CGI: Designing—and Powering—a Better World

The Clinton Global Initiative kicks off with a paean to the importance of designing solutions that can scale up.

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Global problems—in health, in the economy, in the environment—begin and end with design. An intelligently designed system can make success inevitable, and a poorly designed one can make it impossible. Too often we react to global threats after the fact, our responses hamstrung by underperforming and outmoded systems. If we’re going to fix the world—and it takes only a cursory glance at the headlines to reveal that it needs fixing—we need to start with design.

That was the takeaway message as the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) opened up its annual meeting in New York. The theme this year: “designing for impact.” Former President Bill Clinton put it simply in his opening address: “Today we want to talk about how you can design your actions in advance to make it more likely they will succeed.”

And it’s not just about designing a single elegant solution that might work for a single problem in a single country. It’s about designing—in advance—solutions that can scale up to the national, regional and even global level. “We need to plan for scale from the beginning,” said Dr. Jim Yong Kim, the new president of the World Bank, speaking on an opening plenary panel with Clinton, Wal Mart CEO Mike Duke, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon and Queen Rania of Jordan—a collection that is about as CGI as you can get. “Designing for impact means taking that scale seriously.”

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The CGI annual meeting is the apotheosis of philanthrocapitalism—big companies and world leaders meeting NGOs to solve major global problems, with the 42nd President of the U.S. overseeing it all. It’ll continue for the next several days, a kind of West Side counterpart to the U.N. General Assembly meeting that will be unfolding this week on Manhattan’s East Side. By the end of the summit billions will likely have been pledged by CGI members to address climate change, water issues, poverty, education and—a particular focus for CGI this year—female empowerment. And we need the help, as several speakers made clear. “I’m going to sound the alarm bell about the situation we’re living in,” said the UN’s Ban. “It’s an era of insecurity, injustice, inequality and intolerance.”

Obviously Ban didn’t read Clinton’s cover story on “The Case for Optimism” in this week’s TIME. But if Ban was a bit gloomy—and given the challenges of trying to lead the UN on intractable issues like Syria and climate change, I don’t blame him—other speakers were much more optimistic, confident the world’s problems can be fixed with very rich people backing very smart ideas.

One example was  introduced by Tim Brown, the CEO of the design group IDEO. The lack of proper sewage is a major problem globally, and nearly 40% of the world’s population lacks regular access to a clean toilet. IDEO is working with the corporate giant Unilever on the excellently named WSUP, Water Sanitation for the Urban Poor to provide better sanitation to poor urban areas. That includes a program to help entrepreneurs rent out portable toilets. It’s sustainable in the best way, a business model that also helps fix a major health challenge. It’s also an example of designing for impact in the best way possible. “Great design is anything that meets the need of the community that it is developed for,” said Brown.

The challenge—which will be taken up throughout this week at CGI’s annual meeting—will mean figuring out ways to scale up that kind fo design, all the way to the size of the planet.

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