The Way to Solve Interconnected Problems is Through Connected Community
The enterprise using social innovation to provide solutions for the vulnerable.
Kenneth Heng is the Director and Founder of Solve n+1, a social agency that facilitates projects for social good. He has been a leadership development consultant since 2013.
What inspired you to start Solve n+1?
I stumbled into the work at Solve n+1. I was never qualified to begin with. I’ve always been interested in developing communities. For almost a decade, I would regularly visit various developing nations. I love different cultures and communities and I would spend time with the locals, drinking tea together while having conversations.
Solve n+1 started because many of them became my friends and I wanted to help. When a friend is in trouble, you want to do whatever it takes to help them.
In many of these communities, I would meet with dreamers who had great visions. They would tell me about the people they serve, and the ideas they had for wanting to give these people a better life, education, and purpose. Yet often these dreamers would feel a bit stuck. They would face issues with navigating different stakeholders, designing systems or processes and even ensuring financial sustainability.
I wanted to help solve this. The simplest way to explain our work is that we are a team of “dream weavers.”
As we work with dreamers and try to understand their dreams, we then weave those dreams into systems, processes, policies, and project management.
How does this practically help in solving community issues? Do you have any stories of how this has worked?
One of the very first projects I collaborated on was with a hospital in Myanmar. A local village leader came to me and asked for help because this hospital had been turning away patients for two years. Now, I’m not a doctor or a nurse. I’m not in the healthcare sector at all. What can I do? It was an intimidating opportunity for me.
In the process of fact-finding, we discovered so much. When I spoke to a doctor about the issue, he would tell me, “You need to send doctors. The issue is the lack of doctors.” When I spoke to nurses, they would tell me, “You need to send nurses, because there are not enough nurses to provide services.” When I spoke to people in hospital facilities, they would tell me, “You need to send equipment, because without equipment you can’t do much.”
The more I investigated, the larger and more interconnected these issues become.
I went back to Myanmar, and in three months of working with the hospital, we met with the village chief, the politicians, doctors and nurses. We sat together and they shared their stories. We co-created systems and policies to fix their situation. In those three months, the hospital was able to deliver about 30 babies. They’re still functioning well today. I was merely the facilitator and it was a privilege to witness their transformation.
This made me realize that for many of the social issues we face, there is a great need for someone to stand in the gap and bridge all the unknowns. We need specialists for sure, but there’s also a need for generalists to reconcile the connections between different disciplines to effect a systemic solution.
You obviously have a mind that works in systems. What prepared you for this? What did you study?
On the contrary, I was a terrible student. I did poorly in school, and I hated studying. I started working at the age of 16. I then took up a diploma in engineering, mechanical electronics, and I continued work in various blue-collar jobs for the next 6 years or so.
Along the way, I decided to continue studying and picked up a part-time degree in English and sociology which took me seven years to complete. During that time, I got married, bought a house, and started Solve n+1.
“I believe innovation is really about matching different solutions.”
Perhaps it was a combination of many of these experiences which developed my appetite for learning. As the ‘n’ in our name suggests the unknown, it certainly prepared me in navigating our work.
One of the core activities of Solve n+1 is social innovation. Can you define that for us? What do you think social innovation means?
If you research the term social innovation, there are many different variations of that term. Different people look at it differently. Some people see from an engineering lens, some people see from a poverty lens, some from a social issue lens.
But for us, social innovation is a process, where we create new expressions of serving one another. Whether the expression is in the format of an engineering solution or something else, it ultimately seeks to serve. We view social innovation as a tool to remember the vulnerable and those who are often left behind, those who are in transition or crisis.
I believe innovation is really about matching different solutions. It is a bit like recipes, where when you put ingredients together and get something new.
For example, if we were to put basketball and swimming together, what do we get? We get water polo. And I think social innovation is a little like that.
Most people think that social innovation is very intimidating and expects new solutions that were unheard of. I believe the heart of social innovation is not about coming up with new things, but about serving people. It is about ensuring value creation, particularly for those who often fall through the cracks.
I expose my team to as many experiences as possible. We often come together and interpret new expressions of how the community can serve one another. We dream of how we can create platforms that help the vulnerable, and how social justice can be facilitated in a more meaningful manner.
How did Solve n+1 become involved in working with the homeless? And how did it start in such an advanced country as Singapore?
In Singapore, helping the homeless is quite a niche issue. If you go to other nations and google what is being done for the homeless, you will see a very elaborate set of literature. The first research into homelessness that I’m aware of in Singapore was only published in 2019.
“To serve each other well, the whole community has to be involved.”
Perhaps as a result of the lack of awareness, few have stepped forward to support the homeless community here. There is a trend that has been observed in the United States – as households get more resources, they become more private. This leads to disconnection and the lack of hospitality amongst the community.
We noticed that disconnection became a very natural outcome of the increasing affluence of a nation. The more resources we have in our lives, the more we prefer to be alone. It was an eventual consequence that we can expect in our Singapore context.
A major motivation for me was witnessing some of my friends who had been taking people into their homes who had nowhere else to go. As the years went by, their homes gradually became a shelter where the homeless were referred and they were overwhelmed by the number of cases. They were just normal human beings, trying to love somebody in crisis. Hospitality was never a privilege reserved for those with a “calling”, but a cultural trait driven by love.
While helping the homeless is important, it can feel intimidating and strenuous. We want to make sure that those who are serving can keep going, that they won’t burn out and they won’t feel alone. And for those who are interested but concerned, we want them to be emboldened to step forward as well. You can find out more information on this link.
To serve each other well, the whole community has to be involved.
One of the things that I tried to advocate for in this work is that crisis is indiscriminate. Homelessness is not exclusive to people without resources, but it’s a consequence of a crisis that we may not anticipate. The answer to that is always a proactive choice to connect, to share our lives, to love one another. That way, when a crisis eventually hits, we are here for each other.
Kenneth continues this conversation, describing the risks he has taken and the inspiration he has drawn from in his life of service. Come back next week to read part 2.