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Common Ground Labs: Driving Entrepreneurship that Bridges Social Divides

An incubation program where populations in social divisions come together as co-founders building peace and successful businesses.

Photo of Alex Alden

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Explain your project idea (2,000 characters)

We are in a world of increasing social division. Marches against refugees are commonplace throughout Europe as thousands continue to land on their shores. At the same time we are in a world of diminishing jobs, where the economic opportunity of a stable full time job is decreasing, and the migrants entering host countries are seen as a burden as they are unable to access work that was never actually available. Common Ground Labs will be an incubation program leveraging human-centered design and lean-startup methodologies to bridge these widening social divides while creating new economic opportunities. The first target populations are refugees and host communities, however in the future the methodology will be replicable with any populations in division including socio-economic, political, ethnic and religious. The Labs will source people from both sides of the divide, meaning refugees / migrants and host communities and bring them together as co-founders of innovative social enterprises. They will come without businesses in mind, but as recognized leaders in their communities who want to change the world. Once in the program they tackle a broad challenge that has been pre-identified with a corporate sponsor. For example Vodafone might sponsor a challenge around: 'How might we facilitate digital inclusion?' Each activity of the program helps them design a better product, service, or program, but also builds cohesion. There is a strong community design element where they bring their divided communities together as co-creators. They address their own biases through storytelling and emotional leadership. Activities are interwoven in such a way that the participant barely notices their minds changing and these bridges being built. At the end of the program successful ideas will receive seed grants to continue their work. I have just returned from scoping to launch a pilot in Marseille, France in Oct. 2018 but am also investigating Colombia or Jordan / Lebanon.

Who are the beneficiaries? (1,000 characters)

We have two sets of collaborators whose experience results in an integral skillset that leads to better businesses. The pilot will be in Marseille, France. -Refugees / migrants, 20 - 45 who have been resettled or have work permits. They may not have traditional education but speak the local language at least at an intermediary level, have an intermediate level of computer skills, and have demonstrated leadership potential within their community. They bring a deep knowledge of the motivations, aspirations and needs of their communities, and potential solutions (in Human Centered Design Speak - the desirability factor) The other group is the host population. They are 20-45, speak English at an intermediate level and have intermediate to advanced computer skills. They also may not have had a formal education, but have also demonstrated leadership potential. They have a deep knowledge of the local business, entrepreneurship or innovation ecosystem. They bring the viability factor

How is your idea unique? (1,000 characters)

There are mainly two types of incubators out there working on peace: Peace Incubators: Support enterprises that have peace as a mission Do not seek to create peace as part of the program Founders are not inherently diverse AND Vulnerable Population Incubators: Cohort members come from vulnerable populations but do not collaborate with other populations in a peer-to-peer manner Oftentimes are isolated from society and lack entrepreneurship ecosystem knowledge We are different in that we flip the narrative. We do not consider refugees as a population that needs to be designed for or at but a population when collaborated with will lead to real innovation and better businesses. I have recently returned from a scoping mission in France where I have tested the waters with a variety of other incubator / accelerator programs and have found clear pathways for collaboration as pipeline and network partners instead of competitors.

Idea Proposal Stage (choose one)

  • Initial Design: I am exploring the idea, gathering the inspiration and information I need to test it with real users.

Tell us more about your organization/company (1 sentence and website URL)

Common Ground Labs builds products, services, and programs that drive social cohesion. The incubator is our flagship program however we also offer design strategy, user research, facilitation and training services to companies, NGOs and governments who seek to drive inclusion and social cohesion.

Expertise in sector

  • 3-5 years

Organization Filing Status

  • Yes, we are a registered social enterprise.

In 3-4 sentences, tell us the inspiration or story that encouraged you to start this project.

I have done extensive work with refugees / migrants with the World Food Programme and IRC using Human-Centered Design. I've also built and facilitated incubators and accelerators. I've seen the potential for this process to bring people together as empathy creation is inherent in the design process. I began thinking about How might we leverage HCD to build bridges? I also believe to get people to work together there must be a shared mutually beneficial goal, thus using HCD to build businesses.

Please explain how your selected topic areas are influenced, in the local context of your project (1,000 characters).

