In nature, many organisms are designed to live only in certain well-defined environments. If conditions change, the organism may struggle to survive.

Still others thrive in “ecotones,” the transitional space between two discrete ecosystems. They are adaptable, complex and often better positioned to compete with their more rigid counterparts. 

The concept of ecotones is key for organizations trying to reach across boundaries to create positive change, said Sean Knierim MIDP’08, CEO of Estabrook Investors and founder of consulting company SidePorch. During his Rethinking Development Policy talk on Wednesday, March 22, he said that organizations are more effective when they step out of their comfort zones, network with others who are not in their traditional space, and constantly adapt.

“It’s about identifying the biggest problems facing the planet or your community and finding ways to pull together all the appropriate resources necessary to solve that problem,” he said.

He cited Red Bull as a company trying to act on this insight. To improve athletes’ ability to recover quickly, the company identified top thought leaders throughout the world on improving creativity and brought them together to generate ideas related to nutrition and performance.

Knierim uses this as inspiration for his consulting company, SidePorch, which he founded to identify, create and draw on networks of stakeholders with shared missions. One of his clients is the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which was looking for ways to generate a synergy between its existing investments and networks in science, technology and data.

SidePorch is currently helping USAID identify U.S.-based investor groups and connect them with USAID’s knowledge of renewable energy markets in developing countries.

Enso, a creative studio focused on social impact, is another example of a company that brings a variety of stakeholders to the table. It recently convened a group in Santa Barbara, Calif., around the issue of climate change.

Representatives included the Environmental Defense Fund and other usual players, Knierim said. However, also present was a group of hunters who were concerned about the impact of climate change on their hunting grounds. The group brought a different set of concerns, perspectives and solutions.

Three of the ideas that came out of the meeting are currently being developed and hoping to find funding.

“Government alone can’t solve the problem of climate change,” Knierim said. “Neither can foundations. Neither can corporations.” Instead, the various actors need to convene, identify their strengths and pool their resources to move the needle.

He said that public policy schools such as Sanford are uniquely positioned to use their convening power to solve the world’s problems.

“We need to look for better ways to do policy analysis in today’s complex settings,” he said.

Finding your magnetic north

As one of only four Americans in his class in the Master of International Development Policy (MIDP) at Duke, Knierim realized that the connections he was building worldwide were one of the most beneficial parts of the program.

“Convening capacity is one of most important resources you have,” he said. “I’m really grateful for what this school and community have provided in terms of networks over the last 10 years.”

After graduation, he landed the position of chief of staff with the MacArthur Foundation and later with the Jeff Skoll Group. His position at Skoll in particular gave him the opportunity to liaise with corporations, nonprofits and media.

“These organizations were sitting at the crux of really interesting networks,” he said. “Their convening capacity was as important as any financial resources they had.”

While business leaders talk about finding “true north,” Knierim said that “magnetic north” is a better analogy for how he works. Many organizations develop carefully crafted mission statements, he said, but fewer focus on how this mission changes over time.

“Because it’s constantly changing, it requires a dynamic appreciation for where you’re going,” he said. “I know it’s going to change, so I also have to change to stay relevant.”

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