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01 May. 2014 | Comments (0)

NASA astronaut Ron Garan lived on the international space station for six months in 2011. During that expedition, Garan says, he spent his spare time staring out the window pondering this question: “If we have the resources and the technology to solve the challenges we face, why do these challenges persist?”

Back on earth, Ron founded Fragile Oasis, an organization to help people and institutions work together to meet global challenges, and the digital marketing firm Impact CoLab, which helps purpose-driven brands propel their efforts through social media campaigns, creating grassroots global movements around efforts to improve life on Earth. Both organizations are guided by what Ron calls “the orbital perspective” of men and women who live and work in space. Here he discusses why the orbital perspective is relevant to business and corporate philanthropy.

Q: Can you explain what you mean by the orbital perspective?

A: Seeing the Earth from the vantage point of space provides a unique perspective. The orbital perspective is the recognition of the undeniable and sobering contradiction between the staggering beauty of our planet and the unfortunate realities of life on our planet for many of its inhabitants. But it’s more than just an awareness of this contradiction; it’s what I like to call elevated empathy and also a willingness to embrace the mindset that nothing is impossible. It’s the conviction that we do not have to accept that the suffering and conflict on our planet is inescapable. It’s the acknowledgement that we live in a world in which our exponentially increasing technological advancements and interconnectivity are making the impossible possible on a daily basis.

Q: How can considering the orbital perspective help to improve corporate social responsibility and corporate philanthropy?

A: Corporate social responsibility (CSR) has been viewed in the past solely as a tool that management can use to improve a brand’s image. Thankfully, we are moving away from that mindset to one in which a brand actually seeks to achieve social good through CSR practices. CSR (from the orbital perspective)places the creation of social good as a core business tenet throughout the entire organization, not one that is stuck in a silo. In such a situation, the social, environmental, and ethical aspects of every business decision must be carefully considered, not only because we have a responsibility to do so, but also because not doing so will have a significant effect on the bottom line. We live in an age of transparency and openness, with a public that has been empowered to scream from the digital mountaintops when corporations are not playing nice with others. Philanthropy can also be considered in the context of the orbital perspective. Doing good might consist of donating some money to a charity. Some good is accomplished in the short term, and you feel good about yourself and your organization—maybe you even received some great press. But pan back and you may see a long-term and big-picture view that is very different. Maybe helping in one area created problems in another; maybe by helping in the short term, you’re actually making the situation worse in the long term. The big picture and long-term effects of any assistance must be carefully weighed.

Q: You say that our inability to collaborate on a global scale is the primary reason we still have social problems. Many of our members struggle to effectively provide grants to international end recipients. How could corporations and nonprofits be better at coming together globally?

A: Although there are literally millions of organizations around the world working to improve life on Earth, for the most part these organizations are not engaged in a unified, coordinated effort. There is a great deal of duplication of effort, loss of efficiency, and unfortunately in many cases, unhealthy competition. Up until very recently we had an excuse: true global collaboration was impossible. But that excuse no longer exists. We are now living in a time of unprecedented interconnectedness. Our challenge is to demonstrate how vital and valuable collaboration is, despite its real and perceived risks. Open collaboration makes solutions more effective and efficient through the pooling of resources and information. Working together multiplies cost effectiveness while reducing duplication of effort. It is the only way to enable economies and solutions of scale.

Perhaps most importantly, collaboration encourages greater accountability, which, in turn, fosters trust. Collaboration usually comes at the expense of building new capabilities in-house. Partnerships can incur high transaction costs, and maintaining relationships takes work. There’s also a lot of confusion about what collaboration means. It doesn’t mean that everyone in a group has to have an equal vote or that any solution has to include all inputs. True collaboration means that different individuals and groups bring together different pieces of the puzzle. Each member contributes something unique and adds value to the group. This type of collaboration leads to solutions that are significantly better than what single members of the group could have created themselves. In the philanthropy field, we need to change the mindset of humanitarian organizations that see peer organizations as competitors for limited philanthropic dollars. Instead, they should be considered potential partners, helping everyone achieve aligned goals. Funding organizations should look for opportunities to create financial incentives to share data and resources, using the philosophy that a rising tide lifts all boats. Whenever possible, incentives for collaboration should be built into grant proposals.

