A New Approach for a New Frontier

By Mike Kubzansky, Chief Executive Officer

Since our founding in 2004, Omidyar Network has been a pioneer. We combined impact investing with traditional grant-making in an approach to philanthropy that was catalytic, innovative, and early. Our venture-capitalist mindset let us see old problems in new ways and find market- based, tech-enabled innovations that could scale to match the global scope of those problems. Along the way we committed $1.3 billion to more than 700 organizations that have had a positive impact on more than 1.2 billion lives.

Our mission to empower individuals remains as relevant as ever. The contours of the society in which we operate, however, have shifted dramatically. The world has been altered by shocks to our economic, political, and technological systems that have resulted in profoundly unwelcome consequences on individuals and society. If we’re going to have meaningful impact in the decade ahead, we have to update our approach to match these new contours.

While our current approaches and tools remain vital and necessary contributors to impact on an individual level, they must be augmented by efforts that address the underlying causes of these consequences at a systemic level. As Amit Bouri, who leads the GIIN, observed, “it doesn’t mean anything if we have a successful impact investing market in a broader system that’s failed.”

The frontier has advanced, and once again, we need to be pioneers. Building on our legacy, knowledge, and tools, we must focus beyond the symptoms. We need to remedy their causes: the “rules of the game” that define society’s underlying architecture, assumptions, and institutions, and its social contract.

A New Approach

We are setting into motion three principal changes that reflect the world we live in today. These will serve as the platform for our initiatives and work as we support innovative startups, engage with governments, and partner with NGOs and other colleagues and organizations in the service of driving social impact.

First, we will focus on a core set of the pressing, difficult, and deeper issues that have emerged in society across four broad areas: reimagining capitalism; promoting the beneficial use of technology; building bridges in a pluralistic world; and fostering individual capabilities and empowerment.

Second, as a companion and complement to our existing initiatives, we will create an innovation business unit with a mandate for research and experimentation to explore these new topics and horizons; experiment with new, additional approaches and tools for exploring impact; and further develop how we contribute to, affect, and help inform ideas, assumptions, and policies in service of our work. It will develop a team and network that better enables us to deploy a full range of foresight, advocacy, and network tools.

Finally, in recognition of their success and the continued need for their work, we are launching several of our long-standing initiatives as independent organizations. In February, our U.S. Emerging Tech initiative spun out to become Spero and today our Governance & Citizen Engagement initiative is announcing its new organization, expanded charter, and name. This process, which will include additional initiatives in the coming year, recognizes the work these teams have done to date and institutionalizes our commitment to their missions. We are proud of what they have achieved and will continue to achieve. Like all of our sister organizations, they continue to be funded by the Omidyars, and each, in its own manner, looks to empower people around the world by catalyzing positive social impact.

A New Frontier

Our original efforts to alleviate poverty, foster quality education, increase
financial inclusion, and ensure accountable institutions were buoyed by rapid economic and technological change, along with a growing recognition that the private sector is a vital contributor to impact. New communities of innovation emerged, from São Paulo to Bangalore to Lagos, bringing new opportunity to hundreds of millions. Yet we’ve also seen what can happen if these forces operate unchecked.

The Great Recession of 2008 reshaped the global economy and amplified already rising inequality, wage stagnation, and deep economic insecurity for average workers. Recent elections around the globe have revealed long-simmering cultural tensions, xenophobia, and distrust. Many technologies have revealed their dark side. Technologies and business models have commercialized our private data, driven or allowed unethical use, and generated unintended consequences that have reshaped economic, political, and social behavior in ways that challenge long-held assumptions and social cohesion.

Thus, we find ourselves in a world where we are hyper-connected, yet inhabit increasingly fragmented communities; where we recognize our interdependence on the richness of global diversity, yet identify ourselves by the niches we each occupy; and where overall productivity increases, yet individual economic opportunity fades for most while wealth concentrates in a tiny minority.

