammad Yunus, that the university classroom was like a beautiful movie theater, ‘where professors have all the answers and the tale works out so neatly at the end of the day. But it’s make-believe. When you turn on the lights and go outside, it’s a completely different world.’
“Frustrated by the failure of economic theory to help solve the problems of the rural poor during a famine in Bangladesh in 1974, Yunus decided to learn about the poor at first hand by going into their villages, and in his book ‘Banker to the Poor’ he tells us that it was there that ‘the poor taught me an entirely new economics.’ In classic experimental terms, Yunus tells us that when he first began lending money to the poor, ‘I did not know if I was right. I had no idea what I was getting into. I was walking blind and learning as I went.’
“Yunus founded the Grameen Bank on the basic principle that experience is the best guide. All the bank’s employees are encouraged to suggest changes in even the most basic rules. If they perceive better procedures for dealing with the problems they encounter in the course of their daily work.
“Social entrepreneurs do not all have to be experimental; most disciplines, both artistic and scholarly, thrive on the combination of the two approaches, and the creative tension between theoretical and empirical innovation. But as in other disciplines, it is the experimentalists who are likely to have the harder time finding their way.”
To hear the full talk, visit the Skoll conference’s Web site and click on “2007 Skoll World Forum Opening Plenary.” Galenson’s remarks are from roughly 1:27:00 to 1:46:00 on that Real Player file.