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A New Kind Of Blowin' In The Wind

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Last month I found myself driving up the heady ascent of Topanga Canyon Blvd. I'd been invited to a Thanksgiving Party by a musician friend who has played with icons like Jim Morrison, Ry Cooder, Janis Joplin and Crosby, Stills & Nash in a time when making yourself heard meant just that.

I moved to Southern California three years ago, having lived most of my life in London. Although we speak the same language (almost) the cultural differences sometimes seem wider than the Atlantic between. In my career as a Corporate Communications Producer, I have traveled the globe to help my Fortune 100 masters communicate better with their customers and workforce. Yet no city is quite like LA, where everyone seems to be searching for something - a better life, stardom, wealth, spiritual awareness, a younger physique... Maybe it's because many took so much trouble to uproot and head West that once they reached the ocean, they started questioning whether the journey was worth it.

And so I found myself, a Brit, alongside my American friends giving thanks to 'being alive' in the New World and toasting the night away with spirits and vegan good cheer. My musician pal has an eclectic collection of friends from all walks of life drifting through the many rooms that a Tibetan monk would look natural in. A band is jamming in the living room while in the kitchen I am challenged across the hanging pots and pans about the non-profit Foundation that I work for.

It started with an innocent question regarding the Presidential race: should one vote for a senior or a freshman, old hand or novice? At a party (especially a rock and roll one), a golden rule has always been to avoid talking about politics (argumentative), children (dull) and personal problems (embarrassing). I broke the first rule because politics can chip away some of the veneer that people have spent their lives polishing. For the next two hours, between dancing and much libation, we argued the duty of a citizen to vote and the power of playing the system from within.

What I didn't know was I was in the midst of organic radicals who believed in the collective unconscious to change the course of history (yes that's how they talk). These people weren't going to vote in the upcoming elections because they felt that the protests of the '60s and '70s hadn't worked and the core of the system had stayed the same, despite the many changes in "coating". And yet I've seen first hand evidence to the contrary, although from a business angle rather than a political one.

In the late '80s and early '90s, a group of environmental protestors trying to change corporations realized that the only way to 'play the system' was to change it from within. So they became shareholders. Before long, the term CSR was a buzzword, and today every Fortune 100 has a Corporate Social Responsibility policy. I worked for Shell International for four years as their video communications consultant, even though my affirmative action novelist sister said they were the devil and should be shunned. Like all juggernaut corporations trying to create wealth for shareholders, changes were afoot as pressure mounted from the very people who benefited from a profitable balance sheet. And that's what I realized... Rather than turn your back on the system, why not work from within to affect a change?

I just wasn't sure how to do it until I found Peter Diamandis and the X PRIZE Foundation. There I was in sunny California making documentaries on aliens (Roswell) and samba schools (Rio Carnaval), and wondering how to make a difference from within when I landed the role of Production Director at the X PRIZE Foundation. And what a radical change it has been for me.

Rather than play the system, why not use it to buck the trend? Rather than predicting the future, why not create it?

And this is where I return to the heated but friendly discourse in that Topanga kitchen rising above the rhythm of tribal drums. The accusation was that the Foundation uses 'the system' to create prizes that ultimately benefits 'the system' - a kind of rarified, new boys' network of billionaires creating new frontiers for their businesses. My defense was that entrepreneurs will do this anyway because entrepreneurs always chart new territory. But as part of the X PRIZE Foundation, they create opportunities to benefit humanity because X PRIZES are independent, international and open-sourced.

The X PRIZE is a new twist on an old idea of prize philanthropy and works because both sides win - the sponsors meet their CSR objectives and gain public respect while helping share prices; and humanity sees the grand challenges of our time like oil dependence and healthcare resolved in the very near future. Most of all, we advocate 'Revolution rather than Evolution,' and that's what finally engaged the organic radicals. I was asked by a man, who used to hang out with Dylan, "How many times can a man turn his head, pretending he just doesn't see? The answer my friend is blowin' in the wind." And with a chuckle, he said to me, "It seems the younger generation protests differently. Maybe they'll be more effective by manipulating the system rather than fighting it."

I still failed to change their minds about voting. In a city of sequels, I hope for another opportunity.

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