François Bonnici is Director of the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the UCT Graduate School of Business, the South Africa Hub of the Center for Education Innovations.
At the launch of CEI’s South Africa Hub at Africa Education Week last Thursday, collaboration was, hardly surprisingly, in the spotlight. As many voices at the event were expressing concern over the crisis in the education sector in South Africa and asking who was to blame, CEI was preaching its message of collaboration.
We believe that taking a step beyond pointing fingers towards greater collaboration – across all sectors – is vital if the admittedly huge task we face is to be successfully met.
Collaboration is a word that is thrown around a lot. Many talk about it but few manage to do it successfully and meaningfully.
John Gilmour, founder of LEAP Schools and Bridge, which is a partner in CEI’s work in South Africa, outlined why this is the case at Africa Education Week.
According to John, a key part of the problem is the strong influence of strict competition principles and rugged individualism which permeates policy-making and too often makes real collaboration synonymous with weakness. Such thinking is even found within the NGO sector, where we compete for scarce funding – elbowing others out the way – to promote our own brand of social progress. We become arrogant, convinced that we see solutions where others don’t and worse, disregard the solutions of others because we do not have the wisdom or humility to appreciate them. Meantime, the crisis deepens around us.
As funding around the world dries up and economies shrivel under the weight of the financial crisis and slow global recovery, competing for limited resources does not make sense.
We urgently need to find new structures that enable effective collaboration. The old ways have failed us. Taking steps towards real collaboration involves building social capital and trust, understanding the obstacles to collaboration (fear, insecurity, lack of effective structures and so on) and lowering these barriers so that people are freed to work together unconditionally towards a common goal.
It is easier said than done. Fortunately, the world of business provides some pointers. Writing in Harvard Business Review Gary Pisano and Roberto Verganti say “In an era when great ideas can sprout from any corner of the world and IT has dramatically reduced the cost of accessing them, it’s now conventional wisdom that virtually no company should innovate on its own.”
The key point here is that collaboration leads to innovation and innovation is what is needed to get ourselves out of crisis.
There are plenty of examples where collaboration among citizens, civil society, business and government has delivered results that far surpass what could have been achieved from someone or some organization working alone. Wikipedia is perhaps one of the best examples of this. The MIT Media Lab is also renowned for churning out groundbreaking innovations by orchestrating collaboration across disciplines and organizations.
In the South African education landscape, the Bridge initiative and more recently the Extraordinary Schools Coalition are taking crucial first steps towards greater collaboration.
The Center for Education Innovations (CEI) is hoping to take this further and coalesce these “drops in the ocean” into a current of new energy. This will largely be done by aggregating scattered projects and programs working to better education for the poor onto a single platform, so as to spot synergies and amplify successful models. As Edward Owen Wilson renowned biologist and researcher says: “We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.”
It is much easier not to collaborate than to collaborate. Indeed, there is much to be risked when working alongside with others, but we should abandon the need for comfort and embrace the possibilities of collaborative social innovation.
In words of Joy Olivier, founder of the highly innovative IkamvaYouth program, one the initial 130 programs profiled on CEI’s online platform: “Collaboration brings real learning and this can be frustrating and uncomfortable but that is where innovation happens. We may not have it all together, but together we have it all.”
If all sectors – public private and society – worked together we could achieve extraordinary things. Rather than just fixing education we have the opportunity to re-imagine it.