Peace and Prosperity in France and globally is influenced by a wave of immigration that has destabilized national identity and a political environment that casts refugees as burdens and job thieves. Increasing ethnic tensions between refugees and host populations can lead to violence if left unchecked. Prosperity is influenced by diminishing jobs due to the rise in automation. CG Labs seeks to influence both by creating businesses lead by diverse founders that will in turn create employment opportunities for diverse populations.

Who will work alongside your organization in the project idea? (1,000 characters)

We need three types of partners, which potential organizations fill many of these roles have already been identified: Pipeline Partners: Community organizations, local NGOs, business schools, entrepreneurship networks that will aid in sourcing participants for the program. Sponsors: Funders of lab programs. We identify a social & business driven challenge that the organization is facing that they are interested in sourcing innovation around. The organization provides funding but also employee engagement through mentorship or speaking during the program. Community Design Partners - Partners who have access to community networks in both populations to organization / facilitate the community design process (may overlap with pipeline partners) Technical Partners - Partners to deliver tech modules and / or provide mentorship to cohort members

Please share some of the top strengths identified in the community which your project will serve (500 characters)

Refugee / migrant populations in France have a strong desire to work and integrate with the local population however they do not have the tools or channels to do so. There is also increasingly a drive towards social entrepreneurship as is evidenced by the 'Social and Inclusive Economy' movement and many young people are involved in it. However there are not clear pathways for meeting and collaborating with refugees / migrants.

Geographic Focus

Pilot: Marseille, France - however looking at Jordan or Colombia as well.

How many months are required for the project idea? (500 characters)

18 months from start to evaluation.

Did you submit this idea to our 2017 BridgeBuilder Challenge? (Y/N)

  • No


Join the conversation:

Photo of Gayanjith Premalal

Hey Alex Alden ! It's great to see you in the challenge submitting a wonderful idea! I really like the comprehensive and compact write up that grabs the attention well. I'm interested to know more about how this transition happens for these two sets of people. Can you elaborate on that process a bit more? How do you expect them to get on with each other?
Since you have talked about Colombia here, I think my good friend Luz Gallo would be able to provide you with some good insights!

Keep in touch. Would love to see the idea grow.

Photo of Luz Gallo

Hey Alex,
Reading your idea, I was wondering if you have consider how to assure or incentivate the sustainability part of these start-ups? This subject is a major concern for Colombia, as many insititutions are planning on doing projects related to enterpreneurship.

Photo of Alex Alden

Do you mean financial sustainability or environmental sustainability? The program will be challenge driven (a bit like OpenIDEO!) and so some of these challenges will be around sustainability driven concepts. Since the sponsors will be sourced from Colombia for example if there is a program there, then the challenges will reflect what is concerning the local environment. All of the businesses however are expected to be social enterprises in some form.

Photo of Alex Alden

Hi Gayanjith,
Agreed that is one of the key challenges. There are several ways it will be addressed. There will definitely be some backend matching based on analysis of personalities and passions, however co-founders will essentially self-select into verticals reflecting their interests. Then, throughout the program they will be engaged in mentoring sessions together to address any conflicts and emotional leadership and storytelling for empathy modules to build their understanding of each other and their value of each others unique view points. However, I'm sure there will still be issues that will come up but overcoming those will be one of the key impacts of the program as well and the plan is to learn iteratively from what I see during a pilot.

Photo of Gayanjith Premalal

Hi Alex Alden , I think might inspire you to improve on your idea and open up new paths that you can walk forward in.

Photo of Madeline Holland

Hey @Alex Alden , a few people have also suggested to us that we check out Common Ground Labs! Definitely looks like our groups have much in common, emphasizing how refugee populations have critical skills to contribute to their host communities and to employers. I think we at TBB could draw on your messaging to build up our own as well! I did see you were thinking about Jordan as a potential location - we have an office there as well as partnerships and would be happy to talk as you consider it. A good number of the candidates we work with in Jordan and Lebanon not only have deep knowledge of their communities, but also have experience in startups.

Photo of Alex Alden

Yes! Let's talk! Connect with me on Linkedin and we can set up a Skype:

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