Photo credit – Skoll Foundation
The Skoll Foundation’s director of policy and global security argues for a new philanthropic approach to supporting innovation in the nuclear arena.
Bruce Lowry has the nuclear field surrounded. With a background in foreign policy, tech, communications, and philanthropy, he brings a broad professional toolkit to the challenge of reducing nuclear threats. At the Skoll Global Threats Fund and now at the Skoll Foundation, Bruce has spearheaded efforts to identify and explore new ways to make the world safer from the risks of nuclear weapons, primarily by identifying and funding fresh collaborative approaches to solving decades-old problems. N Square is one such approach. In this brief interview, Bruce talks about what his time in the Foreign Service and the tech world taught him about how innovation happens, why nontraditional philanthropic approaches to the nuclear threat are sorely needed, and why he remains optimistic about the prospects of a nuclear-free future.
Q How did you end up at the Skoll Foundation?
A It was a circuitous path. After studying international relations in college and in graduate school, I went into the Foreign Service for almost 14 years, working on a variety of projects, including nuclear safety. I left in 1999 and went into tech for about a decade. Then I started looking for opportunities to reenter the global policy world, but without having to leave the Bay Area. That’s how I landed at the Skoll Foundation. At the time, Jeff Skoll was creating a separate project called the Skoll Global Threats Fund, which aimed to tackle a handful of the biggest wicked problems facing humanity, including climate change, pandemics, and nuclear nonproliferation. Given my foreign policy background, I ended up overseeing Skoll Global Threats’ nuclear nonproliferation work, and that included N Square. When Skoll Global Threats Fund sunsetted at the end of 2017, I brought this work back into the Skoll Foundation.
Q How have your Foreign Service and tech-sector experiences influenced your career in philanthropy?
A Both taught me a lot about innovation and the conditions that can either encourage or stifle it. The Foreign Service gave me insight into how hard it is to innovate from within the government in any systematic way. The Foreign Service runs foreign policy at the direction of political leadership, and Foreign Service contacts and networks carry over even when administrations change. There is value in that continuity and in institutional memory—but it also can discourage experimentation. I was in the Foreign Service during the Cold War, and while I wasn’t working on nuclear weapons policy directly, I did work on G7 issues after the Chernobyl incident. There was a lot of conversation about how to put a sarcophagus over the Chernobyl reactors that were still leaking—and yet that didn’t happen until 2016. That’s how long it takes to get stuff done in government. Even when government is willing, they are slow to commit to trying something completely new.
“I SAW THE POWER OF CROWDSOURCING AND OF EMBRACING NEW WAYS OF APPROACHING OLD CHALLENGES, AS WELL AS THE VALUE OF AN OLD ORGANIZATION TRYING TO DO NEW THINGS IN A FUNDAMENTALLY DIFFERENT WAY.”
In the tech sector, I worked for a company that sold security, network, and management software. It was not tremendously dynamic, but then they decided to get into open source. This was a company known for its “if it’s not invented here it’s no good” syndrome, so its move toward commercializing open source was a big pivot. It exposed me to open source communities and developers who had very different views on how software gets built. While the software itself wasn’t relevant to nuclear nonproliferation, I saw the power of crowdsourcing and of embracing new ways of approaching old challenges, as well as the value of an old organization trying to do new things in a fundamentally different way.
Q You helped start N Square. We’ve asked other founding funders what attracted them to the idea. What about you?
A The conversation around N Square came pretty early after the launch of Skoll Global Threats. I had been talking to Megan Garcia, who was working on nuclear threat at Hewlett and was keen on bringing innovation into the arena. Philip Yun at Ploughshares was also interested. Because Skoll Global Threats was brand new, we didn’t have an established approach to nuclear issues. So it was easy for us to say that we wanted to explore new approaches.
The biggest nuclear funders at the time were Hewlett, Carnegie, MacArthur, Ploughshares, and Skoll. We came together for a series of conversations about innovation in this area, recognizing how much of the work focused on reducing the nuclear threat was quite traditional. A lot of NGOs had been working on this issue for a long time. We saw that there were interesting developments in other arenas where people were taking advantage of new platforms, new technologies, and new approaches. So we retained IDEO, a Bay Area design firm, to take us through an innovation process. How could we think about introducing innovation to this field? What would that look like? What had been tried in analogous areas that might be relevant? That process ultimately led to the creation of an innovation collaborative, which we called N Square.
