Commercial software and social innovation

ITConversations, the channel where my weekly podcast appears, has a sister channel called Social Innovation Conversations, which is an initiative of Stanford’s Center for Social Innovation. Over the weekend, while working around the house and yard, I caught up on my SIConversations listening. One compelling episode was a conversation with Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods. The two met initially after Mackey responded to criticism, in Pollan’s book, that Whole Foods is fostering the industrialization of the organic movement. Here’s a review of their joint appearance at Berkeley, which helpfully includes links to the back-and-forth correspondence published prior to the event.

I should probably take it for granted, by now, that issues raised in that book (which I haven’t yet read) are being discussed by the author and one of his subjects. And that those ongoing discussions are available to everybody in written form as well as in audio and video. And that the reactions to those ongoing discussions are similarly available to everybody. But somehow I can’t yet take any of this for granted. It still amazes me every day.

In any event, one of the points Mackey makes in that conversation is that although there are certainly problems associated with large-scale commercial production of organic food, it’s not inherently a bad idea to operate such a business at scale. On the contrary, sustaining a business at scale is part of what will make it possible to sustain a healthier food network.

That’s a common refrain on SIConversations. Most speakers believe, and argue, and in many cases have proved, that the changes they seek — in the realms of food, energy, health, and the environment — not only represent sound business opportunities and, in fact, but can only be accomplished with the help of sound business practices. So I was a bit surprised by the following comment from Nic Frances in another episode of SIConversations featuring three social entrepreneurs who “discuss what is takes to unleash the power of business to make the world a better place.” He said:

I looked at Microsoft and Gates, and thought, this man has changed AIDS like nobody else has on the planet. He has brought more money than has ever been brought to the issue. He’s brought the focus of somebody who knows how to grow a business. And he said ‘We’re going to change it.’ But actually if you really wanted to change AIDS or poverty in the world, what you would do is give away Microsoft free as an open platform for people to share information.

That was an oddly discordant note. Why would a social innovator who sees business opportunity everywhere else see none in software? Now of course, software is a very different kind of commodity from food, energy, or healthcare. But it’s also a fundamental enabler of the reorganization of the networks that deliver those commodities. Free software will play a key role in that reorganization, and so will commercial software. I’d love to hear an SIConversations show that explores the business opportunity for commercial software as an enabler of social innovation.

5 Comments

  1. Maybe Frances is just not elaborating enough on his comment. It would make sense for Microsoft to extend FREE or LIGHT versions of software as part of their social efforts that would accomplish some of these goals and ultimately create new user adoption of the Windows platform.

    I would hope if pressed more Frances would elaborate…

  2. “But actually if you really wanted to change AIDS or poverty in the world, what you would do is give away Microsoft free as an open platform for people to share information.”

    Of course Mr Francis ignores the rather obvious problem that Gates doesn’t OWN microsoft; even though he is a major shareholder, they are not his assets to give away free.

    This sort of fuzzy logic detracts from Nic’s obviously well intentioned message…

  3. “I looked at Microsoft and Gates, and thought, this man has changed AIDS like nobody else has on the planet. He has brought more money than has ever been brought to the issue.”

    It seems like a lot of people make statements like that. As much as I admire the Gates Foundation’s work, and Bill Gates generosity, I think people too easily lose track of the financial scope of individuals, corporations, and governments, even if they’re really really rich individuals. While Bill Gates has undoubtedly brought more philanthropic money than any individual or corporation to focus on health issues, it doesn’t hold a candle to state funded aid and research. Governments are really, really big.

    Fortunately, my understanding is that the Gates Foundation focuses on using its grants to leverage the resources of much bigger actors out there, not replace them, which seems like an excellent approach.

    Anyway, sorry, I know that’s off-topic, and I know Jon was quoting someone else, not agreeing with them ;)

  4. “I’d love to hear an SIConversations show that explores the business opportunity for commercial software as an enabler of social innovation.”

    While not as altruistic as alternative fuel sources and eradicating AIDS, I wonder if the public opening of iTunes U couldn’t plant the seeds of innovation: shared awareness and knowledge.

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