Innovation & Design

Student Activism Can Change the World


Impassioned, student-led movements driving for social change hold plenty of lessons about innovation for executives and corporations

Forty years ago, in May, 1968, protests, demonstrations, and marches—not all of them peaceful—put students at the University of California, Berkeley, at the forefront of the antiwar, free speech, and civil rights movements. Today, Cal Berkeley is again in the vanguard as a new generation of student activists emerges to help address some of the most pressing social issues of our era: energy efficiency, Third World poverty and disease, and sustainable housing, among others. The quiet activism pursued by today's activists may not generate as many headlines as the actions of their well-known predecessors, but they may ultimately have greater impact as they mobilize the edge to transform the core.

A key catalyst for this new generation of student activism is Tom Kalil, special assistant to the chancellor for science and technology at UC Berkeley. Kalil, formerly an official in President Bill Clinton's White House, has the specific charter of helping foster initiatives on the edge of multiple academic disciplines, including information technology, nanotechnology, and biology.

Kalil has two tightly linked aspirations. First, to transform academic institutions by mobilizing engaged and empowered students. Second, to transform society by taking on some of the most challenging social problems and connecting resources across a variety of edges to come up with innovative and high-impact solutions. From Kalil's perspective, tackling difficult social problems like environmental pollution, inadequate health care, and sustainable development will be much more successful if the energy and creativity of engaged students can be unleashed.

A Marketplace of Student Ideas

To achieve these aspirations, Kalil has fostered three related initiatives. First, in 2006, he helped launch the Big Ideas contest at Berkeley in collaboration with the student government and various research centers across Berkeley's campus. With seed funding provided by Pierre Omidyar's Network Enzyme Program and support from companies such as AT&T (T), the contest has become an annual event, offering students $170,000 in prizes to come up with creative ideas for tackling "grand challenges."

Second, Kalil helped organize the Big Ideas @ Berkeley Marketplace, an online forum, to increase the visibility of promising ideas and connect specific student projects with interested alumni and potential donors to make tax-deductible donations and in-kind contributions.

Third, he has gathered resources to help mentor, coach, and inspire student leaders. Kalil always asks students what they would do if they were no longer limited by their resources, which encourages them to think on a larger scale. He also works with a large network of individuals and institutions, both on and off campus, to help with strategic planning, fundraising, and recruiting additional partners.

Strongest Results on Campus

These three initiatives create an effective funnel to move ideas. The Big Ideas contests bring to the surface creative ideas and engaged student leaders. The online marketplace and Kalil's support network then connect these ideas and leaders with the resources and help required to amplify them.

These attempts to mobilize and support the edge are beginning to yield significant results. Initially, the impact has been greatest within the academic institution. A number of student-led initiatives have been mobilized and have focused resources across traditional disciplinary and institutional boundaries on the campus.

One example—backed by Kalil—is the Berkeley Energy & Resources Collaborative (BERC), a student-led initiative designed to connect academic resources focused on cleantech. This 700-member collaborative brings together students and professors from such diverse disciplines as law, chemistry, engineering, and business, and builds bridges into the larger San Francisco Bay Area cleantech entrepreneurial community. In addition to organizing an annual Energy Symposium, the student leaders of this collaborative have also persuaded Berkeley faculty to launch a new Center for Energy & Environmental Innovation (CEEI).

Student-Led Idea Labs

The collaborative and CEEI are supporting student-led initiatives to design and offer new interdisciplinary courses at Berkeley addressing such topics as "energy and infrastructure project financing" and "energy, sustainability, and business innovation." These initiatives are particularly exciting because UC Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab have joined forces to become the "Bell Labs" of clean energy research, and have started major new research programs such as the $500 million Energy Biosciences Institute, and other efforts in photovoltaics and zero-energy-use buildings. By attracting students interested in becoming cleantech entrepreneurs, BERC will help accelerate the transition of energy technologies from the lab to the marketplace.

