Nilima Achwal

The Best Ideas of 2011: The Power of Collective Action

If 2011 revealed nothing else, it showed us that the age for collective, collaborative action has returned. Compared to the political and cultural movements of other generations, however, this time we have powerful online platforms at our disposal, sending ideas and inspiration across continents in nanoseconds.

For starters, the Arab Spring was ignited, fueled and brought to fruition by social media. The Occupy movements spread from New York City to major cities across the globe in moments. Even for Japan’s post-disaster efforts, social media facilitated the confluence of millions of people to send relief funds. Online platforms have existed for a few years, but in 2011 they showed their enormous capacity to harness the power of the crowd and channel it—hopefully, for good.

Not only that, but we are seeing an important institutional shift to recognizing the power of the many over the charismatic political leader, poster-child activist, or even rock star entrepreneur. Even this year’s TIME magazine’s Person of the Year was, instead, a collective entity: “The Protestor.” It almost seems that in backlash to the often one-man-show (literally) of capitalism, we have taken ownership of social issues into our collective hands.

This is not a new concept in the social enterprise world. We are already quite familiar with the power of collective, collaborative action. Through it, we channel creativity and drive social innovation, and the theme echoes through the halls of every major social enterprise conference year after year. We are also not strangers to exploiting online platforms to harness group energy (and funds!) toward social change. From the increased popularity and success of crowdfunding platforms to crowdsourcing ideas for social change (like Open IDEO) to more P2P platforms for investing (besides Kiva, Vittana, Energy in Common, Milaap, and InVenture, to name a few) to the growing popularity of Hybrid Value Chains or “mainstreaming” (which leverages the respective strengths of corporations and socially-focused organizations) to community ownership of urban land, collective, collaborative action is unquestionably central in our search for solutions to the world’s most daunting problems.

However, we are just beginning to understand the real power of collaborative action. As this year’s events showed, seemingly impossible situations can be transformed simply by igniting passion and purpose in a crowd. The challenge for social entrepreneurs in the coming year will be to channel that energy in the most effective, efficient ways to create an enormous impact. A greater challenge may be to place personal brands second to the collaboration. Indeed, no one entrepreneur will solve our global crises—those who succeed will be catalysts, inspiring and streamlining diverse groups to work toward a common goal. Or as Bill Drayton fervently believes, the future will belong to those leaders that can empower a “team of teams” in which every member is empowered to be a changemaker.

We have only touched the tip of the iceberg in collective action for social change. This coming year, our challenge is to take ourselves off the pedestal and place our social cause up there instead, to invite diverse stakeholders to work on our level platforms (online or psychic), to inspire, connect, facilitate, and catalyze. Only then can TIME’s “Person of the Year” someday be the movement which uplifted millions out of poverty and improved the state of the planet. It is possible—if we’re in it together.

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