Michael Radke

Ubuntu Lab scales human understanding with a surprising entrepreneurial spirit

In our ‘Trailblazers’ series, we bring you perspectives on creative leadership, social innovation, and positive change from THNK’s worldwide participant community. Today, Kate Inglis interviews Michael Radke, Director of Special Projects at the Lawrence Hall of Science at UC Berkeley, and founder of ION studios (impactornothing.org) about his work as co-founder of the Ubuntu Lab and what he’s learned in scaling human understanding like a commercial entrepreneur.

You’ve described The Ubuntu Lab as ‘democratizing the magic of travel’ to make positive social change. Tell us about that.

Science centres have fundamentally changed our relationship to science by inviting us to participate and think like scientists. I thought: what if we could do the same thing for social topics? What if we could break down the barriers between people and build up a foundation based on understanding? Immersing yourself in another culture and connecting with individuals inside that immersion is a privilege that only a few people in the world get to experience. It shifts the way we interact. If we can distill and democratize what people get out, it can underpin a lot of the solutions to the biggest issues of our time.

One of the biggest blocks to positive change in the world is that despite our proximity to one another — and the way that technology has shrunken the world — we’ve created a profound disconnect between each other as individuals. Nothing can get better until we connect on our shared needs — love, shelter, safety, and the fulfillment of work and community. Until now, there’s been no way to develop the skill of understanding. Until now, there have been few formal efforts to address learning understanding, and almost none that do so as a systemic, scalable, life-long practice.

‘Democratized magic’ reminds me of what THNK’s innovation process refers to as scaling.

It is. When I was at THNK and we got to the scaling phase — in which we reimagine all the for-profit, not-for-profit, and blended business models that maximize impact — I hit a turning point. One of the reasons I chose to attend THNK was that I realized that the Ubuntu Lab needed a global footprint and impact measured in billions. This is not the traditional model for a Museum, but a museum is a great model for experiential change. The insights that I gained from THNK were in how to build a business that can move from a pilot that reaches a few to a vision for a global field that reaches many.

Everyone at THNK — whether they’re an impact entrepreneur or a commercial intrapreneur — seems to have a similar moment when it comes to scaling. THNK’s course really taps into how to leverage the visionary ideas each of us bring, for profit or otherwise, into something with a much broader reach than any of us can achieve on our own. We learn how to think differently about the business models, repeatable practices, and networks that might make an idea (and its implementation) bigger.

As a creative leadership school, THNK describes itself as human-centred design meets business management. How do the implementation methods of design plus business make ideas into movements?

For me, there’s a nexus point between those two concepts. On the one hand, we’ve got a naturally engaging, very human-centred expression of why understanding matters. On the other, education is a long play; it takes decades of reliably great work to see real change. So we’re wondering how to create a sustainable business around that story — the kind of self-propelled success that allows us to make an impact today and in twenty years, around the corner and around the world.

The field of social change has been reconsidering the status quo and has begun to consider that perhaps not all social impact projects need to be fully philanthropic. Thinking creatively — combining design thinking with business thinking — we realized that if we could self-subsidize the Ubuntu Lab, we can make it more accessible to more people. And that’s more of a movement than a series of one-off effects. We played with revenue-generating models that might work across borders. We’ll conduct the Ubuntu Lab as a business, in a way that generates its own steam and makes us free from being dependent on finding one golden patron. This is how an idea that’s based in passion and purpose becomes a movement that sticks.

Science centres use hands-on experience to open us up to new ideas. How can corporations and social change makers overcome the human need for familiarity?

I used to be a recruiter for Apple’s retail stores, which are great examples of how experience-based business can really change people’s minds. The retail stores were created not only to sell products, but to tease open people’s minds to the idea of switching their whole technology identity. To achieve that, they had to introduce people to something different, foreign, and even culturally scary. When I started, it was prior to the iPhone, and that tech identity was centered more on the operating system. Apple users were their own little tribe. The executive leadership built this brilliant concept of experience-based storefronts to break down long-held assumptions and get people to try something new.

This is true of a lot of impact-oriented business — a lot of what we’re seeking is to create behaviour change. Instead of a traditional model where the corporation exchanges products for money, a brand that’s keyed into the importance of experience is seeking relationships with its customers. These days, a lot of businesses are realizing that building a tribe is more important than taking money and moving on. And so too do we, as social entrepreneurs, need to use this principle to invite people to change with us, instead of “selling” change based on extrinsic motivations.

We’re a naturally tribal bunch. Is that ever an asset when it comes to fostering understanding, or is it a block?

