Insight Labs

In 2010, GreenHouse principals launched the first-ever philanthropic think tank. In only five years, Insight Labs engaged more than 750 big thinkers from business, government, philanthropy, academia and the arts to solve problems on behalf of 45 public, private and social-sector institutions – tackling challenges as diverse as international diplomacy, healthcare, public education, social impact investing and cultural development.

They get the job done

You might think the best way to supercharge American entrepreneurialism is tax incentives or business education. But in our work with the University of Illinois, we discovered the most efficient way to increase the number of start-ups: relax immigration restrictions.

After investigating the key traits of entrepreneurs, we concluded that no group ticks as many boxes as immigrants from countries that are less free to countries that are more free.

“If there were some other measure – if we knew that left-handed people were more entrepreneurial – then I would say that we should hire more left-handed people or let more left-handed people into the country,” said University of Chicago professor Pablo Montagnes, whom we consulted on the project. “But we don’t have a measure like that. The measure we do have is a desire to take a risk and move to the United States for a particular reason. …

“The U.S. is best at creating these kinds of opportunities for people. If people want these kinds of opportunities, we should be the ones who let them take advantage of them. Often the immigration debate is about illegals stealing jobs from Americans. But entrepreneurship is about creating new jobs and new things that would not exist otherwise.”

Relationship Rx

Amidst all the talk of new drugs and breakthrough technologies, many people forget that relationships are the unassailable key to medical care. We dug deep into those relationships in a couple of projects, including one profiled in Harvard Medical School News.

The subject of the story was our work with Family Van, a Harvard-based mobile health clinic serving disadvantaged neighborhoods in the Boston area. In that work, we learned that what made Family Van – and actually, all mobile health clinics – successful was not the way the vehicles traveled from community to community, but the kind of relationships they formed while they were there.

“If the systems in the medical field understand that medicine is more effective in a relationship between a caregiver and a patient,” Jeff Leitner said in the piece, “they will embrace it as a challenge they face and be more willing to utilize mobile medicine to its fullest.”

We also examined medical relationships – specifically, those driven by the patients – in our work with a health care start-up. We expanded on our work in this area through development of the advanced practice nursing program at the USC Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and in Health Plus Social, our published inquiry into the social determinants of health and professional education.

Killer norms

Creativity in big corporations will die without the right social norms to sustain it. With design executives from Starbucks, Herman Miller, Johnson & Johnson, and the BBC, we isolated those norms and the structures that keep them healthy and alive.

Together, we identified four models by which corporations successfully nurture and protect creativity. One, for example, requires the corporation to leverage the natural cycle of reinvention and maximization.

From our report: “There are times when the people who are itching to develop a new product or plan must sit back and come up with tactics to harvest the benefits of what has already been built. Similarly, the folks responsible for the next earnings statement or report to the board need to remember that creative types always need some level of stimulus if they are to exercise their brilliance and bring about the next spring.

“Conversation between the maximizers and the reinventors is be made possible by a common understanding of the organization’s place in the natural cycle.”

Past trauma, present action

The world’s genocide museums successfully ensure that we never forget history’s most horrific events. But these institutions can do so much more, we concluded in our work with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.

Specifically, genocide museums can build a movement from visitors who are sufficiently touched by their experiences to incorporate lessons into their own lives. If enough visitors are transformed, the resulting movement would be an unprecedented force for good and a breakwall against future atrocities.

“The experience of the Holocaust could ultimately help people to make sense of what is going on in other conflict situations,” said former U.S. congressman Toby Moffett, who collaborated with us on the project. “To be a fountain of know-how and information and technical assistance, while at the same time not relinquishing the main idea of the Holocaust as history’s greatest case study – I think it’s very exciting.”

This work informed our later work in Rwanda, in which we explored alterations of the museum experience that could produce transformed visitors.

Food, sunshine and love

There’s a movement today that argues the arts should occupy an equal place with math and science in school curricula. But in work we did on behalf of the Creative Coalition, we came away with a radically different perspective.

We concluded that enthusiasm for the STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering, and math — runs so high on the education scene not just because those subjects lead to high-profile jobs, but because student performance in STEM is easily measured in objective terms. If that’s the scorecard, art doesn’t stand a chance.

But what can be objectively shown is that humans need art to thrive, in the same way they need food, sunshine and love. Therefore, schools must absolutely fight for art’s place within their walls — just not in the same way they aim to raise SAT scores.

“In today’s schools, no curricular subject (even STEM) claims to increase quality of life metrics — there isn’t even a place to declare victory if they do,” our report read. “But social programs do, from school breakfast programs to mandatory vaccination plans. These programs ultimately succeeded when the benefits they provided were viewed as every child’s right — researchers track what happens when kids don’t get a measles shot or a hot breakfast. We should start talking about art’s impact with the same urgency.”

We were enlisted for this work by Tim Daly, president of the Creative Coalition. It is one of several projects in which we’ve untangled the social norms related to art, including those in hospitals and corporations.

Change the world to what?

The humanities are frequently dismissed as useless. Yet we at GreenHouse have come to believe there is virtually no discipline better suited to solving the world’s toughest challenges.

This isn’t because of any one particular thing that students of humanities know. On the contrary, it’s because of their feel for the unknown and uncertain, for the shifting terrain of the human condition where one finds the root of all social problems.

“Every time I hear the phrase ‘Change the world,'” Howell Malham Jr. said, “I think ‘Change the world to what?’ The humanities can help us figure out what to change the world to.”

We first uncovered this hidden power in a project with the state humanities councils of Illinois and Indiana. We explored the idea further in our work with Humanities Without Walls, training doctoral students at 15 research universities.