Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

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Ethan Zuckerman thoughtfully and appropriately points out that one big missing question in my recent Wired piece on measuring philanthropic impact is whether some of this positive societal change should be in the hands of government instead of philanthropists. He correctly points out that since the Reagan/Thatcher era of the 80s, we've started shrinking the role of government and have started to see big philanthropists and the private sector being called on to do what government used to do. In a post from 2013, Ethan wonders why he doesn't have rail solution to his commuting problem from Western Massachusetts. He suggests that without government, things like railway system are difficult to fund - the market isn't the best solution for many social goods.

I think the idea about whether we should be doubling down on philanthropy or fixing government and increasing government resources is a great question and probably the right one. I think the idea of fixing the government and turning the corner on the privatization is a daunting idea, but something we need to discuss.

I decided to write my column this month in Wired about impact investing and the opportunity to bring new perspectives to the space. As I wrote the piece and started to negotiate with my truly great editor at Wired, I got feedback that it was a bit dense, jargony and wonky. My colleague Louis Kang was doing a lot of research for the article, so I decided to move the nitty-gritty details from the Wired piece to this co-authored "explainer" essay. This essay, now a companion piece to the Wired column, is an overview of what impact investing is, describing some different ways that we currently measure impact and some of the concerns we have with these measurement methods. The Wired article discusses my observations of this field and provides some suggestions on how we might better measure impact.

- Joi

Impact Investment Metrics and Their Limitations

By Joi Ito and Louis Kang

As the pile of philanthropic money aimed at solving the world's problems grows, the desire for assessment and rigor has pushed experts to develop metrics to measure impact and success.

But our world's biggest problems -- climate change, poverty, global health, social instability -- don't easily lend themselves to measurement. Climate change, poverty, global health and social instability, for instance, are complex self-adaptive systems that are irreducible to simple metrics and mathematics. In fact, it's simple math and the hyper-efficient optimizations of the financial markets that have caused most of these problems in the first place. Consider for example, capital markets that focus much more on shareholders than other stakeholders, which has caused extraction and exploitation of natural resources; the efficient production of cheap calories that has contributed to obesity; mass consumption that has led to climate change; and Internet and social media platforms that have amplified hate speech and new forms of adversarial attacks. Are modern foundations and financial institutions armed with quants and global development principles, such as the UN's Sustainable Development Goals, enough to tackle such complex challenges? I don't think so.

Philanthropy as a concept has existed for centuries.The U.S. Internal Revenue Service began providing tax benefits for charitable gifts in the early 1900s, and since then, philanthropy has continued to grow and become more sophisticated.

At the MacArthur Foundation, where I serve on the Board of Directors, "impact investing" emerged in the early 1980s as a way to channel capital to communities plagued by underinvestment and spur the growth of revenue-generating nonprofits and social-purpose businesses. Around this time, Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus founded the Grameen Bank on the principle that loans are more effective than charity to disrupt poverty, and it started by offering tiny loans to impoverished entrepreneurs, which we now know as microfinance. Since then, new types of investment capital and assets, as well as financing and organizational structures and impact measurement practices, have emerged to better engage in the active creation of positive impact. Although the purpose and practice of impact investing are continuously revisited and refined, the core idea is to unlock more traditional investment capital to contribute to solving the world's problems. Today, more than 1,340 organizations manage roughly $500 billion in impact investing assets worldwide.

Many companies now proactively claim to be public benefit companies or are undergoing certification by B-Lab to qualify as B-Corps. These include Patagonia and a company that I invested in, Kickstarter. These companies claim to use, and sometimes disclose, auditable measures of their non-financial societal impact. In addition to companies like these, there is a push among more mainstream businesses to go beyond mere measures of financial success and assess their societal or environmental impacts with a "triple bottom line." Although impact investing has largely been seen as a philanthropic activity, which by definition is prone to accepting little or no return on investment, many traditional impact funds and investors now assert that they are designing investment practices to achieve market level returns on investments and meet positive impact targets. According to one Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN) report, 49 such funds have, on average, achieved an 18.9 percent return on equity-based impact investments in emerging markets. Recently, we've seen more established institutional investors, such as Goldman Sachs, KKR and Bain Capital, to name a just a few now active in the impact investing scene.

