Fellowship forward

by SF Team, 26 October 2018

Featured Image
Created by Rebecca Rogers (CC BY-NC 2.0)

September 2017 was the first fellowship round to date in which we awarded no fellowships. We have since selected exceptional Fellows, from fields on the periphery of what we’ve supported before, but it is getting harder to find the combination of idea, person, commitment, vision and articulation we're looking for within our current parameters. As a result we needed to pause and re-examine why we fund and how we could/should continue to affect change.

Over the past 6 months we have dissected every aspect of this model, from recruitment to alumni, from Fellowship highs to Fellowship lows, to really understand the value and effect of every component. We have examined the arc of the programme over the past 10 years, Fellow by Fellow as well as cumulatively. What we learned has helped us determine how we might continue our Open Philanthropy experiment.

What have we learned?

The fellowship programme we have today will be almost unrecognisable in its implementation to the first Fellows of 2007. What they will recognise is the essence of what we set out to do, the values that underpin that and the central role Fellows play.

We went back to basics, to the Letter of Wishes our founder, Mark Shuttleworth wrote when we started this programme. The ethos he described centred around fellowship “because I believe that people, rather than projects, are the true change agents.” Our Fellowship is supported by funding, openness, innovation and governance. We wanted to examine the outcomes of our programme against what we set out to do, and this provided the perfect compass.

Throughout the evolution of the model these have held up, and we believe they still do as we move forward.

1.) Individuals

The long term impact of the Foundation lies in the people at the heart of it. The Fellow (and the teams they assemble during their fellowship) take full ownership of an idea, they have the direct experience of implementing it, and they internalise the learning to take into the next phase, regardless of whether the idea proved viable.

Projects and organisations come and go. Many ideas do not result in successful outcomes upon the first try. These individuals are willing to take that risk for the greater good and if we can bet on the right people, they will succeed in bringing about positive change, over time, by building on their fellowship experience. As long as we believe in them and the change they want to make, they have the strength to get up and try again, each time adding to their knowledge, turning that belief into reality.

2.) Alone together

Each individual Fellow has a part to play in their field, and on the fellowship. While they have the freedom and agency to act independently, the relationships and interactions between Fellows provide a valuable sounding board and fertile environment for new ideas to be tested and blockages to be removed.

This is as true for Alumni as for current Fellows. Individually they are pushing the boundaries of conventional wisdom and the status quo. There is no-one who has the exact knowledge or experience they need. Bringing them together creates a space in which ideas can be tested and dissected, alongside trusted and respected peers, who share a common hope for the future but come with very different perspectives.

Diversity of thinking and experience is essential. It is not by interacting with those that have a similar set of skills and frame of reference that truly revolutionary ideas grow. It is by being challenged and inspired by others who are trusted and respected because of, not despite, their differences. Sharing their wisdom and combining expertise within the group is what enables them to take their mastery to the next level.

3.) Over time

During or directly after an intervention you can at best assess the implementation of an idea. To recognise impact, you need distance and time for the knowledge to be shared and changes in behaviour to occur.

We review the impact of each fellowship 5 years after the Fellow has exited the programme. Time allows the Alumni to settle into the next phase, for others to test and build upon the outputs, and for the true influence of the Fellow and their idea to become clear. It is actually only now, after 10 years, that we can see the broader contribution the collective Fellows have made in the world.

Each individual investment should be selected thoughtfully to make a contribution to our own thinking in a field, and then given enough time to mature in the world. Patience is key.

4.) With room to fail and learn

Whilst there are some social challenges with known solutions - vaccines for example - this is not the space we are in. We specifically look for individuals with fresh perspectives, with ideas that are not yet staple dinner party conversation, who want to tackle problems with as yet unproven solutions, and who challenge conventional wisdom.

When you know something is broken, it is easy to throw a spanner in the works of the establishment, to disrupt what exists. What is much harder is building something new. This comes with the risk of failure. To create the best environment for these ideas to be tested and honest learning to emerge, we have to accept the risk involved in trying to build something new and make sure that our behaviour within the group reflects that.

Even failing at solving a problem offers a valuable opportunity to learn more about both the problem and potential solutions. If it happens in an environment that is supportive, recognises the value of failure and captures those learnings, no investment is wasted. The outcomes will influence both theorists and practitioners in the field. The real failure would be not being deliberate about the experiments we do in the world and not paying careful attention to how it plays out, during and post fellowship.