The Big Ideas contests have also promoted the adoption of a new form of collaboration invented by students, known as "idea labs." These idea labs, organized by the students themselves, bring together graduate students with shared interests in such areas as photovoltaics, green-collar jobs, and energy efficiency. For example, the photovoltaics idea lab is accelerating the pace of academic research by bringing together 30 graduate student researchers in nine different labs across campus to share early results and explore implications for future research.

The Berkeley campus sets the stage for broader social impact. One example of early impact is an initiative led by Berkeley engineering students to develop a water filter to help residents of slums in Mumbai battle the spread of diarrheal diseases. Collaborating with women's groups in Mumbai, Berkeley students have designed an innovative "point of use" system for water treatment that costs under $10 and can be made with local materials. The Berkeley students have already begun to engage Indian MBA students to develop a plan for marketing, distribution, and scale-up of production.

Learning to Negotiate with Authorities

The students quickly realized technology innovation was only a small part of the need. Over time, the Berkeley students have helped recruit volunteers from local Mumbai colleges to support water-quality testing initiatives and the design and delivery of educational programs. These educational programs are delivered through street plays and local women's self-help groups in the most hard-hit areas, to build awareness of the link between contaminated water and dysentery.

The students have also had to negotiate with authorities such as slum lords, government representatives, and local leaders and organizations. The need to face these very practical issues regarding widespread adoption and use of the technology has broadened student awareness of the range of disciplines and expertise required to achieve real results. It has also taught them crucial lessons about how to have influence without authority, in part by mobilizing the edges rather than directly confronting core power structures.

The intense experiences of these students as they encountered these challenges on site in Mumbai not only strengthened their commitment and engagement, but helped catalyze broader support for their initiatives. Impressed by the experiences of these and other student leaders interested in safe drinking water, the newly established Blum Center for Developing Economies has agreed to provide more than $600,000 for the Mumbai project and other initiatives on safe drinking water—using technologies such as ultraviolet light to kill pathogens and low-cost electrochemistry to remove arsenic from drinking water in Bangladesh.

More than 100 other student-led innovation initiatives in such areas as microclinics for disease management, commercialization of nanotechnology research, telemicroscopy for disease diagnosis, efficient cookstove design for refugee camps in Darfur, and new financing mechanisms for investment in energy efficiency are well under way and illustrate the broad scope of innovation.

What does all of this mean for business executives? After all, these are students working on difficult social problems. What lessons can business executives take from these edge innovation programs?

To transform the core, start at the edge. For many executives, when core business activities require fundamental change, the strong instinct is to embark on massive organizational changes. These organizational transformations rarely succeed. An alternative path is to start on the edge and move back into the core over time. By engaging the edge first, it is often possible to find innovative leaders with energy and passion to try new approaches. Inertial forces are weaker on the edge because there are fewer entrenched interests.

Demographic edges are a deep source of energy and creativity. New generations of workers are coming into companies wanting to make a difference. Innovation and change critically depend on tapping into this energy and creativity. Senior executives need to find more effective mechanisms to connect with the younger generation within their workforce and inspire them with the opportunities for achieving change.

Innovation is not just about ideas, it is about impact. Too often, discussions on innovation focus narrowly on idea-generation. From our experience, idea-generation is rarely the bottleneck. Survey any large company and you'll find a multitude of big ideas are percolating at various levels of the organization. The key is how to make these ideas more visible, how to mobilize support for the most promising ideas, and how to scale the development and deployment of the ideas.

Achieving results requires making connections across multiple edges. Enormous resources are available to drive innovation, but they are fragmented and isolated within various disciplinary and institutional silos. A common theme of the innovation initiatives led by Berkeley students has been the need to inventory relevant resources and find creative ways to connect these resources. The challenge has been to move well beyond the academic institution itself and find creative ways to connect with entrepreneurial talent in companies and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) of various types around the world. By bridging the edges that define our daily lives, we may indeed change the world.


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