Beyond brand tribes, our current educational system trains us to think of people as groups — the British, the Dutch, women, LGBT, the middle-class. This helps lend context, but without also being able work within the reality that there is a vast amount of variation within those categories, it’s very hard to relate to individuals. And that’s the chasm that we need to cross in order to fulfill the potential of humanity, understanding is the bridge across that chasm.

If we can approach one another more as individuals, no matter how apparently random or at-odds our assigned ‘groups’, I imagine it’s easier to discover all kinds of shared needs and ideals. Like a Venn diagram of bonding in every interaction.

Absolutely true. If we could help more people react to one another with that Venn diagram in mind — seeking to identify the ways we’re similar — we could make so much progress. Poverty, for instance, is a fundamental blocker. People with resources have a hard time understanding people without resources, not just at a conceptual level, but at very practical levels as well. Its somewhat easy to imagine what it is like to not afford something, but much harder to really understand what it is like to live entirely within a reality where necessities are unaffordable and the situation is inescapable. We tend to think in social categories, but the consequences of that thinking are physical.

What can social impact organizations learn from corporations?

For too long, people who are focused on making social change have relied on good intentions, and on the fact that they’re doing the right thing. We’re not professionalized enough. There’s not enough early-stage focus on ROI and accountability. The corporate community can help the non-profit sphere to really understand the underlying methodology and techniques that point to daily goals and outcomes — to translate passion and purpose to metrics. That can be so powerful. There’s also a huge advantage in how corporates think about efficiencies. They push innovation in a way that’s new, at least in terms of operational models, for us in the social impact arena. A lot of us have been bootstrapping the elementals rather than incorporating corporate thinking.

And what about the reverse? Is there space in capitalism for corporations to be inspired by those who work for social impact?

Corporations have a lot to gain by thinking big about big social systems and the nature of intended versus unintended consequences. Authenticity and passion/purpose is a big deal these days. It’s required of the corporate world now. It’s no longer possible to keep being a monolithic or faceless brand. Not to say that corporations never prioritize the social side (some do) but non-profits and NGOs are not required to prioritize profit and so are free to put empathy first. It’s a different way to begin ideation.

THNK’s diversity is one of the icons of the experience for every participant I’ve talked to. You encounter innovators from literally every sector. I’ve been in a lot of really unusual rooms, with an unusual mix of people — but this was beyond them all. Every perspective and every expertise contributes to your thinking.

What was your biggest strategic revelation of THNK’s diverse environment?

I live in the Bay area, and my network comes from the startup culture of delivery, speed, and scale. My startup-like business plan was centralized around the starting point of getting to market as fast as possible — where you’ve got to get something done, move it forward, test it, and move on fast. In going through a few design cycles at THNK, my classmates and I saw first hand that whether you’re a multinational corporate or an individual activist, it’s not your organization that needs to move fast. It’s the individual pieces within it.

As a result, we’ve taken the pace of launching the Ubuntu Lab a step back to reevaluate what we might be missing by not making space for slower conceptualizing. By slowing down, you gain the room to employ the wisdom that is necessary to ultimately move not only fast, but also be more impactful. This is the cycle of scaling and reflection that we learn at THNK. It’s a design thinking cycle with a bias towards action, but it’s tempered with testing premises earlier than we usually would. It’s a matter of knowing when to pump the brakes a little.

What does pumping the brakes look like when you’re in conversation with an unfamiliar perspective?

In every THNK class, there are at least four or five people that you’d never otherwise cross paths with, let alone bond with. They could be from an entirely foreign sector, with totally different motivations. And all of a sudden you’re there together, in deep, working side by side, and you connect. You push in ways you never would have on your own. It’s such a massive shift in terms of your constructs of the world.

What would you say is your biggest takeaway from your time at THNK?

Being a leader is about so much more than leading a business or a team. No matter what sector you’re in, we’re all trying to bring something new to the world. You’ve got to think deeply about what it is that’s driving you. What, in that drive, is valuable to the world? How can you best articulate that value? It’s a lifelong practice. It’s where everything begins.

Did you anticipate this degree of shift when you walked through the doors in Amsterdam?

Yes. I was instantly swept up in what I recognized as a life-changing event. I met my class and the faculty and my frame of mind changed for the better.

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Michael Radke is Director of Special Projects at the Lawrence Hall of Science at UC Berkeley. After a series of serendipitous encounters and projects, Michael combined the science centre model with his desire to improve the way humanity works together to co-found The Ubuntu Lab. As CEO he is helping to create innovative paths that bring people together to explore what it means to be human. His driving purpose is to create a more stable, peaceful world by building understanding between people. Recently, Michael has also spun off his years of social change design work across sectors into an impact design consultancy: ION Studios.

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