Interview: Paul O'Hara, ChangeX

Continuing our interview series, ‘Changing the world one click at a time’, we sat with Paul O'Hara, founder of ChangeX, a marketplace that gives life to great ideas by connecting them with local community leaders in order to drive social change.

This powerful technology platform enables social innovators and communities across the globe to come together and collaborate on their ideas in an effective and impactful way. In partnership with the UN since 2018, Change X are committing to set 20 million projects in motion and reach over 1 billion people by 2030!

Paul, tell me about the concept behind ChangeX.

I worked for years in an organisation called Ashoka, the largest global network of social entrepreneurs and changemakers established in 1981. We were investing in people with great ideas all over Europe with the hope that a lot of those ideas would spread internationally. Very few of them did, most of them remained in the regions they had originated in.

Out of frustration, I started experimenting with importing and exporting ideas across both national and regional borders. At the time our methods were still very manual. We were simply flying people to a location after setting up meetings for them in an effort to sow the seeds. The process that we designed with Ashoka based on that experience is called ‘the Localizer’ and it has been used all over the world for importing ideas. But, since we didn't use technology at all on the project, our attempts were not very scalable.

To move forward, we decided to package up the world's proven social innovations and put them on one platform making it easy for people to adopt those ideas within their own communities.

What are the current projects supported by ChangeX that you especially like and feel have great potential?

One of the recent projects I particularly love is The Daily Mile. It reminds me a little bit of Parkrun, which I have huge admiration for and I participate in myself. It's incredibly well organized. Interestingly, it was founded by a software developer. I think that, in addition to it being a great idea, is the primary reason it scaled so successfully.

The idea of the Daily Mile is that every kid runs a mile every day at school. It originated in Scotland and now it has been adopted by thousands of schools in Ireland, UK and it's spreading in mainland Europe. I love this initiative because it creates a very positive habit in kids at primary school level. I ran from an early age and still do. As busy as I am these days, I don't feel I would keep up running without the foundation I had as a kid. It's great for kids' physical and mental health, it’s proven to increase focus in class and reduce conflict. Such a simple concept, one that anyone can grow easily. It's also the perfect type of idea for spreading through ChangeX.  

What are the barriers that stop ideas spreading?

One of the big early insights was how to make the packaging of ideas more user-friendly. The methods and presentation used to bring them to people's attention needed to be much simpler. CoderDojo, a global volunteer-led community of free programming workshops for young people, was an example of a group who had done this very well. Their concept was spreading really quickly because it was easy for people to take the idea and run with it.

So we asked ourselves, what if everybody did it the way CoderDojo do it? Could we get all of these ideas spreading much faster? The answer turned out to be a resounding yes. We learned people respond better and are inspired more often by visually stimulating ideas. To this end, we spend a lot of time on packaging the concepts before moving on to the second major challenge of marketing them.

For local communities, the hurdles are usually time, team, money, and know-how. We want to try and help them as much as possible with those issues, but we are keen to do it in a scalable, virtual, automated way. We need to make sure that the process of starting a project is as easy as possible for anyone, anywhere, be it a teacher, a healthcare worker, a concerned parent, a retiree or a teenager.

What keeps you awake at night?

The policy changes that need to happen around climate change. We're depressingly behind the curve. I find the climate march more sad than hopeful. We've created a society that's on the brink of collapse because of our consumer behaviours and our kids have to go out and protest against that.

We have been doing a good bit of work around climate and biodiversity projects, mainly because there's quite a bit of demand from both communities and from corporates to get behind those initiatives. I love ideas around community forests, community solar energy, and sustainable agriculture.

At the same time, I've never seen the government more focused on climate action than in the last year. Richard Bruton is doing a great job as the new Minister for Climate Action and there is some great leadership from different countries.

Tell me about your partnership with UN which was established last November.

We made a commitment that each year, for the next 10 years we would identify the 100 best ideas under each of the sustainable development goal headings.

