The Skoll World Forum is an international event, hosted in Oxford England each year. It brings together an impressive community of philanthropists, social entrepreneurs, foundations, NGOs, governments, corporations and individuals passionate about creating sustainable social change to address our most pressing global needs. Rather than having a singular format of speaker and audience, Skoll keeps it fresh with a mix of panel sessions, debates, delegate-led discussions, and plenaries. It’s impossible therefore to attend everything as a lot happens in parallel, and the most important conversations seem to happen between 10pm and 2am in various bars in Oxford. Here’s what I learned during my time there this year.

  1. The role of the corporation in social innovation is still unclear.

    Perhaps it’s only natural in a conference about social entrepreneurs that there was very little debate about how big business can play an effective transformational role in changing the world for the better. There were valuable contributions by foundations of corporates but not so much from the for-profit world.

    “Poverty is not created by poor people… it is created by failure of institutions.” Muhammad Yunus

  2. Education is undergoing a revolution that can help alleviate poverty from the ground up.

    The western education system evolved to serve the needs of its workforce: it was manual labor dominated with a creative minority. Now it’s a creative majority with a labor minority but our education system has not caught up. The parts of the developing world that are having the greatest success improving their economies are deliberating not replicating the factory based western model and instead creating systems that are focussed on blended learning, project-based, collaborative, non-hierarchical (teacher as peer and guide), and allow individual streaming. These models defy traditional assumptions: classroom sizes have higher student to teacher ratios – e.g. 60 to one or two teachers; they embrace technology – Khan academy‘s amazing platform is used extensively throughout the world now (even translated into Mongolian); they redefine the teachers role to have greater value with the use of ICT, not less; and they strive to offer low-cost education which is world-class (Bill Gates’ kids use Khan Academy).

  3. The media has an important role in addressing our biggest problems, if only they could stop focussing on the Kardasians.

    Annie Lennox gave a rousing acceptance speech for her Skoll Award, using the opportunity to condemn the media for a missed opportunity. She believes that there are issues that should be brought to our attention but instead we’re bombarded with media that is obsessed with celebrity and fame. For instance, 1/3 of pregnant women in Africa have HIV and there are drugs that will prevent the transmission from mother to child. Programs like Lennox’ SING campaign are trying to change this lack of attention.

  4. When it comes to social change, we lack a cohesive vision of the future.

    Muhammad Yunus, the father of microcredit, social business and the founder of the Grameen Bank, accepted a special Skoll Award and told the story of why he created the Grameen Bank. He also talked about humanity’s drive to further ourselves with new technology and asked the question:

    “Science fiction has come true. If that works for science, then why don’t we have Social Fiction for our greatest problems? Let’s start creating Social Fiction.” Muhammad Yunus.


    One of the best examples of a compelling vision, or a Social Fiction, as Yunis puts it actually came from Skoll themselves – check the inspiring video below:

  5. Big data is one of the most underused levers we can pull right now to create the greatest impact.
  6. Unfortunately most of it is in the hands of corporations (to a greater extent) who are monetising it for their own good, and governments (to a lesser degree) who don’t know what to do with it. Organisations like Mastadon C, housed at the Open Data Institute, are crunching freely available data to reveal potential savings in national budgets. Mastadon C have proven the UK’s NHS could save £200M by switching from brand drugs to generics – and that’s just the data on one drug.
  7. Measurement is a top priority but few have really figured out how to do it well yet

    There’s a lot of talk about the importance of measurement but I still get the sense that everyone is looking for the right way to measure impact. One initiative that was held up as a step in the right direction is the Social Progress Index. This platform aims to get the world’s nations to compete for social gains rather than just financial ones.

  8. Focus on systems building if you want radical and rapid change

    I attended an inspiring panel with Paul Farmer, Mary Robinson, Rwandan minister for health Agnes BinagwahoDale Dawson, and facilitated by Matthew Bishop from the Economist about what we can learn from Rwanda’s success. The nation has exceeded all expectations in terms of national progress against all indices. Over the last decade it has seen the steepest declines in mortality rates, HIV, and cancer than any other country. What led to this success? Two key factors stood out:

    Coordinate external partners

    “A lot of partners will only go where it’s nice – nice beach. We tell them where to go. Most don’t like that.” Agnes Binagwaho

    Focus on the needs of everyone

    “Systems have to be created with equity, gender equity. Rural poor.” Paul Farmer

    “Civil society is often code for non poor people” Paul farmer

  9. Innovation is key to social change, we need to distribute the tools if we really want global impact.

    I was encouraged by a shared sentiment, that I saw throughout panel debates, delegate led groups and keynote talks, which points to a recognition that we need to spread the tools of innovation to more people globally. Richard Jefferson talked about our biological need for innovation, but that we stand to suffer as a planet if we don’t figure out how to distribute the capabilities of innovation to as many people as we can.

    ‘In the future, I hope we won’t talk about Social Entrepreneurship or need meetings like this because all business will be social, it’ll just be the way we get stuff done’

    ‘There’s no better way to stem a species than to stem innovation’

    Richard Jefferson