Connecting Changemakers: The Global Innovation Series' First Year

“Innovation is such a buzzword.”

“The most innovative solutions come from the community.”

“Innovation is about humility.”

“Innovation is central to what we do.”

Baljeet Sandhu, Fauziya Ali, and Joy Olivier speak during a Global Innovation Series event.

Baljeet Sandhu, Fauziya Ali, and Joy Olivier speak during a Global Innovation Series event.

All of these lines were heard over the course of the Global Innovation Series, a talk series that launched last fall as a partnership between Yale’s Maurice R. Greenberg World Fellows Program and the Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale (Tsai CITY). The partnership allowed for a unique convergence, connecting the World Fellows — cross-sector leaders from around the globe who gather at Yale for four months — with the campus’ innovation ecosystem. In 14 events that collectively drew over 400 attendees, the Global Innovation Series’ first year offered space to explore how these global changemakers realize new ideas, using the word “innovation” — which, indeed, is often reduced to a buzzword — as a frame for cross-disciplinary conversations. To open each talk, series creator Baljeet Sandhu, a former World Fellow who is now building the Knowledge Equity Initiative as innovator-in-residence at CITY, posed a seemingly simple question: “What does innovation mean to you?”

From the series’ start, it was clear that the answers would be far from simple. In panel discussions, World Fellows who work in fields from humanitarian aid to military leadership complicated the concept of innovation, looking beyond popular focuses on entrepreneurship or technology to consider the core elements of changing existing systems and imagining new futures. One of the fall’s first talks, in fact, centered on an organization often criticized for appearing to move slowly: the United Nations. World Fellows Elpida Rouka, who most recently served as Chief of Staff, Office of the Special Envoy for Syria at the UN, and Rita Sciarra, currently Strategic Advisor for UNDP Mexico, joined a panel discussion titled “Blue Innovation: Innovations within UN Work that You Hear Little About.” Pointing out that much of the UN’s work takes place not in its New York headquarters, but on the ground in communities around the world, Rouka and Sciarra shared their very different experiences within the UN’s vast infrastructure. Asked about innovation in the midst of crisis, Sciarra discussed her role in the UN response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake, while Rouka spoke on e-diplomacy and how using technological tools had opened new communications channels during times of crisis.

Rouka and Sciarra also emphasized the role of community members’ lived experiences shaping on-the-ground innovations, such as the UN’s adoption of Haitian women’s recommendations for a pay structure that would incentivize people to help clear earthquake rubble and allow them to support their families. Reflecting on the talk, Sciarra says, “We were talking about the community, and how community could be involved in innovation, from the start to the end of a process….It’s crucial for communities to have a sense of ownership if you want to create a process that lasts.”

As the series continued, this focus on community-based leadership and investment emerged as a key theme. An October panel, for example, brought together Red Dot Foundation founder ElsaMarie D’Silva and Cocread founder Ralph Francois, leaders with both learned experience and lived experience of the issues they tackle, for a conversation on “Innovations in Technology and Visualization for Human Rights” at Yale’s Center for Collaborative Arts and Media. D’Silva shared her work on Safecity, a platform that gathers lived experience evidence through  stories of sexual harassment and abuse in public spaces and aggregates this data on a map to show local trends for intervention. Francois discussed his leadership of Cocread, which uses art and technology to foster self-sufficient communities, youth leadership, and VR for Resilience, an initiative that uses virtual reality to educate girls in disaster-prone areas about climate change and coding.

Despite these programs’ powerful use of new technologies, both leaders emphasized that while technology could provide useful tools, it wasn’t a solution to societal or environmental problems in itself. Highlighting the importance of the slower, “unsexy” work of education and cultural change, they argued that a key value of helping others learn about tech tools was that it empowered them to question these tools or to orient technology development toward meaningful applications for their own communities. “I do believe that we need to unpack what innovation means,” says D’Silva, who participated in four Global Innovation Series talks over the course of the fall, “and highlight the different ways it can play out in local and global contexts.”

Several panels zoomed in on specific geographic contexts, connecting cross-sector changemakers from Asia, Latin America, and Africa, respectively. A conversation co-sponsored by the Center for Latin American and Iberian Studies (CLAIS) and La Casa Cultural, for example, provided a look at different elements of Latin America’s government and civil society landscape. Julio Guzman, a politician who founded Peru’s Partido Morado, and Mexican human rights advocate and peace-builder Sylvia Aguilera Garcia focused on the interpersonal side of innovation. “Being innovative in politics means: don’t lie to people,” said Guzman, while Aguilera Garcia advised, “You need the humility to say ‘I need help’ from others to build something bigger.” Speaking after the series’ conclusion, Guzman says he valued “the openness of the audience to think about innovation not only in the traditional ways (science and hard technology), but also in simple concepts, like adopting new and different attitudes and behaviors.”