Our second commitment is to mobilise 20 million people behind those ideas. Finding a thousand plus ideas is still challenging even with today's technology, but it is achievable. Finding 20 million people to activate those ideas is also feasible. The aim is to source them through the combined marketing effort of ChangeX, the social innovators behind the ideas, and the funders who do/will invest in communities across the world.  This collective effort makes it possible.

Providing adequate support for them to be successful is the hardest part. At that point things get expensive.

What will be your role in these projects?

Our intention is to invest in our product until it is strong enough for the social innovators to take over the mantle of its promotion. This promotion will happen organically as they use the marketplace for their own backers. We're also providing full financial and impact transparency for funders, live and automated throughout the product. Instead of it just being the ChangeX team selling the impact, we will have thousands of social innovators out there selling their own ideas. It’s this hive mind mentality that makes the participation of 20 million people attainable.

What is the vision for the future for ChangeX?

The goal is getting as many of the best ideas in the world onto the platform and then getting as much financial backing as possible to get those ideas spreading. We are currently present in Ireland and the US and will be adding three new states this year, including Arizona and Illinois in partnership with Microsoft. We have a lot of technical work still to do in order to automate the processes I've mentioned and efficiently scale the platform. We've taken years to find the product market fit.  Now we feel like we have it.

We're selling to companies that are going pretty well. As a result, we are now preparing for a much larger round of financing to help us grow. It is always extremely challenging as a not for profit to raise that type of financing so we'll see whether we can pull it off or we just grow organically with corporate customers.

What have been the hardest lessons to date?

We built a fair bit of technology in the past that was never used and we made bets on ideas that just didn't transpire.

We have had a three-sided marketplace, three different sets of customers to keep happy. There are the people behind the ideas, the leaders of local communities and the companies that are buying impact. Trying to get it all working together is very hard when you're a small nonprofit startup.

I didn't know that it was harder to build a marketplace than anything else. I didn't even know we were trying to build a marketplace, to be honest. And the reason it's so hard is that you've got multiple actors to create a good experience for. The complexity of building a three-sided marketplace when at times we weren't even building the right stuff.

That was very hard, trying to survive through all that.

How did you overcome it? What changed?

We just had to stop developing for a while and rethink it all. That was one of the best things we ever did. Pretty much everything that we have built in the last 15 months has been of value. Improving our product process and talking to users more, certainly has given us clarity around product direction. There were some building blocks that we developed that didn't get used for two years but eventually clicked into place.

Are you a believer that technology could be used for the betterment of humanity?

For sure. Technology has had a mixture of very positive and very negative impacts. And some of the negative impacts weren't even anticipated.

Automation is bringing huge benefits to projects like ours. If you wanted to take an idea to global scale using systems similar to the Localizer, you are talking about decades. With technological advances, we believe we can do it in months.

I don't think you'll have any major negative impact on social capital by automating that end of the process because you will still have millions of teams gathering in local communities and getting to know each other and working together to bring positive change. One thing that we're definitely not trying to automate is the community interaction at the grassroots level.

So technology acts as a connective tissue?

Yes, a lot of the technologies that exist such as social networks and cloud technologies now enable our effort. Machine learning and blockchain technologies are going to be foundational to this effort as well. Mainly it's about weaving those technologies together with methodologies that already exist and then putting them in the hands of social innovators so they can scale their ideas more efficiently than they could ever do themselves.

Your latest inspirations?

Greta Thunberg is definitely a standout from the last few months. The first time I came across her was someone sharing her TED talk and after watching it, I could not help but be amazed by her.  

I can also recommend a few podcasts that I listen on a fairly regular basis and always get little nuggets of wisdom from them. Check out How You Built This and The Knowledge Project.

If you'd like to follow our progress on Twitter, our handle is @ChangexHQ, or if you'd like to get involved, you can sign up at www.changex.org 

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