Pioneers Post

Skoll World Forum on social entrepreneurship: the ridiculous and the sublime

4 April 2012
Photo of Skoll World Forum last session

There are two billion children on this planet, out of a population of seven billion. But as the population swells to 10 billion in the coming years, the number of children will hold steady.

The reason for this – Swedish statistics sex god, Ted talk veteran and certified sword swallower Hans Rosling told us at the first session of this year’s Skoll World Forum, with a mischievous glint in his eye – is that all around the world there is ‘less activity in the bedroom’.

In Medieval times, the average number of children for families around the world was six – but four of them usually died. Now, families have on average two children but none die. This means that – subject to there being a global sex epidemic – the world’s population will settle. It also means, said Rosling, that letting kids die due to poverty or conflict is not only morally unacceptable, but it will do nothing to stop population growth.

This was the amazing, thought-provoking presentation that kicked off three days of intense big thinking, discussion and storytelling at the Skoll World Forum 2012, held in Oxford last week.

It was the eighth Skoll forum, and the eighth I have been lucky enough to attend. Like my visit to India a few years ago, it was a love/hate experience. It was a complete nightmare trying to get access to the event, even though the SocialEnterpriseLive team wanted to blog, video and generally spread the Skoll learning as widely as possible to our 20,000-strong network. But when we eventually managed to penetrate the ivory tower and secure a ticket (only for two of the three days, mind), I was lucky enough to spend my time there in awe of most things and people that I saw and heard – Jeff Skoll himself, photojournalist Nick Danziger, Vagina Monologues creator Eve Ensler, singer Annie Lennox, ex-Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and Rockefeller Foundation president Judith Rodin, to name just a few.

The experience was punctuated with periods of anger and frustration at the exclusivity, mutual backslapping, cheesiness and cliquey love-ins that accompany this event each year. It’s amazing how much social good you can think you are doing if you throw lots of cash at it. And it’s always astounding how much Skoll ignores the best examples of UK social entrepreneurship sitting on its doorstep (ie there were virtually no representatives of UK social enterprise there). But remove my cynical side and mostly, I was – as always – comprehensively inspired by the richness of the content, the conversations, the commitment and, this year, also the campaigning that Skoll convenes and curates so brilliantly.

The campaigning element was actually a real surprise. There were many moving moments of the Forum but for me none more so than at the last plenary session, at which the ruler of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, had originally been scheduled to appear. Nasheed instead greeted us on video, to tell us first that the Maldives were a ‘bellwether’ for global issues around climate change. The world’s water levels were rising and the Maldives would disappear beneath the seas if nothing was done. This was the man who had hosted a Cabinet meeting underwater in the Indian Ocean, with all his ministers dressed in scuba gear. But despite his laughter, Nasheed’s message was serious – life in the Maldives will be underwater within a few years if something doesn’t change. What point was there of fighting for democracy if there was no nation there to fight for?

In a further twist to the story, two months ago Nasheed had been deposed in a coup d'état. It was a stark reminder that social entrepreneurs are not only fighting to deal with some of the world’s most intractable environmental and social issues – but politics and life in general also have a real habit of getting in the way.

The video of Nasheed was followed by an equally inspiring discussion chaired by Guardian columnist Zoe Williams with the Israeli director of EcoPeace Gidon Bromberg, Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington and Carl Pope, a former leading light at one of the US’s most influential environmental organisations, the Sierra Club.

This last session was about something close to my heart – the power of storytelling. The stories from Carl, Gidon and Mohamed Nasheed were compelling. But as a journalist, I was particularly interested in Arianna Huffington’s take on how the media deals with stories of social value. She spoke about the media’s ‘false sense of objectivity’ and its ‘Pontius pilot approach to the truth’. The media failed to track and follow important stories, covering them in a shallow way and moving on to the next piece of news. As Huffington put it, ‘They give you an opportunity to make your case then move to the commercial break.’

We all know that commercials – and being commercial – are important if we are to get the revenue we need to keep telling the important stories. But it takes a social entrepreneur to know what the important stories are and create a business model to back the vehicle that can get them out to the people that matter.

Roll on Skoll 2013. I will be inspired. But I will pack my cheese knife.

Tim West is founding editor of and director of Matter&Co

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