Q: Part of the orbital perspective’s goal to improve collaboration lies in data sharing. Why are big data and data sharing so important to business, and, more specifically, to improving social and environmental impact?

A: Open data and the ability to process and make sense of large stores of data is completely changing the business landscape. Technological advances have led to a world in which the amount of data created is exploding—doubling every two years, according to commonly held wisdom—but our ability to use that data is struggling to keep up. Data provides the fuel for finding more effective ways to address the most critical challenges. Developing countries and communities that know where their most vulnerable people live, that understand the needs they face, and that can determine how best to use available resources are much better equipped to address their own development challenges.

However, data by itself is insufficient; we also need to analyze that data and to translate the analysis into more effective and targeted programming that dramatically improves everything from business marketing to the efficacy of humanitarian development. Fortunately, recent developments have improved the power and ability of tools to analyze data and our ability to share that data and its insights globally. I think a great example of open data and the use of crowdsourcing to process data is the hackathon. Hackathons are mass collaborations that take on various themes, such as Random Hacks of Kindness, National Civic Day of Hacking and, one that I have been most involved with, the International Space Apps Challenge. NASA has terabytes and terabytes of data that we wanted to make open to the public, universities, and citizen scientists around the world. But there’s a big difference between providing data and presenting data in a user-friendly way that the public can actually use for good. That’s where the International Space Apps Challenge helps. This event, which took place this month, was the largest hackathon ever attempted. Over the course of a weekend, almost 10,000 people collaborated in 86 different cities in 44 countries on all seven continents to produce amazing data visualizations, open hardware solutions, and great educational outreach products. The event was a huge success and really illustrates the power of taking a big-picture orbital perspective.

Q: Can you share with us your thoughts on where you see global society in 50 years?

A: In 50 years, I see a world in which people and organizations set aside their differences and unhealthy competitive inclinations and work together toward common goals. I see a world in which open and transparent collaborations become the engines that fuel tremendous economic growth and help us obliterate many of the problems facing our planet. I imagine that individuals and organizations that engage in unhealthy competition, secretive dealings, and corruption, and that adhere to an exclusively propriety mindset, will see themselves being left behind and will have to adapt, evolve, and take on a much more effective collaborative focus to keep up with the economic growth that collaboration will bring. In this imagined future, we have not defeated ills like corruption head-on; rather we’ve made them obsolete and ineffective. I see a world in which we are all unified in the belief that by working together we can accomplish anything. In future, you don’t have to be in orbit to have the orbital perspective. There is a big picture that is achieved not by panning back just in a spatial sense but also in a temporal sense, enabling us all to realize that the decisions we make and actions we take now will have a long-term effect on the trajectory of our global society. Many amazing, talented people have the correct pieces of the puzzle, but it's not until we pan back to the orbital perspective that we see how those pieces fit together. This big-picture perspective allows us to take our focus off the quarterly report and instead focus on the 20-year plan and beyond for the good of all.

  • About the Author:Alex Parkinson

    Alex Parkinson

    Alex Parkinson is Principal of Parky Communications, a communications agency specializing in sustainability and CSR reporting and communications. He serves as the Co-Leader of The Conference Board Cor…

    Full Bio | More from Alex Parkinson

  • About the Author:Ron Garan

    Ron Garan

    Ron Garan, who lived and worked in space for 178 days, is a highly decorated Fighter Pilot and Test Pilot, Explorer, Entrepreneur and Humanitarian who believes that appropriately designed and targeted…

    Full Bio | More from Ron Garan


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