5.) Openly

Actively capturing the outputs of each fellowship and sharing those openly, enables others to engage with the idea, learn from the implementation, build upon the progress made and expand the impact of our efforts and investments well beyond our own reach. Openness is what ensures that every attempt, whether it succeeds or fails, creates foundational assets and becomes a positive contribution to change in the world. We started by looking for openly licensed products at the heart of every fellowship. Open source was key to unlocking economic potential and self-reliance.

The next frontier for openness lies well beyond intellectual property. Individuals now produce and share more data, information and resulting knowledge than ever before, yet the centres of economic control have not shifted substantially. Privacy and security has come to dominate this conversation. We still need to find the appropriate equilibrium that balances the greater good and individual rights.

6.) Engaging with technology

10 years ago we were asking how can technology be used for good, especially if access was democratised. There was a sense of promise and opportunity associated with getting technology into the hands of everyone. Today the use of information and communication technology has become near ubiquitous, yet depth of contribution and equity in participation in the knowledge economy has not.

While pockets of constructive engagement exist, increased access has served to further divide, not create a shared sense of community, ownership or purpose. The commons is being eroded and the meanings of democracy, freedom, economic justice and human rights are being fundamentally challenged. The struggle around access to data and the resulting knowledge has been turned on its head with individuals generating more and more data while struggling to retain access to it themselves.

The mere inclusion of a technological component in an idea is no longer of interest to us. Questions on freedom, control and self-determination around how technologies and their byproducts interact are now far more important.

What questions are we asking now?

Progress means new questions and challenges.

1.) Society (Public goods)

In numbers, there has been no better time in history to be alive. At the same time, there has been no time in history for us to be so starkly aware of what we lack. At every level - individual to national, regional to global, even interplanetary - it is possible to know and try to understand the impact of each of our actions on those around us, near and far. Democracy, capitalism and the implied social contracts of the 20th century are no longer sufficient to effectively support the complex and connected societies needed to steward public goods for public good.

There is no more room for a zero sum game. Disruption is already happening. Now is the time to rebuild.

2.) Systems (Money flow)

The systems enabling the flow of money are becoming increasingly complex, and increasingly obfuscated. Controlling and tracking gives as much power and authority, if not more than, owning the money in the first place. While it has become easier to be a global citizen, moving money through the global banking system has become much harder for anyone other than standard corporations. Before we could just do a bank transfer in x currency to y’s bank account. In some instances that has now become impossible, in others innovations have emerged.

How should/could/does money move and reach those most able to put it to constructive use? What organisational structures and data measures do we need to provide adequate protection while not stifling innovation? This is a system that needs unblocking.

Similar questions apply to how we create and exchange value at every level of society, how we govern, share ownership and give agency. What new social, political or economic systems might offer a more relevant alternative? How might we test these theories as close to reality as possibly, while tracking and containing unintended consequences?

We would like to experiment with new approaches, starting small, and passing our experience on to others who have the potential to collaborate and influence across borders as we know them today.

3.) Substance (Themes)

Access to telecommunications technology has come, and will keep coming, at a monumental rate. It is a challenge which has been taken up widely, with social, public, commercial and philanthropic interventions on offer. The quality and quantity of initiatives, both top down and bottom up, and the high level of innovation, is encouraging.

Technology is also one of the spokes in the wheel of the future of education. There is general agreement on the importance of universal, quality education, especially around Maths and Science. While there is no single solution for achieving that, there are many inspiring models being explored all over the world. Uniform delivery at scale is no longer the ideal. The most appropriate, contextualised approaches will thrive.

Neither of these areas specifically need our attention any longer.

We have been experimenting on the periphery of these themes for a while. On the one hand we’ve expanded our focus on technology from telecommunications to medical devices, environmental monitoring, bio-printing, cellular agriculture, small scale manufacturing and scientific research. On the other, our Fellows’s focus started with formal education and evolved to access to knowledge and self-directed learning. Their work now includes access to the resources and enabling environments you need for self-actualisation, including open government, internet freedom, digital human rights, data driven decision-making, access to medicines, fact checking and food security.

Over the next year we would like to go even further, asking what challenges the new normal has created, and which old ones needs a fresh perspective to shift thinking.

The next round of applications opens on 1 February 2019.

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