We Need Unprecedented Collaboration, Q/A with Todd Khozein

Golfito, Costa Rica

Todd Khozein is a managing partner of SecondMuse and a pioneer in systems innovation based on biological models. He holds a Doctor of Medicine and Bachelor of Arts from the University of New Mexico. As we begin a new year, Todd shares his vision for SecondMuse and the importance of creating collaborative frameworks. At SecondMuse Todd has founded initiatives such as Random Hacks of Kindness (in collaboration with Google, Microsoft, HP, NASA, the World Bank and Yahoo!) and LAUNCH (a collaboration with U.S. Department of State, NASA, USAID, Nike and IKEA).

ToddKhozein1) What does the term SecondMuse mean to you and how did the company get started?

The short answer is that it refers broadly to the way we operate — our clients arrive at an initial point of inspiration themselves. They want to understand a complex problem more accurately and address it. They work with us to expand the idea and move it forward. We act as the the second order of inspiration, working with communities and partners to arrive at a better understanding of a problem, which is always where you want to be when you start thinking of what to do about it.

The company was born out of the Harmony Equity Group, where a number of us were thinking about the purpose of corporations in the face of the really big global challenges we’re experiencing. One of the clearest needs we saw was for unprecedented collaboration, as these challenges aren’t just government problems or things the philanthropic sector would be able to address…they will affect all of us. This naturally got us thinking about what that really  looks like when governments, foundations, corporations, and communities work together. So we started a corporation that would focus on figuring out the ‘how’ aspect.

2) How has your education guided you professionally, in biological sciences and technology, as well as in the arts?

My background draws pretty strongly from both the arts and the sciences. I studied economics in undergrad and was really fascinated with the notion of a system and its dynamics. More so, though, I was fascinated that the entire field of neoclassical economics is premised on assumptions of human nature.  We say what a human is and then we design an entire system based on those assumptions — but were those assumptions correct?  Of course they were partly, but surely a few humans, regardless of how brilliant they were, didn’t fully understand human nature. Imagine if we tried to build an airplane only partly understanding the laws that govern aerodynamics! Social systems fascinated me and as I went into graduate school I got to learn about a really complex system that a ton is known about, the human body. I was able to look at the human body as a system and then try to design social and economic systems based on relationships within the body. That led me to complexity science and systems thinking.

As for the music, I studied flamenco dance and toured as a dancer and musician for a few years.  To me, art is beauty and in beauty we can find truth. I couldn’t imagine trying to solve any problem of any significance without a life immersed in some form of art.

3) Systems innovation has been the cornerstone of your vision at SecondMuse. Thousands of innovators across the globe have engaged in hackathons and “Big Thinks” designed around collaboration from the National Day of Civic Hacking to Space Apps and LAUNCH. How does your business philosophy include organic unity and human interdependence?

I think there are two important elements.

First is the fact that humans are very complex. Our perception of the world and our insights are shaped by unique and individual experiences. Every single experience in our lives, much of which we had no control over, will shape how we read our reality, how we understand it, insights we will glean from it and how we will react to it emotionally, intellectually, and even physically. Is something scary or exciting? Is it hopeless or is there a solution? Is the problem a or b or a combination of c and d? How we interface with the world is influenced by literally everything that comprises us, from our experiences, to our genes, to our knowledge, to our diets and lifestyles. Then there’s inspiration– where does that even come from?  

Second is the fact that the world is very complex.  Every time we think we understand something, someone discovers something we didn’t know and it throws us for a loop again.  Why are some people really really poor? Why are some societies in seemingly intractable conflicts? Why is the climate changing and what implications does that have? What is the reason that the political climate of a region will radically change overnight? The reasons behind devastation of rainforests or the success or failure of massively disruptive technologies are not simple linear relationships. There is tremendous nuance to these problems and the more accurately we can understand those subtleties the better chance we have of doing something about them.

We need unprecedented collaboration to understand complex problems and the unique insights that are hidden in all those brains out there, many of which are not the usual suspects. Once we develop a more accurate understanding, the ability to innovate solutions to those problems is also nuanced. For the little challenges, or even the big ones that aren’t complex, we might be able to go it alone, but for the big hairy ones we don’t have a choice.

4) You’ve talked about cultivating our capacity for altruistic service to others. As we begin this new year, how should we think about this in the context of our work?

True collaboration requires certain capabilities. I believe altruistic service to others is a capability that we can nurture like any other. I think if a country tries to solve a collective challenge while oozing national interest, it’s not going to work, or if it does they’ll be paddling upstream. A self-interested approach to a collectively shared problem is an evolutionary dead end.

In order to actually understand or build with a community you need different capabilities and ingredients for success than if you’re coming from a strictly “me” perspective. I don’t know what all the elements are, but I know some of them — trust, mutualism, compassion — these need to be fundamental elements that define relationships in communities striving together. Any corporation or government that engages and participates in communities also needs to exhibit these capabilities.

5) What does the future of innovation look like to you?

Hoverboards that really hover? If innovation is thinking about something fundamentally differently than how we’re currently thinking, I hope to be as surprised as the rest!

I think, though, if there’s one thing that I believe will define the future of innovation, it will be moving away from attributing genius and invention to one person and acknowledging all the inputs. A genius stands on a lot of shoulders and while some individuals make profound leaps forward, it never happens in a vacuum. I think as we more fully understand this we will better be able to design entire human ecosystems that innovate with far more effectiveness.

Davar Ardalan

About Davar Ardalan

Davar Ardalan is the Director of Storytelling and Engagement at SecondMuse. As a veteran journalist and former social media strategist at NPR News in Washington D.C., Ardalan lead dozens of real-time engagement campaigns to great impact. Most recently she was the Senior Producer and Social Media Strategist for NPR’s Identity and Culture Unit, traveling across the country producing live events and moderating Twitter chats on some of the most critical issues of the day including community and policing, voting rights, education, and immigration. She has cultivated thought leaders across platforms, generating millions of impressions across the globe via Twitter and an even more impressive level of response domestically. Ardalan has also worked as a Supervising Producer for Morning Edition where she helped shape the daily newsmagazine, and was responsible for decisions that required elaborate coordination such as broadcasts from Baghdad, Kabul and New Orleans. Through the years, her public radio productions have been recognized with two NABJ Awards and a Gracie Award from the American Women in Radio and Television. She began her radio career as a reporter in 1991 at KUNM in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Ardalan is the mother of four and lives outside Annapolis, Maryland. In May 2014, she was the recipient of an Ellis Island Medal of Honor, for individual achievement and for promoting cultural unity.

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