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“What if sociologists had as much influence as economists?” That’s the provocation with which Bjarni Benediktsson, Iceland’s 46-year-old Prime Minister of Iceland, set the tone for recent global summit of Social Progress Imperative (SPI).

The gathering in Reykjavik drew leaders from civil society, business, and government to apply the third edition of the annual Social Progress Index to highlighting solutions with proven impact, and to ponder how novel and effective public-private partnerships can fix what’s broken.

Sound expansive and ambitious? Redirecting a global mindset that measures progress primarily (often solely) by GDP demands audacity. The conversations held in Reykjavik though were designed for practical action, and for cross-sector pollination, not overly clouded by grand theory.

At a time with deepening divisions along political lines and widening wealth disparity, the Social Progress Index holds a promise of a common language, a data-drenched equalizer that can inform evidence-based practices in the field, help ferret out solutions to thorny problems, and shape policy that will truly improve lives.

“We’re rebuilding a system to be fit for the future,” said Michael Green, CEO of SPI. “This is not meant to be a temporary fix.”

 

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Over the course of three days, Michelle Royal of RIDG produced this detailed graphic record of the summit. Join their “Disruption Readiness” webinar on May 3rd, 2pm EST. 

The experiences of mayors from Somerville, Massachusetts (Joe Curtatone) and Kalamazoo, Michigan (Bobby Hopewell), both of whom use the index to push progressive policy, took center stage next to those of NGOs working across the globe, and philanthropic and corporate funders looking for solutions with scalable impact.

Attendees got a sneak peek at the index which SPI will release in June, complete with its ranking by country (yes, there’s been some interesting movement). Perhaps most notable are metrics on the rate of change within countries across the three areas the index measures: basic human needs, foundations of wellbeing, and opportunity.

Quick takeaways from the 2017 index: overall, while the world is improving in access to education and information, there’s a troubling global lag in human rights and inclusion. “The world has the resources to do better though,” insisted Green.

Those gathered in Reykjavik heard the stories of the long and ongoing march towards gender equity and secular governing in Bangladesh from Shireen Huq, founding member of Naripokkho, that nation’s leading women’s right organization. “What’s your response to those who say ‘we need development now, and rights can wait?’” asked Green. “That’s not the kind of development we need at all,” said Huq. “We have a saying in the women’s movement in Bangladesh. We want bread, but we want roses too.”

The index could prove a valuable tool in meeting the sweeping aims of the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. “The goals have been vague and we need a clearer agenda,” said Valeria Moy, Director of  ¿Mexico, Como Vamos?. “This index gives us a common lens.”

Will global capital rise to the challenge in that time frame, asked Greene at one point to a tepid response and a just a few hands raised, one belonging to Jens Molbak. “We have no choice!” he hollered from the back of the room.

He built and sold Coinstar before he turned 40 and these days runs WinWin, focused on data-centric, tri-sector approaches to solutions that exploit overlooked or previously unavailable resources. WinWin works with the U.S. federal government to improve the food stamp program, and has burgeoning partnerships with several municipalities.

The big takeaway from a spirited conversation taking stock of the landscape of impact investing came from Julie Katzman, CEO of the Inter-American Development Bank. “For progressive investors there’s basically two buckets,” she said. “There’s the ‘do no harm’ bucket and there’s the ‘do some good’ bucket. We need far better data to make the case for the latter.”

Development Impact Bonds were explored as a promising approach as well. “We have a 99 percent loan success rate,” said Nigel Kershaw, founder of the Big Issue Invest. “The mainstream has been dead wrong. That’s why we need to embrace payment for results.”

Educate Girls, a 2015 Skoll awardee, has pioneered the Impact Bond funding mechanism in its community-based approach to establish gender equity in the schools of Rajasthan, India. What emerges there once complete data is collected will likely be a valuable case study.

Alison Bukhari, UK Director for Educate Girls, joined me in conversation to look at how social entrepreneurs make equilibrium change from the ground up. We focused mostly on the practicalities of Educate Girls’ work in the field and its partnership with government, but also touched on the DIB funding aspect. Look for another post soon that dives deeper into Educate Girls’ approach to equilibrium change.

Always an ace at crystalizing the abstract, lofty, and structural, Stephan Chambers, Director of the Marshall Institute at the London School of Economics, pointed out there’s no snap fixes in the push for social progress. “This is the work of generations,” he said. “That’s how we must think about it.”

You can watch video of all sessions from the What Works 2017 event on SPI’s YouTube channel.

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