Appalachian Innovation: An Unlikely Partnership

A hypothetical message to the Ashoka Organization on the subject of innovative ideas for social change in Appalachian coal regions:

Dear Ashoka Fellows,

I am writing to from the foothills of the Appalachian mountains, having traveled for the last two weeks through the rusted pipes of the industrial engine that powered our country for years. I have seen corrosion, and damage not only to this localized area, but inefficiencies in this hidden underbelly of America that are affecting the well-being of the entire “engine” of the U.S. power industry, the global climate, and our economy with this region hemorrhaging possible human capital, expenses on health care, and lost opportunities for value creation  and entrepreneurship. I am speaking to you my friends, of the coal fields and the surrounding regions that have been the location on an unsuccessful “War on Poverty” since the Kennedy administration. This area has a history of abuse, and it is continuing today with the nation begrudgingly needing high carbon-emission and unpopular coal-generated energy for a while longer, but with policy makers playing coy with how much they need. Coal producers are on standby in case needed, and must be ready to respond to demand, but have no guarantees of how much Coal will be restricted, when, and how to operate accordingly. Few alternatives are available in these areas aside from marijuana growth in the hills and work at gas stations the Walmart at the nearest “big city,” and even if alternatives such as logging do move into an area, there is a cultural bond formed with the profession of a miner which is seen as honest, hard work, that has defined these regions since the 1840s. This identity is only crystallized by the criticism and judgement of those who condemn the industry out-of-hand. The stubborn people of these regions perceive these pressures as trying to bend their will and wage a “War on coal.” Considering that this region has historically produced the most, and many argue most fierce, fighters in the U.S. this “war” or coercive approach to ending our unhealthy dependence on coal has proved problematic. Yet, problematic or not, the issue of coal pollution remains, and with tangled with it, the economic, cultural, and individual depression of these regions.

My request if that we at Ashoka evaluate the viability of developing a model for end-to-end initiatives for social innovation through not only the conventional methods such as educational scholarships, entrepreneurship advising and incubators, and grants, but also by directly partnering with those who are currently the greatest obstacle to a changed economy in these regions: coal and energy companies and associations themselves. If we are able to divest social entrepreneurship and innovation from a stigma of betraying one’s own in the war on coal, then we can begin shifting not only policy, but local public opinion and perception at the root. This Appalachian Innovation Initiative might involve paying for employee transportation to innovation conventions or seminars, funding or co-hosting innovation and community development events with coal and energy companies, or simply offering a touch-point for these miners to access a network of social innovation, entrepreneurship, and options that they otherwise would never have. As we’ve seen with gold mining companies like Placer Dome operating in South America, these industries can buck ideas of responsibility for their former or soon-to-be former workers at first, but some companies and leaders who understand the value of operating on a stakeholder-sensitive basis can be found and partnered with. This can lead to increased expectation of the whole industry for sustainable development and responsibility to retrain and provide opportunities to miners as an exit strategy with the gradual decline of coal in these areas. This cannot be an isolated initiative, but rather should be a partnership developed by Ashoka to reflect the notions of collective impact as described by John Kania and Mark Kramer, having backbone support from Ashoka, common goals, shared measurement systems, constant communication between partners mutually reinforcing activities between Ashoka, local NGOs, local public sector representatives, and the coal and power companies.

There is much work to be done in identifying cooperative industry partners, and other players within the communities, and so my request begins with a team of Ashoka Fellows such as myself to join with local social entrepreneurs and innovators in these areas who are intimate with the communities. In my time here on the ground I have worked with a West Virginia native named Jacob Hannah, and a social entrepreneurship specialist and professor at Bucknell University, Jordi Comas, both of whom I am recommending as consultants on the initiative. Additionally, I request that consideration be given to partnering with Wayne Dunn, who consulted on a similar project with Placer Dome, the gold mining company mentioned above.

These areas are currently at risk of simply transferring their industry identity to natural gas extraction, since these regions often are located on the Marcellus Shale. If we can begin the shift in opinion that loyalty to coal is synonymous with loyalty to cultural identity and the community, and that new forms of economic models and innovations are within the Appalachian identity and culture, then we will have assisted these regions more than any ban or regulation, and in the long-term reduce fossil fuel dependency and affect the well-being of hundreds of thousands in an entire forgotten and desperate region of our country.


Josiah Hannah, Chief Innovation Officer


An equally hypothetical response from philosopher David Orr to such an initiative:

Dear Mr. Hannah,

I recently heard of the Appalachian Innovation Initiative you are heading up at Ashoka. I wanted to write to tell you that I am in full support of this initiative. The situation of a coal economy in these regions of the Appalachians is a perfect example of what I call the environmental crisis as a social trap for the miners themselves, and while my perspective is that this is leading to the unintended consequence of depletion of natural resource and climate change, I can easily see that they do not end there, but rather extend into the social environment and well-being of these individuals and communities on a much shorter-term timeline. This situation raises fascinating questions for me; for example, since this crisis leads to both environmental and social ills in the long-term, then is the solution a universal one? It seems that your social innovation initiative discourages the domination of an nature, and encourages the refocusing of economic growth, and so I see congruence in the issues that drive both the social and the climate crisis. More deeply however, I am intrigued at the thought that the root cause for the development of these mutually social and environmental traps is a nature in the human condition that leads to the “evils” writ large in the world. I am curious to see how your initiative plays out, and what methods you use, and how you address the fact that Appalachia could simply be a result of the human condition, or if you disprove this completely and reaffirm my other explanations for these crises. In the interim, I am donating ten million dollars to your cause. Use it well.


David Orr, Ph.D





2 thoughts on “Appalachian Innovation: An Unlikely Partnership

  1. I’m glad you made it through those pipes without contracting lockjaw. I would say that I agree (of course) with your proposition, especially seeing that I was about to use Muhammad Yunnis when I saw you had already integrated Ashoka into your solution. As per usual, I like your take on the social aspect of the crisis and, although I found it rather, rather generous that Mr. Orr gives out 10 mil on the basis of a letter, I trust he believes that you’re the right man to be the backbone of this collective impact.


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