They’re Unreasonable Because They Think They Know the Future

At a time when most of us are confused and uncertain about what the future might hold, leading social entrepreneurs brim over with confidence. They know that the best way to predict the future is to create it and the best way to build momentum—and attract funding and other resources—is to develop and communicate a clear vision of how things might be different. These entrepreneurs see a bigger picture, sometimes mulling it over for decades. For them, Winston Churchill’s adage that the further you can see back, the further you can see forward holds true.

Anyone looking for clues on how to spur innovation and creativity in the real world should listen to David Galenson, the economist whose work in this area started pretty much by accident. He was spurred to wonder—while bidding for a painting at auction— about links between the age of artists at the time they create a piece of artwork and its subsequent fame and price at auction. This led him to what some have described as the “unified field theory of creativity,” distinguishing between two broad types of innovators.

Conceptual innovators are revolutionaries, break with the past, are blessed with certainty, know what they want, and tend to bloom early, like Picasso in painting, Mozart in music, and Orson Welles in film. Experimental innovators, by contrast, include people like Cézanne in art, Beethoven in music, and Alfred Hitchcock in film. They tend to proceed in fits and starts, work endlessly to perfect their technique, move slowly toward goals they don’t totally understand, and as a result, never know when a work is finished. Interestingly, many experimental innovators—including great entrepreneurs like Edison and Ford—didn’t die early.9 Instead, they tinkered on into ripe old age.
As Galenson explored the patterns of creativity in others areas, such as architecture and economics, he began to realize that these two fundamental types of genius could be found across all forms of human creativity and endeavor. Over time, too, he came to understand that innovators aren’t either conceptual or experimental, but that they can be located along a continuum, with conceptual innovators at one end and experimental innovators at the other. As he dug deeper, he concluded that since economic activity is all about value creation, then investors, companies, governments, and business schools need to wake up to these differences and support both types of innovators.

The entrepreneurs we profile are all very much experimental in how they operate, but most are also conceptual thinkers. They are also optimists, confident that it is possible to change the world for the better. And, again, they are ambitious. “I think the ultimate challenge of sustainable business,” HydroGen president Joshua Tosteson explained during an Investors’ Circle survey, “is how to undercut the compelling advantages of economies of scale with quality-focused business models. In 10 years’ time, there will be no distinction between a ‘social venture’ and most major businesses— it will be a sine qua non of business going forward.”

At their best, such people see things others do not. They draw conclusions that others cannot. They instinctively reframe challenges as opportunities, looking well beyond today’s horizons. In the process, they offer those in the mainstream a way of getting a glimpse of the social and environmental drivers that will shape the future. Take China. The country’s population may stabilize at around 1.5 billion people sometime in the 2030s, but those with the eyes to see suspect that China will grow old before it grows rich. Worse, because of the way its one-child policy has favored the birth of boys, the country will be short of 30 million brides within fifteen years. The social, economic, and environmental implications are likely to be profound, and the efforts of people like social entrepreneur Wu Qing, who founded the Beijing Cultural Development Center for Rural Women to help raise the status and expectations of rural Chinese women, will be central.

Many social entrepreneurs are focusing their efforts where the bulk of the world’s population will be by the 2030s: the swarming megacities. Every year, some 70 million people leave their rural homes and migrate to cities. It is estimated that, by 2030, there will be some 2 billion squatters in the world—most living in what Robert Neuwirth has called “shadow cities,” or megaslums. These people are busily building a huge hidden economy. “Squatters are the largest builders of housing in the world,” says Neuwirth, “and they are creating the cities of tomorrow.” Anyone looking for clues about how a world of 7 billion to 10 billion people might be made survivable, let alone sustainable, ought to focus on—and support— social entrepreneurs, including such people as Tasneem Siddiqui in Pakistan, Sheela Patel and Jockin Arputham in India, and Taffy Adler in South Africa.