A social entrepreneur's guide to changing the world

Editor's note: This article originally appeared on Virgin.com as a collaborative article by the Ashoka team. The report contextualises and explores the mission and impact of Ashoka

In 1950 Detroit was an engineering hub: home of Ford Motorcars and the heart of the American auto industry. In 2013 the city filed for bankruptcy, in the largest such claim in US history.

The first half of the 20th century saw a massive period of growth for the city – in 1930, at the peak of the industry, the workforce comprised 90,000 people. The city seemed to embody the American dream, a hub of both large and small manufacturers, a hive of industry and the classic fantasy of urban development.

By the millennium the entire municipality had fallen apart. Between 1950 and the present day the population has shrunk 63 per cent. The violent crime rate in the city is five times the national average and an astonishing 40 per cent of the city streetlights don’t work. The decay in the city seems infectious. 

Bill Drayton, founder of Ashoka, claims Detroit as the perfect illustration of standing still. He attributes the failure to survive to the failure to adapt, “The world up to now has been organised for efficiency and repetition, think assembly line, think law firm… and that has made sense […]But it doesn’t work anymore, it’s failing, really badly.”

Drayton claims that the rate of change in society is accelerating faster than ever before. The capacities and responsibilities of governments, employers, workers and individuals are changing at an alarming pace. “Two to three decades ago, Computer Aided Design eliminated 40 per cent of what architects do, soon 50 to 60 per cent of what doctors and nurses do is going to be automated – this is going to keep happening”, predicts Bill. He observes “The world up to now has been organised for efficiency and repetition, think assembly line, or think of a law firm… and that has made sense.” 

For Bill a large part of this static mentality is embedded in the education system. “School has been about giving people a set of knowledge, a set of skills, and an associated set of behaviour patterns, and then work is organised so you do that for the rest of your life.” 

The toxic cycle of repetition is ingrained in models from classroom syllabi to habits of personal consumption. It is this cycle that is both driving us towards, and failing to equip us for, the looming social, environmental and political disasters. And yet, as Bill notes “our daily experience is totally the opposite from the world of repetition”.

For Bill and Ashoka more broadly, the key to adapting to our environments and the wider challenges facing us as a society, lies in an unexpected place: empathy. Empathy lies at the core of activating citizens and societies and as a skill, is the greatest tool available to tackle problems on both an individual and societal level.

To date 20 per cent of the world’s population consumes 80 per cent of its resources. Every year, 13 million hectares of forest disappear and one billion people have no access to clean drinking water. 

The crisis is looming and in order to tackle it we need to empower people on a worldwide scale across divisions of race, gender and class, because as Bill explains, “Everyone is powerful in a world in which everyone is a changemaker.”

The first step on the journey is in education – “mindset change is really important […because…] you get to a moment when the whole framework has to change: things are different and the measures are different.” Intervening, equipping and empowering at a young age is the key to developing this paradigm shift.

Ashoka has an international fellowship of over 3000 such changemakers and a presence in the lives of thousands of school children, but at the core of each entrepreneur is a resilience and innovation.

As Drayton summarises, “You’re not creating something that’s going to repeat, the moment you create it, it’s got to be self-evolving… companies that don’t see that are finished. Otherwise it’s Detroit in 10 years or two years.”