Finding the silver lining: 10 social innovations shaping our communities

 In Arts and Culture, Community, Environment, Public Lands


“Far away there in the sunshine are my highest aspirations. I may not reach them, but I can look up and see their beauty, believe in them, and try to follow where they lead.” ~ Louisa May Alcott

People like to be optimistic, even in times of crisis. We need to see opportunity and set goals – from end-of-the-year stories to New Year’s resolutions and to predictions for the year and decade to come. Many of us are ready for a decade that builds on the most promising movements, ideas and innovations of recent years. In celebration of progress, I predict the following ten social innovations will continue to positively shape our communities.

      • Green business. Over the last few years of the decade, going “green” became very popular for U.S. consumers and for the business sector, where the concepts of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and the triple bottom line (people, planet, profit) took off.
      • Graduate business programs focused on sustainability and the “Green MBA”emerged.
      • Climate change activism. More people and businesses recognized that anthropogenic climate change is real and will have environmental and economic consequences – and set out to do something about it. Was the tipping point Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth of 2006?
      • Plastic bag bans. Plastic bags are a significant cause of pollution in the San Francisco Bay. The cities of Fairfax, Palo Alto and San Francisco, have banned plastic bags at larger retailers, as have Berkeley’s Farmers Markets run by the Ecology Center. In Washington D.C. stores selling food or alcohol now charge 5 cents for bags with revenue going to a river protection fund.
      • Bay-friendly landscaping has become a popular way of reducing water use and planting for the benefit of local wildlife.
      • Daylighting urban creeks and rain gardens. In the East Bay, creek advocates continue to revitalize creek habitat as opportunities arise. This interesting story also describes innovative ways one city is capturing rain water and reducing pollution of waterways.
      • Living Roofs. Also called green roofs, this innovation in building construction known to help absorb rainfall, insulate, create wildlife habitat and lower urban air temperatures became a popular attraction at the California Academy of Sciences this past year. Literacy for Environmental Justice is constructing one on top of an EcoCenter in southeast San Francisco.
    3. FOOD
      • Food systems and economies. Yes! Magazine features an enlightening series on topics from urban farming to protecting local farms.
      • Take it slow. The Slow Money Alliance is an emerging network of investors, donors, farmers, and activists committed to building local food economies. The Slow Food movement also continues to grow.
      • Food justice. Some underserved communities now have grocery stores selling healthy foods for the first time such as this one in West Oakland.
      • Microenterprise. The development of microenterprise and microfinancing is not new, but with the popularity of nonprofit social enterprise organizations like the Acumen Fund and Kiva, this movement is growing stronger, internationally and locally. In March 2009, Acumen Fund founder Jacqueline Novogratz published the inspirational book, The Blue Sweater. Locally, several Bay Area foundations have prioritized microenterprise development in their giving portfolios with an emphasis on empowering low income women of color and immigrants.
      • Social entrepreneurism. This past year, The HUB, a global network of co-working centers for social innovators, came to the Bay Area thanks to support from Good Capital, Social Capital Markets Media and a small circle of angel investors. The first location is in Berkeley’s David Brower Center, and a second one is on the horizon for downtown San Francisco.
      • Green jobs movement. For a good part of the last decade Van Jones successfully made the case for simultaneously solving socioeconomic inequality and environmental problems. In January 2009, The New Yorker published a feature about Jones. The successes of the Green for All campaign demonstrate how nonprofits can influence public policy. Another project, the Women’s Economic Security Campaign, published a report specific to creating opportunities for low income women in the green economy.
      • Reinventing regional journalism. At a time when newspapers nationwide and locally are facing a crippling economic crisis and the traditional business models for journalism no longer work, foundations and donors are funding new nonprofit journalism ventures. In 2010, a new journalism organization focused on engaging communities in civic and community news will launch in the Bay Area.
      • Museums are creating more interactive and visitor-centered exhibits using new media tools and more input from the public. Allowing visitors to experience a sense of place and community will also be important. While some visitors might complain that museum admission has become too expensive in the Bay Area, most museums offer a monthly free day, and memberships are a bargain if you visit regularly.
      • Libraries in the digital age. In the economic downturn, libraries have seen a rise in patrons. In this San Francisco Chronicle article writer Tim Holt describes libraries as community gathering places “where anyone can read the newspaper, check e-mails, do homework or just sit and enjoy a safe and quiet space.” Like other traditional institutions, the role of libraries is changing in the digital age. The librarian has a new role in teaching lessons about “the reliability — or lack thereof — of information on the Internet.”
      • Health benefits.The Washington Post reported that doctors are sending patients outdoors for physical and mental benefits.
      • Parks and community health. The Trust for Public Land President Will Rogers published an article on the Huffington Post, linking urban parks to community health.
      • Nature deficit disorder. A new report aims to reverse an alarming trend: 30% of teens do not participate in outdoor nature activities.
      • The importance of play. This past year the Oakland-based Playworks (formerly Sports4kids) launched its first conference, PlayOn dedicated to the importance of play.
      • More choose bikes for transportation. The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition announced on their Web site that “2009 was a year of unprecedented success with a whopping 53% increase in bicycle ridership.”
      • Pavement to parks and livable streets: San Francisco is leading initiatives to make paved areas into parks and periodically close streets to traffic to encourage recreation.
      • Education reform. Schools and nonprofit educational programs are calling for closing the achievement gap. Federal “Race to the Top” grant applications are due January 19 and awards will go to States that are “leading the way with ambitious yet achievable plans for implementing coherent, compelling, and comprehensive education reform.” What is California doing?
      • Healthcare reform. In late December when the Senate passed its version of health care reform, social media devoted more attention to the subject than it had at any time this year according to the Pew Research Center.
      • Advancing equal rights. When San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom ordered City Hall to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples soon after taking office in 2004, gay marriage and rights received national attention. While there have been many setbacks along the way, considerable progress has been made. 2010 will also mark the first time the U.S. Census will count same-sex couples.

Of course, the list goes on. Feel free to send in additional innovation highlights via comments.

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