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 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to create the Social Stability Model, a path to maximize global investment in support of the United Nations’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Social stability

Imagine if we could persuade the world’s 100 largest investment funds, which together control more than $25 trillion, to invest just one percent of their holdings in programs that build social stability and improve the quality of life in countries where they invest? That’s the audacious idea behind Bretton Woods II, an initiative of the Washington, DC think tank New America, where Jeff Leitner is a Fellow.

For his part, Leitner is developing the Social Sustainability Model to maximize the impact of Bretton Woods II investments. Development of the model includes two key steps: demonstrate to investors that investments in social stability will result in higher economic returns; and map the most efficient path for building social stability.

The first step – demonstrating to investors that investments in social stability will result in higher economic returns – is largely complete. The preliminary findings were definitive: “A nation’s social stability has extremely high positive correlations with both its economic competitiveness and the ease of doing business there. The correlations are 0.78 and .80, respectively, and remain positive across all geographic regions and nearly all strata of stability.”

The second step – map the most efficient path for building social stability – is underway. Leitner is partnering with the Paris-based OECD to survey several hundred experts around the world in development economics, political science and sociology, enlisting them to help sequence the United Nations’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Leitner 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

un-for-site

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 a foundational framework for social innovation, 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.

GreenHouse has developed a methodology – and is working on a technology – to help potential social innovators with the first two steps: revealing norms and identifying deviants. The framework and methodology are being taught in-depth at USC as part of the nation’s first doctorate in social innovation and will be fully explored in the first-ever casebook on social innovation.

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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