March 23, 2018

Interview with Michael Fembek, the Director of the Zero Project

Our colleague Martin Vogelsang took part in the Zero Project Conference in Vienna. The conference is one of the most important platforms where the most innovative and effective solutions are found for problems that persons with disabilities face.

He had a short talk with Dr. Michael Fembek, the Director of the Zero Project, to find out more about their challenges and vision for the future.

Essl Foundation

The Zero Project Conference is without doubt the world’s most important gathering of experts and practitioners on the ground when it comes to finding innovative practices and policies that make the world more accessible for people with disabilities. Can you reflect on some of the highlights of this year’s Zero Project Conference?

There were many highlights. One of them is when we introduced a new format within the 3-days-conference, called “Corporate and Entrepreneurship-Forum”: We selected start-ups which got a chance to pitch to corporate representatives such as Google and Microsoft, and in a second round to impact investors, including EVPA-members like Young-Jin Choi from Phineo. Giving outstanding start-ups for across the world this unique opportunity, but also giving corporate representatives and impact investors a chance to connect with a carefully picked group of promising innovators, without any effort of their own, that was really inspiring. This is a role we are really comfortable with and want the develop a lot in the future.

How did Essl Foundation come up with the idea and the concept for this conference? What are your mission and vision?

We started by trial and error and an incremental process. Our first concept, back in 2010, was to create a set of social indicators that made countries more comparable and accountable in how they treat persons with disabilities, like the Bertelsmann Indices or Transparency International work in other areas. But we slowly found out that – for a small foundation like ours – research and communication of innovative practices and policies is a much more needed, more effective and credible approach. The Zero Project Conference, the physical meeting place of dozens of innovators and global stakeholders that are keen in connecting with this elite group, is the crystallization of it.

Tell our readers a little about your success story. What where the key milestones that have been reached over the years since the conference was first staged in 2012?

A first milestone was the commitment to engage with Austrian stakeholders, for example organising several workshops to learn about the real needs of the community. A second was to connect internationally – using the networks of EFC and EVPA among others – to position the Zero Project for a truly global approach. A third was the support of the Austrian Foreign Ministry that help a lot with connecting to UN Agencies, organising in 2014 the Zero Project Conference in a United Nations venue for the first time. A forth was the commitment and skill was to permanently engage with hundreds of stakeholders worldwide, involving eventually thousands of stakeholders every year in the selection of innovative practices and policies.

Quite a few EVPA-member organisations where again participating at this year’s Zero Project Conference. How do you see the role of Venture Philanthropy and Impact Investing in creating innovative solutions for more accessibility?

We see it as uncharted territory. There is still no real focus on innovators in the field of accessibility and inclusion, although from our point of view it is a mega-trend in its early beginnings. We are talking about the potential of 15 to 25 percent of the population of every country that can be tapped into using new technologies.

Essl Foundation is closely cooperating with the UN in helping to support the implementation of the UN Convention on the „Rights of Persons with Disabilities“. How do you see the progress that has been made in this area? Do you feel that policy makers in general are doing enough in order to enable philanthropic organisations as well as venture philanthropy organisations to become more active in this field?   

No, but that may not be very different from other disadvantaged groups. Our vision is a complete value chain: grant-giving foundations present at very early stage; change-oriented charities and other funders that create prototypes and proof-of-concepts; impact investors for scaling and developing business cases. Social impact funds are the missing link to the financial markets. We are willing to be the catalyst in creating this value chain.

But there is another, arguably even bigger, role to play for philanthropic organisations that target systematic change– like using successful pilots to change public funding schemes etc. If the school system of a country is changed into disability-inclusive, for example, the impact is definitely bigger than with any business venture.

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