Sunday, 29 April 2007

Larry Brilliant

Nelson Mandela Theatre, Said Business School
Thursday 29th March 2007

• Larry Brilliant was the final keynote speaker giving his reflections as a pioneer in social innovation. His presentation was challenging and inspiring, and something of a jolt back to “big picture” thinking after hearing so many inspiring local stories. If you watch just one of the pieces of video from this Forum ... make it this one.

Brilliant has long been a folk hero from the same loose network of American counter-cultural activists and entrepreneurs that include the likes of Ram Dass, Wavy Gravy, Stewart Brand, Howard Rheingold and Paul Hawken. He is a doctor and a former professor of epidemiology who set up the Seva Foundation which has performed 2 million free sight-restoring eye operations in India and Nepal. He helped run the WHO smallpox eradication program in India, Nepal, and Bangladesh and was part of the Global Commission which certified that smallpox had been eradicated in the world.

As a technology leader, Brilliant was a founder of the world’s first online community, The WELL, and has been CEO of two public hi-tech corporations (SoftNet Systems Inc. and Network Technologies), and most recently he founded the WiFi company, Cometa.

Larry Brilliant was 2006 recipient of the TED Prize, which grants him “one wish to change the world” (... he is setting up a global warning system to track the spread of infectious diseases). And just last year, he was appointed Executive Director of, the new philanthropic arm of the Google company. So all eyes are on just what he is going to do next ....

• Brilliant started his speech with a short clip from a 1958 movie by Frank Capra, "The Unchained Goddess". The film contained a description of the causes of global warming, complete with images of melting Arctic icecaps and maps of rising sea levels inundating the southern regions of the US ... eerily similar to Al Gore’s more recent film “An Inconvenient Truth”. Brilliant: “So in 1958 we knew about global warming — should we feel good or bad that 50 years of foreknowledge accomplished so little?”

He then went on to list some of the Megatrends facing the current generation of social entrepreneurs:
— increasing global warming ... which has its gravest effects on the poorest and most vulnerable members of humanity
— increasing population levels ... expected to level out at over 9 billion people
— increasing urbanization ... we went past the tipping point this year with 50 percent of the world population now living in cities
— increasing desertification, loss of farming land etc
— increasing animal consumption
— increasing growth of technology, which is also having a downside in the growth of bio-weapons
— increasing globalization, which has big winners and bigger losers.
• Brilliant pointed out that today, the world is more diverse and more unfair than it has ever been in human history. One percent of world population owns 40% of all goods and services (he quoted Bill Clinton, who recently remarked: ”This situation is unprecedented, unequal, unfair and unstable”). And the situation will get increasingly instable as global TV, the internet and new media continue to expose the inequalities in life experiences and people’s expectations.

Brilliant drew out the “case for pessimism” in many areas ... water and other resource wars, sectarian conflicts, refugee crises, an increasing number and scale of weather-related disasters, and newly emergent disease patterns. Climate change will put all the social entrepreneurship successes of things like micro-credit into perspective. With the graphics provided by Google Earth, he “navigated” a map of Asia to show how deforestation and global warming will combine to raise seas levels and displace 100 million people in Bangladesh alone.

• But Brilliant also felt there is plenty of cause for optimism. He shared his personal story of wandering the Asian hippy trail in the 1960s before his guru sent him off to help lead the fight to eradicate Smallpox on earth. Smallpox has been the worst disease in human history — it killed half a billion people in the 20th century alone, which is more than all the wars in history. Ending Smallpox involved an immense collaboration between the World Health Organisation, governments, public and private health officials, and teams of volunteers. In India, Brilliant supervised thousands of workers who tracked down cases of smallpox, and kept visiting every household to ensure that the virus was quarantined. He suggests that the fact that we have conquered Smallpox “should make our species proud”, and it should also give us hope when we take on similar huge systemic challenges as global warming, or the many other megatrends that he had listed.

• As the new director of, Brilliant will be helping spend $1.1 billion of the assets of the world-leading company on addressing the sort of megatrends that he has described. is essentially a network that includes both a charitable foundation with a $90 million endowment, and also other forms of social investing (not unlike those being promoted by venture capitalists like Sir Ronald Cohen).

When they announced the establishment of the Foundation in 2005, Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin promised shareholders they will make a social impact that will eventually “eclipse Google itself” by tackling the world's problems. Brilliant: “ In 10 years, I'd like people to say Google changed the world less for its search engine than for the way in which it changed philanthropy to make the world a better place.”
— Streaming video of this session “Reflections from a Pioneer in Social Innovation” featuring Larry Brilliant
— YouTube video of Larry Brilliant’s speech to the 2007 Skoll World Forum (part 1 of 3) (part 2 of 3) (part 3 of 3)
“Google's Brilliant Philanthropist” by Jessi Hempelin in Business Week 22 February 2006
“Dr Brilliant Vs. the Devil of Ambition” by Andrew French in Fast Company Issue 39 September 2000
— “The Health of Humanity” by Larry Brilliant (2006 Sanford S. Elberg Lecturer in International Studies - UC Berkeley
Larry Brilliant talking to the TED Forum January 2007 on the successful WHO campaign to eradicate Smallpox, and then unveiling his TED Prize wish - to build a global system that detects each new disease or disaster as it emerges or occurs.
“Google”s Brilliant Philanthropist” by Jessi Hempel in BusinessWeek

Larry Brilliant’s speech to the 2007 Skoll World Forum: Part 1

Larry Brilliant’s speech to the 2007 Skoll World Forum: Part 2

Larry Brilliant’s speech to the 2007 Skoll World Forum: Part 3