ElsaMarie D’Silva speaks at the Asian American Cultural Center.

ElsaMarie D’Silva speaks at the Asian American Cultural Center.

In a number of smaller conversations, individual World Fellows gave attendees an up-close view of how these seemingly “simple concepts” had played out in their own lives, sharing the approaches that had allowed them to break boundaries in their fields. In one talk co-sponsored by the Asian American Cultural Center (AACC) and the Asian Network at Yale (ANY), South Korean army major Dongyoun Cho shared how she had risen to a leadership role as a woman in the military. Though some of the discussion covered “big-picture” innovation, like rethinking security policy or imagining the military of the future, she also shared the smaller innovations that had allowed her to navigate bureaucracy and change organizational culture — such as installing a library in her military base, allowing soldiers to feel at home and learn as they prepared not just for the next day, but for their longer-term futures. For Joliana Yee, director of the AACC (which co-sponsored four Global Innovation Series events), this opportunity for students and community members to hear from global leaders on a personal level held a unique power. “The three Fellows we hosted [for smaller individual talks] were Asian women,” says Yee. “That resonated for me, to see them being leaders in their fields, often in highly male-dominant environments, and how they were just really very persistent. They felt incredibly humble and real and relatable, in spite of everything they’ve achieved.”

Ultimately, many of the series’ participants — from World Fellows and campus staff to the students and New Haven residents who attended the talks — characterized these kinds of personal connections as a primary success of the series. “Loved the on-the-ground perspectives from people who have faced really challenging scenarios,” wrote one attendee in a post-event survey, while another participant wrote, “Really moved by the World Fellows’ perspectives on participation and ownership.” The Fellows echoed this sentiment, with many noting that the series had allowed them to engage with people and communities across campus that they otherwise might not have met in their short stay at Yale. Reflecting on the series, ElsaMarie D’Silva says, “The participation of the audience and genuine curiosity to learn more were my biggest takeaways. I love talking about my work and some of the sessions were two hours long, yet we ended up speaking for the entire time.”

Now, CITY and the World Fellows Program are looking ahead to next year, hoping to build on the success of the inaugural Global Innovation Series. In the meantime, the impact of this first series may continue to be felt at Yale, as students and community members act on ideas sparked through the series’ discussions. “The Fellows’ perspective was really fresh on [issues] that may feel like we’ve talked about for so long and have no solutions for,” says Yee, noting that she saw students furiously scribbling notes as Fellows discussed issues they’re passionate about.

Baljeet Sandhu with Michael Kalisa and Ibou Niang at a Global Innovation Series event.

Baljeet Sandhu with Michael Kalisa and Ibou Niang at a Global Innovation Series event.

As they continue their partnership, CITY and the World Fellows Program aim to create more of these moments, bringing a unique global perspective to Yale’s growing innovation ecosystem. “The Global Innovation Series is a crucial addition to the conversation around innovation at Yale because it brings global innovators into conversation alongside aspiring young changemakers and local leaders from New Haven,” says Sandhu. “It allows for an exchange of ideas and solutions from around the world; grounding discussions in practice; connecting local and global change-making strategies, whilst helping us to better understand the combined value and power of learned experience alongside lived experiences [direct first-hand experience of social and environmental issues] to lead transformational and systemic change. This framework establishes the foundation of knowledge equity necessary for innovation to address some of the world’s most pressing issues.”

On a cold December night, a crowd filled a room in Yale’s Afro-American Cultural Center for the fall season’s final event, a panel with Rwandan lawyer and transitional justice expert Michael Kalisa and creative activist Ibou Niang, who serves as Head of the Open Society Initiative for West Africa Guinea country office. Over the course of the evening’s lively event, the conversation reflected many of the themes that had emerged throughout the series: community, context, and the value of innovations both big and small, fast and slow. At one point, Kalisa observed, “We don’t change things to be fixed — it’s a continuous process. Innovation is about new opportunities for a new context.” As the event came to a close, the crowd got to its feet for a standing ovation, then began to mingle and strike up new conversations. Over the next months, these ongoing conversations would pave the way for further events with World Fellows, visiting speakers, and the 2019 Neighbors in Residence — connecting local and global leaders in the continuous process of innovating for impact.

2018-2019 Global Innovation Series event partners and guests included the Maurice R. Greenberg World Fellows Program, Yale Law School’s Information Society Project, Yale School of Architecture, Dwight Hall the Center for Public Service and Social Justice, the Asian American Cultural Center, the Asian Network at Yale, the South Asian Club, the Center for Collaborative Arts and Media, the Council on Latin American and Iberian Studies, La Casa Cultural, the Afro-American Cultural Center, Tanya Sharma, Shruthi Basavaraj, Daphnée Charles, Louino Robillard, Susan Harris, Virginia Spell, Mohamad Hafez, and Maria Adebowale-Schawarte.

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Laura Mitchell