Jeff Leitner

Leitner is a founder and managing director of GreenHouse, The Center of Social Innovation. He is also Innovator in Residence at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, Bretton Woods II Fellow at New America, and founder and director of UX for Good, Leitner founded and ran Insight Labs and social sector initiatives related to job training, youth development, public policy and basic human needs. He also founded and ran private sector consultancies oriented to public affairs and cause marketing, worked for fourteen years as a political strategist, lobbyist and public affairs consultant, and worked for seven years as a political and government affairs reporter. A more detailed bio is available here.

Transcendent interest

The single most essential element of collaboration – of cooperative efforts at any scale – is an inadequately understood idea called transcendent interest. This is what GreenHouse unearthed at the request of the world-renown TED Conferences, which was looking to boost participation in and impact of its annual, global TED Prize.

“I’m not talking about a win-win, where our interests overlap. It’s something that lives up here – above our interests, a grander concern,” Jeff Leitner said in a subsequent address on transcendent interest to the Kellogg Innovation Network. “Let me tell you what it’s not: it’s not a homeowners’ association; it’s not the EU; and it’s not cooperation, in which I help you move your couch upstairs and you give me a beer. That’s a win-win. It’s not simply a sublimation of interests. It’s beyond that.”

GreenHouse has successfully isolated a few of transcendent interest’s key features. For example, transcendent interest requires suspension of individual identities; it renders original interests hollow and it utilizes an untapped element that wasn’t being accessed in previous interactions between the parties.

Laissez les bon temps rouler

In only its second year, our UX for Good initiative won the user experience design industry’s People’s Choice Award for our work with The GRAMMY Foundation and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation to improve economic conditions for the city’s professional musicians.

UX for Good – the brainchild of GreenHouse and Jason Ulaszek – enlists a dozen top user experience designers from around the world to join in resolving a complex social challenge. In addition to our efforts in New Orleans, we have worked in Vancouver at the behest of the Dalai Lama Center for Peace + Education and in Rwanda with the Kigali Genocide Memorial.

Our work in New Orleans also fulfilled our commitment as members of the Clinton Global Initiative.

It’s not bullsh*t

Quick! Before the very real power of empathy gets converted into hundreds of meaningless business offerings, let’s try to really understand and unleash it for substantive social change. That was the central idea in Jeff Leitner’s remarks to the annual conference of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters.

Leitner dug into how empathy resulting from shared experiences can be engineered and scaled. Incidentally, this introductory video was prepared for the conference, but never seen – thanks to every presenter’s nightmare: a complete meltdown of the audio-visual system.

Fellow American

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For a century, think tanks played an increasingly important, but relatively limited role in American life: provide lawmakers in Washington, DC with well-researched policy recommendations. But New America, launched in 1999, was the first in a new, disruptive wave of think tanks, enlisting younger, hipper intellectuals to reach beyond the Beltway into Silicon Valley and America’s cities; to build the very programs for which they advocated; and to engage the public directly. At the time, Esquire Magazine suggested New America “might become the only think tank that matters.”

In 2015, Jeff Leitner was named a Fellow at New America, where he works on an audacious effort – called Bretton Woods II – to redirect global investment of $25 trillion and build social stability around the world.

“Opportunities don’t come much bigger,” said New America Senior Fellow and former U.S. State Department official Tomicah Tillemann, who recruited Leitner for the effort. “We’re living in a world with a huge quantum of capital and a huge quantum of problems.”

For his part on Bretton Woods II, Leitner is partnering with the Paris-based OECD to create the first-ever, logical sequencing of the United Nations’s Sustainable Development Goals.

The Right Order

It has been estimated it will cost upwards of $45 trillion over the next 15 years to fulfill the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, the centerpiece of a global effort to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all.

But until now, there has been no logical path to meeting the 17 goals. Jeff Leitner has released the first-ever sequencing of the SDGs, the result of a survey of economists, political scientists and social scientists around the world, working in public institutions, think tanks, universities, foundations, and civil society organizations.

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The sequencing was done in partnership with OECD and New America, where Leitner is a Fellow. He was enlisted in this effort by former U.S. State Department official Tomicah Tillemann, with whom GreenHouse has worked to re-design international organizations and U.S. support of emerging democracies.

Hope restored

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Genocide museums – like those in Rwanda, Germany and Washington, DC – are extraordinarily important institutions, ensuring that the atrocities they chronicle are never forgotten. But the museums are not terribly effective at enlisting volunteers in preventing future atrocities.

That’s because the institutions follow a proven, predictable path: introduce visitors to horrific events through facts, artifacts and stories, which leave them smarter but shaken. We discovered a new path: by re-introducing hope and humanity within the museum experience, the institution allows visitors to recover their emotional balance and imagine themselves joining the fight.

The research was part of our UX for Good initiative, in which GreenHouse and Jason Ulaszek invite a dozen top user experience designers from around the world to join us in resolving a complex social challenge. The initiative produced the Inzovu Curve, a model that has guided modifications in Rwanda and helped designers map the emotional impact of institutions around the world.

UX for Good was launched in 2011, has worked at the behest of The GRAMMY Foundation and the Dalai Lama Center for Peace + Education, and has won the user experience design industry’s top award.

Norm, deviant and diffuse

Social innovation is very serious business, with profound human consequences. But it has been largely misinterpreted: as creativity, as an expression of noble character or as a pretense to teach business and entrepreneurial skills. In response, GreenHouse has developed and publicly released a foundational framework for social innovation – called Innovation Dynamics – grounded in both social science and empirical research over seven years of projects in the public, private, social and academic sectors.

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At its core, social innovation involves three steps: revealing the social norm that holds the undesirable conditions in place; identifying or creating a deviant from that norm; and diffusing the deviance through a sufficient number and breadth of reference groups.

The methodology is being taught in universities – including in the first-ever professional doctorate in social innovation – and in the private sector, and is now available to the public.

Counter-intuitive

Images from the Insight Labs discussion January 20, 2012. Photos by JasonSmith.com
Photo by JasonSmith.com

Nearly everybody gets brainstorming wrong. That’s the central idea of an interview in Forbes with Jeff Leitner, about halfway through our five-year run of leading Insight Labs.

“Don’t brainstorm. I know that’s deeply counter-intuitive, but brainstorming in a group is a waste of the group’s inherent value. We believe strongly that an idea we create collectively – you say something, I add something, you challenge, I improve, etc. – is infinitely more valuable than an idea that one of us generates alone, even if the collective idea isn’t quite right.

“Brainstorming, as it’s generally proselytized, is a solitary activity practiced together. You don’t need collaborators for that.”

We launched Insight Labs in 2010, and in only five years, 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.

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