Texas Pacific Group (TPG) has created an impact investment fund called the Rise Fund with the help of The Bridgespan Group. The Rise Fund has devised a method that attempts to calculate the economic value of impact called the Impact Multiple of Money, or IMM. IMM is one of a growing number of models and protocols, each of which comes with pros and cons, used to assess non-financial impact. The Rise/Bridgespan method generates an economic estimate of the social impact of an investment by first estimating the number of people impacted by it using relevant scientific studies and multiplying that number by the U.S. "value of life" of $5.4 million, as calculated by the U.S. Department of Transportation to quantify "the additional cost that individuals would be willing to bear for improvements in safety (that is, reductions in risks)." This dollar value of the investment's impact is then adjusted by multiplying it by something called the "probability of impact realization," which is an estimated probability of achieving the expected impact calculated based on a review of relevant scientific studies. Using this number, Rise then projects the investment's Net Present Value, or NPV, using an estimated annual discount set by itself. Finally, the NPV is multiplied by the percent of the company's overall equity owned by Rise to figure out how much of the impact Rise is accountable for, which is then divided by the investment amount to determine the IMM (see this HBR case about an alcoholism program that is part of the Rise Fund as an example). For example, if Rise invested $10 million for 50 percent of the equity in a venture, when the NPV is $100 million, Rise determines $50M ($100 million multiplied by 50 percent) is the value of the impact for which it can claim credit. So its IMM would be five times its investment, or $50 million divided by $10 million, the amount it spent to make the investment. In this example, the IMM was five times its investment, exceeding the three times minimum IMM for the Rise Fund.

Robin Hood, which claims to be New York's largest poverty-fighting organization, takes a similar approach to the IMM. It uses a Benefit-Cost Ratio (BCR) to "assign a dollar figure to the amount of philanthropic good that a grant does" and focuses solely on improving the Quality-Adjusted Life Year (QALY). Robin Hood's metrics are demonstrated over 163 different cases, which can be found here. For example, the BCR of Robin Hood's support for a substance abuse treatment program was calculated by first counting the number of individuals who received the treatment as reported by their grantee. Robin Hood staff then estimated three factors: what percent of these individuals received the treatment solely because of their support; how much the QALY was reduced due to substance abuse, and how much the QALY was improved due to intervention. Suppose the treatment program reached 1,000 people, and Robin Hood estimates that it is only accountable for 10 percent of them. Of those 100 people, QALY reduction due to substance abuse is 10 percent and QALY improvement due to intervention is 20 percent. Robin Hood multiplies 100 by 10 percent, then by 20 percent and finally $50,000 (the QALY value as determined by its staff) to argue that the BCR of the program is approximately $100,000.

Not all of the new approaches attempt to measure impact using a dollar value. My college classmate and collaborator on many projects, Pierre Omidyar, has been an influential leader in impact investing through the work of his organization, the Omidyar Network (ON). The ON funds companies and intermediaries that also provide some social benefit. Over the years, the ON has developed and articulated a variety of methodologies to describe how it measures and categorizes opportunities and risks in funding socially beneficial companies. It has also recently experimented with Acumen's "lean data" approach which seeks to allow rapid iteration in social enterprises in the same way start-ups iterate. Acumen has developed software tools to survey beneficiaries of impact investments and calculate an average Net Promoter Score (NPS), which reflects a combination of many factors. NPS is a method originally developed to measure customer satisfaction in marketing. Via Acument's platform, the ON surveyed 36 investees and 11,500+ customers the investees reached across 18 countries, meaning it received an NPS score of 42 (For comparison, Apple's NPS is 72). And with its surveying capability, the ON contends that its investments improved the quality of life of about 74 percent of its customers.

Having reviewed various impact measurement techniques that are practiced today, now ask yourself: IMMs, BCRs, and NPSs -- do these numbers truly reflect what impact means? Understanding impact through measurement has importance, but we must be careful not to oversimplify complex systems into reducible metrics and lose sight of the intricate dynamics of the world. "Of course, many of us who want to see impact investing attain real scale would welcome the simplicity of an 'Impact Earnings Per Share' calculation or other simplified way to compare relative impact of competing investment opportunities -- but being able to advance a simple metric and having a metric framework that actually helps us assess our true impact and value contribution are two different things," Jed Emerson, who invented the framework Social Return on Investment (SROI), recently told me. "As we know from the history of economics and finance, a single metric can't reflect more nuanced aspects of value or impact. Simplified metrics tell us how we are thinking today but not what we truly seek to know."

