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What if Social Change Depends on More "Good Enough" Solutions?

Grameen Bank, one of the best-known microlenders in the world, fights global poverty by lending small, collateral-free sums of money to the poorest of the poor. In 2005, it had 5.6 million borrowers (97% of them women) in nearly 60,000 villages throughout Bangladesh. Since its inception in 1976, it has lent more than $5 billion to its borrowers, with a more than 98% rate of recovery.  Grameen has been so wildly successful, the Bank and its founder, Professor Muhammad Yunus were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006.

Grameen Bank is what's known as a "catalytic innovation" to spur social change and a recent Harvard Business Review article "Disruptive Innovation for Social Change" argues that we need many more Grameen success stories, if we're going to really have social impact. (Note that you can view an executive summary of the article for free, but the full version is $7. I sprang for the $7, but could have saved my money as the executive summary and other resources offered a "good enough" picture of the concept)

Modeled on the idea of "disruptive innovations", a catalytic innovation is a "good enough" social change solution that is simpler, more convenient and less expensive than the usual offerings. It serves the needs of an unserved or under-served population, creating large impact for less money. Think of the
$100 per unit One Laptop Per Child project or KickStart, which sells treadle-style irrigation pumps to poor farmers, substantially increasing their earning capacity.

What's interesting about these innovations is that they turn our existing notions of social change strategies on their head. When we see broad, sweeping issues such as poverty or hunger, we tend to believe that we need broad, sweeping solutions. If these broad solutions aren't working, then it must be because of a lack of funding. Keep throwing money at our same old solutions and the problem will eventually be solved.

This may be true in some cases. But it may be that we are mis-allocating our resources, putting too much money into maintaining the status quo when there's much that can be accomplished with smaller, simpler interventions that are "good enough."

KickStart's pumps are labor-intensive and low capacity when compared to a motorized pump. But for far less than what it would take to purchase a motorized option, a Kenyan farmer can increase annual income from $100 to $1,000, allowing him to send his children to school, invest in other equipment, etc.  The $100 laptop lacks an internal hard drive and has a hand pump to crank for power, but it puts computing power into the hands of children who might otherwise never see a computer.

Catalytic innovations don't have to be confined to just products. They can also be found in a re-thinking of the services provided to unserved or under-served populations. The Virtual High School provides online educational courses to students in schools where a course might not otherwise be offered. At a Minute Clinic, you can access basic, low-cost, non-emergency healthcare treatments in convenient locations.

As a "big picture" perfectionist, the idea of doing something less than comprehensive is difficult to swallow. But after reading some of these success stories, I'm starting to think differently. Maybe we need to be looking for more "good enough" solutions to problems. Who are the under-served populations we work with and what stripped down, simpler and less expensive idea might take them exactly where they want to go?

How might "good enough" actually change the world?


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