Positive social impact today requires addressing these and other issues, rules, and norms that govern individual opportunity, markets, and the economy; that shape how technology affects individuals and communities; and that either prevent or empower individuals to be autonomous and reach their full potential.

The New Contours of Society

It’s among these converging forces that we will refocus our work. We’ll draw on our understanding of markets, our belief in investing in the entrepreneur and the empowered individual, our willingness to take risk, and our technology expertise. We’ll bring to bear our learnings from our successes and failures over the years.

First, we’ll seek to reimagine capitalism.

Capitalism and markets remain the best option we know to deliver broad
benefits to individuals and to society, but without the right guardrails in place, they produce serious inequities and profound negative consequences well beyond the economic realm alone. We will support efforts to build more equitable economies that rebalance the social contract among business, the state, and the individual. We will address issues like job scarcity and insecurity, and provide workers with a voice to increase their earning power and dignity. Having observed how a combination of vibrant market economies and safety nets have improved lives in a number of countries, we also will explore efforts to build both public and private economic infrastructures so that individuals dealing with temporary setbacks do not become permanently disadvantaged.

Second, we will seek to promote the use of technology for beneficial purposes.

We will support positive efforts for technology to improve societal outcomes to enable people to assert their identities online, claim their land rights, and improve their educational outcomes. We also will work to ensure that the fundamental drivers of responsible technological innovation are human wellbeing and respect for individual liberty. We will address rules and norms and build resilience and capacity to address and manage the risks, unintended consequences, or unforeseen negative outcomes that new technologies may create.

Third, we will seek to address the rising cultural discomfort that accompanies our rapid transition to a pluralistic world.

Individuals around the globe can now connect more easily and deeply than
ever. Yet in the absence of rules, the same technologies and other forces can
be used to exacerbate tribal instincts and shred the social fabric. We will seek to understand the forces at work and explore how we might support efforts to create the conditions and the civic spaces – both physical and virtual – that will enable energetic engagement among diverse individuals and communities and support active dialogue grounded in mutual respect.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, we will to continue to foster
individuals’ capabilities.

Strong, inclusive, and equitable societies exist only when individuals have the ability and opportunity to realize their full potential and are able to advocate for and drive their own empowerment. We will support efforts that invest in the development of each person’s own unique skills, mindsets, knowledge, and agency in ways that unlock opportunity and allow them to engage fully in a diverse and changing world.

Supporting and Supported by Our Legacy

These changes represent a new direction for Omidyar Network, but a direction that remains strongly aligned with our existing initiatives and mission and rooted in our legacy. We will continue with our Education initiative’s work to unlock human potential by fostering individuals’ capabilities, and to be a catalyst for innovative education ideas and systems. We will continue our Financial Inclusion team’s work to support entrepreneurs promoting financial health and inclusion globally. Similarly, we will maintain the Digital Identity initiative’s work to support innovative companies, inform policies, engage with governments, and promote technologies that establish privacy safeguards around the trails left by one’s interaction in the digital world. It also supports our Property Rights investments in technological innovations that lower the barriers to securing an individual’s land rights, and our Tech and Society Solutions Lab’s work to build a movement that enables technology to realize its full potential as a positive force in the world, and mitigate, prevent, and correct the unintended consequences of technology.

Pierre is fond of reminding us that while change is inevitable, the direction of change is not guaranteed. We have seen both demonstrated in the dramatic shifts in our world in only a few short years. We all are still coming to grips with the implications of these shifts, and the strong tidal forces that exert power below the surface long before they are visible above it. There is no doubt they present immense challenges, and that they are dynamic; we will have to continue to be watchful and be ready to shift our approach in response.

No matter how things change, our role at Omidyar Network has always been to be clear-eyed about the world around us, and to take action where we feel that we can be catalytic by driving innovation, finding new ways of approaching issues, and creating solutions. It also has been to partner with others who share our vision and commitment, because we recognize that issues of global scope will take global resources to solve.

As we undertake this ambitious agenda, we know that to succeed, we must continue to be catalytic, innovative, and early, and continuously push the frontier. We know, too, that we are ready for the challenge.