Accomplishing massive goals requires massive collaboration—far beyond collaborating within an organization or within an industry or among government agencies.
Making meaningful progress on issues including eradicating global poverty and protecting the global ecosystem requires collaboration among governments, non-governmental organizations (NGO’s), private industry, farmers, indigenous peoples and unaffiliated individuals with ideas. This cross-sector collaboration is driving the agenda for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development which happens this June 20-22 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The conference, dubbed Rio+20, marks the twentieth anniversary of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. The 1992 conference established the Rio Declaration, which includes 27 principles mostly addressing sustainable economic development.
Last Friday, at the invitation of the United States Department of State, I attended a planning meeting for Rio+20 at the Center for Social Innovation at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. The purpose was to distill ideas from cross-sector collaborators on how to bridge connection technologies with sustainable development. In a brainstorming session on “sustainable economic growth,” we tackled wasted talent and connectivity. Think of the many people in developing countries with talent and ideas who have no outlet to connect and collaborate. This is our collective loss as global citizens until we tap that talent.
The world’s wasting of talent in developing countries is analogous to the command-and-control organization that pays “knowledge workers” to think and pays everybody else to carry out orders. See my January 11, 2011 column for BusinessWeek.com on this topic. Such an organization squanders talent. This is because people throughout the organization—from the loading dock to the call center—have knowledge to contribute.
One participant noted that wasted connectivity involves using the Internet frivolously, perhaps for pirating movies and other content, rather than for working together to eradicate poverty, create new markets and protect the environment. Similarly, wasted connectivity within organizations involves using networks and tools for chatter rather than for developing and producing products and services.
Since the 1992 Rio Declaration, the Internet has grown from less than 16 million users to over 2 billion users, according to internetworldstats.com. Mobile phone users have grown from less than 23 million in 1992 to more than 6 billion in 2011, according to nationmaster.com. The current level of connectivity creates an opportunity for a more distributed, peer-to-peer (read inclusive) approach in collaborating for sustainable development.
Old models of cross-sector collaboration were minimally effective, because they involved “decision makers” or “thought leaders” shaping ideas and developing solutions which they would hand down to people impacted by the decisions. Now people in developing countries without affiliations can shape ideas with ministers and private sector leaders globally. Well, at least this is technically possible.
As important to cross-sector collaboration as global connectivity and enabling technologies is a cultural shift in which governments, NGO’s and private industry embrace input from people regardless of affiliation or location. This is analogous to organizations adopting more collaborative cultures and tools so that people far from the home office or from executive corridors can participate in making decisions. The State Department has chalked up success with an emerging collaborative culture and tools including Secretary Clinton’s Sounding Board. For more on this, see my September 14, 2010 post.
One of the people hashing out ideas in the sustainable development brainstorming session was Rio+20 Secretary General Sha Zukang, who is also the UN Under Secretary General for Economic and Social Affairs. Zukang, who demonstrated particular talent at defining and outlining sustainable development issues, brushed against a live wire as the workshop concluded: intellectual property. The brainstorm was exactly three weeks after the collapse of U.S. House of Representatives support for the Stop Online Privacy Act and Senate support for the PROTECT IP Act backed by media and entertainment companies and opposed by Google and Wikipedia among other online interests.
Zukang described the need to “find a balance” between protecting intellectual property and disseminating information. This balance impacts cross-sector collaboration in that people in developing countries often lack access to the same information accessible to their collaborators in developed countries. Providing affordable access will help level the playing field. Contrary to some viewpoints, collaboration—cross-sector or otherwise—by no means requires eliminating or dismantling intellectual property protection. IP protection creates incentives for people and organizations to collaboratively develop and produce products and services.
Cross-sector collaboration takes collaboration beyond organizational and sector boundaries to create value on a global scale.