Impact measurement is still a nascent field. Understanding impact is fragmented, sometimes misguided, and often inadequate. This makes evaluating and generating impact highly inefficient. We need more clarity and transparency, as well as robust scholarship to study and maximize the impact of philanthropy and impact investing. To address this, I've started to discuss and develop new methods to measure impact. My early thoughts and suggestions are introduced in this upcoming Wired article.

I would like to suggest a new word.

Anthropocosmos, n. and adj. Chiefly with "the." The epoch during which human activity is considered to be a significant influence on the balance, beauty, and ecology of the entire universe.

Based on ...

Anthropocene, n. and adj. Chiefly with "the." The era of geological time during which human activity is considered to be the dominant influence on the environment, climate, and ecology of the earth. --The Oxford English Dictionary

As we become painfully aware of the extent to which human activity is influencing the planet and its environment, we are also accelerating into the epoch of space exploration. Not only will our influence substantially affect the future of this blue dot we call Earth, but also our never-ending desire to explore and expand our frontiers is extending humanity's influence on the cosmos. I think of it as the Anthropocosmos, a term that captures the idea of how we must responsibly consider our role in the universe in the same way that Anthropocene expresses our responsibility for this world.

The struggle to protect the commons--the public spaces and resources we all depend on, like the oceans or Central Park--is not a new problem. Shepherds grazing sheep on shared land without consideration for other flocks will soon find grass growing thin. We already know that farming and the timber industry deplete the forests, and the destruction of that commons in turn affects the commons that is the air we breathe. These are versions of the same problem--the tragedy of the commons. It suggests that, left unchecked, self-interest can deplete resources that support the common good.

Joi Ito is an Ideas contributor for WIRED, and his association with the magazine goes back to its inception. He is coauthor with Jeff Howe of Whiplash: How to Survive Our Faster Future and director of the MIT Media Lab.

The early days of the internet were an amazing example of people and organizations from a variety of sectors coming together to create a global commons that was self-governed and well-managed by those who built it. Similarly, we're now in an internet-like moment in which we can imagine an explosion of innovation in space, our ultimate commons, as nongovernment groups, companies, and individuals begin to drive progress there. We can learn from the internet--its successes and failures--to create a generative and well-managed ecosystem in space as we grow into our responsibility as stewards of the Anthropocosmos.

Like the internet, space exploration has been mostly a government-vs.-government race and a government-with-government collaboration. The internet started out as Arpanet, which was funded by the Department of Defense's Advanced Research Projects Agency and operated by the military until 1990. A great deal of anxiety and deliberation went into the decision to allow commercial and nonresearch uses of the network, much as NASA extensively deliberated over opening the doors to "public-private partnership" leading up to the Commercial Crew Program launch in 2010. This year is the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission that put men on the moon, a multibillion-dollar effort funded by US taxpayers. Today, the private space industry is robust, and private firms compete to deliver payloads, and soon, put people into orbit and on the moon.

The state of the development of the space industry reminds me of where the internet was in the early '90s. The cost of putting a satellite into orbit has gone from supercomputer-level costs and design cycles to just a few thousand dollars, similar to the cost of a fully loaded personal computer. In many ways, SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Rocket Lab are like UUNET and PSINet1 --the first commercial internet service providers--doing more efficiently what government-funded research networks did in the past.

1 Disclosure: I was at one point an employee of PSINet and the CEO of PSINet Japan.

When these private, for-profit ISPs took over the process of building out the internet into a global network, we saw an explosion of innovation--and a dot-com bubble, followed by a crash, and then another surge following the crash. When we were connecting everyone to the internet, we couldn't imagine all the possible things--good and bad--that it would bring. In the same way, space development will most likely expand far beyond the obvious--mining, human settlements, basic research--to many other ideas. The question now is, how can we direct the self-interested businesses that will undoubtedly power entrepreneurial expansion, growth, and innovation in space toward the shared, long term health of the space commons?

