Books: ‘Outrage to Activism’

‘Undercurrents’ urges readers to look beyond the surface

By Seattle Mag June 23, 2022


This article originally appeared in the May/June 2022 issue of Seattle magazine.

Steve Davis is executive strategic adviser for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and is a lecturer on social innovation at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. He recently served as the foundation’s interim director of the China Country Office, and as cochair of the World Health Organization’s Digital Health Technical Advisory Group. He is a Distinguished Fellow for the World Economic Forum and is a member of numerous boards and advisory committees. He is the former president and CEO of PATH, a leading global health innovation organization; former director of social innovation at McKinsey & Co., a global consultancy; and former CEO of Corbis, a digital media pioneer. With degrees from Princeton University, University of Washington and Columbia Law School, he speaks and writes regularly about the intersection of innovation, technology and social impact. He is the author of “Undercurrents: Channeling Outrage to Spark Practical Activism,” published by Wiley in 2020. He lives with his family in Seattle. www.stevebdavis.com
This excerpt is as it appears in the book.

Not long ago, I attended a dinner in Kinshasa, capital city of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Decimated by 20 years of war and internal conflict, the DRC is one of the poorest nations on the planet and rife with corruption. Of the 186 countries on the United Nations Human Development Index, the DRC ranks nearly last. Three out of four people there live on less than $2 a day. Yet my dinner companions — young doctors and medical researchers — were hopeful, even joyful, about new immunization programs, HIV-prevention tools, and family planning methods that PATH and its partners had helped bring to the country.

They were trying to deliver healthcare to 80 million people in a country the size of Western Europe, where roads, electricity, clinics, medicine, and doctors were all in short supply. My tablemates were buzzing about the positive differences they’d already seen in Congo’s rural villages and city slums: the improvements coming through innovative health tools and a slowly improving public health system; the way capabilities are expanding with a new generation of well-educated Congolese around the world who have returned to help rebuild their country; and the new opportunities for eliminating old diseases like polio and sleeping sickness. With their nation finally moving toward peace and stability, these health leaders saw themselves at a turning point, and their optimism was contagious.

None of the undercurrents in my life — gay rights, China’s ascendance, evolving technology, or the revolution in global development— were things I had forecast; rather, it was more a matter of recognizing what was happening around me and embracing it. My ability to do so was a scaled-up version of my old childhood talent for reading the waters. As an activist, this work needs to happen at two levels, simultaneously.

Many social currents are clearly visible at the surface — for instance, climate change. Preventing and mitigating the impacts of a warmer climate will dictate aspects of health funding and agricultural innovation for decades to come. The need to address climate change is obvious, critical, and—as enshrined in the 17 United Nations’ SDGs for 2015 to 2030 — already shaping the direction of global development.

Many other acute challenges facing society are also visible on the surface: growing inequality, homelessness, mass incarceration and its devastating effect on communities, pandemics emerging in countries without universal health coverage. The list goes on. Each of these is vital to address, and they appear throughout this book to illustrate its overall thesis.

But our primary focus is undercurrents, the powerful macrotrends that exist beneath the surface. Often, it is the immense size of these undercurrents that blinds us. These forces are so all-encompassing that they form a backdrop to the everyday, such that we may overlook them as individual forces to be harnessed for good. Exactly how does one learn to identify which trends are broad and deep enough to shape the future, then marshal their strength for positive change? We’ll discuss that in the coming pages.

If my life is any example, you must be curious, able to tolerate risk, willing to trust your gut, and, perhaps most fundamentally, remain optimistic. Reading the waters in front of us, and focusing on the major forces that will shape the next decades in human development, I believe the following five powerful undercurrents will be pivotal. My hope is that activists reading this book will use them to make a difference:

1. Pyramid to diamond. Our global economy is changing dramatically. Throughout the twentieth century, the world’s economy was depicted as a pyramid, with wealthy countries at the apex and a vast base of the desperately poor. Now, as hundreds of thousands of people move into the middle class every day, that pyramid is morphing into a squat diamond. This means greater capacities for change across much of the developing world, and it will fundamentally alter the premise, approach, and tools we use as changemakers.

2. Communities are the customers. A shifting pyramid means we need to stop viewing developing countries as passive beneficiaries of aid. Instead, we must listen to, assist, and elevate struggling communities within each country — even those in middle- and high-income countries. This change in focus means activists will work much more closely with local groups, responding to their demands for agency and self-determination. It means thinking about our “customers” very differently.

3. Equity. Leveling the field for people of all genders, races and ethnicities, sexual orientations, and disabilities — has been reignited as a promising frontier in development. How activists engage with different communities to ensure inclusion, diversity, and full participation will shape the agenda.

4. Digital disruption. New data tools and the digital revolution will accelerate social development across every sector, from health to agriculture, financial services, and education. These powerful new capabilities, properly harnessed, have the potential to supercharge well-being for many more people. But they bring challenging questions around privacy, ethics, bias, and misinformation.

5. The surprisingly sexy middle. The key to improving millions of lives long-term lies less in invention than scaling and adapting proven innovations — in other words, the all-important journey between an inspired concept and its on-the-ground implementation. In many cases we have the tools and technology to make a difference, but they sit on laboratory shelves. What we need are more social activists focused on building out those ideas to connect with the daily lives of real communities.

We will explore these five concepts in detail, offering examples and suggesting how they might further the work of practical activists everywhere. My hope is that they also stimulate the vision of a new generation.

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