In the early days of the internet, everyone pitched in like people tending a community garden. We were a band of jolly pirates on a newly discovered island paradise far away from the messiness of the real world. In "A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace," John Perry Barlow even declared cyberspace a new place, saying "We are forming our own social contract. This governance will arise according to the conditions of our world, not yours." His utopian idea, which I shared at the time, is now echoed by some of today's spacebound entrepreneurs who dream of settling Mars or deploying terraforming pods on planets across the galaxy.

While it wasn't obvious how life on the internet would play out when we were building the early infrastructure, back then academics, businesses, and virtually anyone else who was interested worked on its standards and resource allocation. We created governance mechanisms in communities like ICANN for coordination and dispute resolution, run by people dedicated to the protection and flourishing of the internet commons. In short, we built the foundations on which everyone could develop businesses and communities. At least in the beginning, the internet effectively harnessed the self-interest of commercial players and money from the markets to develop open protocols, free for everyone to use, that the communities designed. In the early 1990s, the internet was one of the best examples of a well-managed commons, with no one controlling it and everyone benefiting from it.

A quarter-century on, cyberspace hasn't evolved into the independent, self-organized utopia that Barlow envisioned. As the internet "democratized," new users and entrepreneurs who weren't involved in the genesis of the internet joined. It was overrun by people who didn't think of themselves as pirate gardeners tending the sacred network that supported this idealistic cyberspace--our newly created commons. They were more interested in products and services created by companies, and these companies often didn't care as much about ideals as in making returns for their investors. On the early internet, for example, people ran their own web servers, and fees for connectivity were always flat--sometimes simply free--and almost all content was shared. Today, we have near-monopolies, walled garden services; the mobile internet is metered and expensive; and copyright is vigorously enforced. From the perspective of this internet pioneer and others, cyberspace has become a much less hospitable place for users as well as developers, a tragedy of the commons.

Such disregard for the commons, if allowed to continue into planetary orbit and beyond, could have tangibly negative consequences. The decisions we make in the sociopolitical, economic, and architectural foundations of Earth's near-space cocoon will directly impact daily life on the surface--from debris falling in populated areas to advertisements that could block our view of the skies. A piece of space junk has already hit a woman in Oklahoma and an out-of-control Chinese space station caused a lot of anxiety and luckily fell harmlessly into the Pacific Ocean.

So I think the rules and governance models for space are extremely important to understand to mitigate known problems such as space debris, set precedents for the unknown, and managing the race to lunar settlements. We already have the Outer Space Treaty, which governs our efforts and protects our resources in space as a shared commons. The International Space Station is a great example of a coordinated effort by many competing interests to develop standards and work together on a common project that benefits all participants.

However, recent announcements by Vice President Mike Pence of an "America First" agenda for the moon and space fail to acknowledge the fact that the US pursues space exploration and science with deep coordination and interdependence with other countries. As new opportunities are emerging for humans to develop economic activities and communities in orbit around the Earth, on asteroids, and beyond, nationalistic actions by the Trump administration could undermine the opportunity to pursue a multiple stakeholder, internationally coordinated approach to designing future human space activities and ensure that space benefits all humankind.

As space becomes more commercial and pedestrian like the internet, we must not allow the cosmos to become a commercial and government free-for-all with disregard for the commons and shared values. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Media Lab PhD student and director of the Media Lab Space Exploration Initiative2 Ariel Ekblaw suggested we need a new generation of "space planners" and "space architects" to coordinate such expansive growth while enabling open innovation. Through such communities, we can build the space equivalents of ICANN and the Internet Engineering Task Force, in coordination with international policy and governance guidance from the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs.

Disclosure : I am one of the two principal investigators on this initiative.

I am hopeful that Ariel and a new generation of space architects can learn from our successes and failures in protecting the internet commons and build a better paradigm for space, one that will robustly self-regulate and allow growth and generative creativity while developing strong norms that help us with our environmental and societal issues here on Earth. Already there are positive signs: SpaceX recently decided to fly low to limit space debris.

Fifty years ago, America "won" the moonshot. Today, we must "win" the Earthshot. The internet connected our world like never before, and as the iconic 1968 Earthrise photo shows, space helps us see our world like never before. Serving as responsible stewards of these crucial commons profoundly expands our circles of awareness. My dear friend Margarita Mora often asks, "What kind of ancestors do we want to be?" I want to be an ancestor who helped make the Anthropocene and the Anthropocosmos periods of history when humans helped the universe flourish with life and prosperity.

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