“HOW CAN BRILLIANT PEOPLE INSIDE AND OUTSIDE THE FIELD GET INVOLVED IN INNOVATING NEW APPROACHES TO NUCLEAR CHALLENGES?”
Q While your goal is to bring innovation to the nuclear field, this collaborative approach to philanthropy is its own kind of innovation. What were some of the early challenges of committing to a five-headed funding approach?
A All five funders had their own remit and their own way of doing things. We all had distinctly different processes for monitoring and evaluation. But we had to create a different, dynamic, and iterative process for N Square because we didn’t know what we didn’t know. We didn’t know what innovation might be the most successful or what we could achieve in a specific timeframe. So early on, everybody got comfortable with the idea that we would have to do things differently. We agreed to retain a developmental evaluator, who worked with us from the beginning to keep strategic questions in focus. That was really helpful. The whole point was that we wanted to do something that would reduce nuclear risk. There was a lot of debate about framing the work around nonproliferation or disarmament, but the effort was designed to surface new players and new ideas around reducing nuclear risk, and we weren’t going to prejudge what those were. We acknowledged it, we were okay with it, and we built it into the process.
In the early stages there was a lot of experimentation. We put seed money into a variety of activities designed to explore what might engage people. As time went on, we saw that some things were more successful than others and started narrowing down what seemed to be working. We engaged with both nuclear sector experts and folks from outside the sector. We listened carefully, and if they chose to disengage, we tried to understand why. When they were interested in doing more, we tried to suss out what that might look like and how we could support it. As a funder collaborative, we also had to identify if people were engaging because they were genuinely interested in the issue, or if they were just participating because there was an implied promise of funding. We relied on feedback, seeing where the enthusiasm was landing, and listening to what people were saying they needed in order to stay engaged. Those were the things that helped us better understand was working and what wasn’t.
Q Eventually, this experimentation led you to the idea of creating a more formal N Square network. What was the goal of that?
A The latest incarnation of N Square is going deeper with a group of N Square fellows over a period of time on very specific work, with N Square serving as a convener and hub. This direction emerged very much in response to the question of agency. How can brilliant people inside and outside the field get involved in innovating new approaches to nuclear challenges? Many of our fellows are doing very cutting-edge work around the world but have never thought about this issue at all. So the N Square Innovators Network invites new members into a community of practice that comprises both incumbent nuclear nonproliferation players and newcomers to the space, while making sure that all see real value in their participation. So far this is going well—our first cohort is finishing its projects and our second cohort is just getting started. A challenge that remains is making clear connections between N Square activities and the ultimate outcome of reducing nuclear risk. But I think we’re moving more into that direction now.
Photo credit – RISD
Q In the meantime, you’re also helping to inspire other organizations and networks to take on this issue in ways that are independent of N Square. When you first sat down with the other four funders, you probably never imagined that the Rhode Island School of Design, for example, would somehow get involved.
A No, but I think that’s a credit to the idea. And it’s another way that we can gauge success. One measure is whether there are partners whom we’ve touched and connected with at some level who have run with the issue. RISD has embraced this idea that everyone—even a well-known design school—can contribute to innovations that lessen the nuclear threat. They are now creating nuclear-focused classes on trust and verification. We’d love to have even more of these kinds of relationships with organizations or networks that embrace this work. PopTech has certainly done it, elevating the nuclear theme in their convenings. The Lear Center is injecting more realistic themes in Hollywood portrayals of nuclear weapons, which may lead some people to think differently about nuclear issues. We’ve had less success in building out relationships to technology companies. There are individuals who are interested and engaged but there’s no organizational partner able to play a similar role to RISD or PopTech. At least, we haven’t identified that partner yet.
Q What do you think the nuclear threat field will look like in 10 years, and what could the future look like if everything goes well?
A I’m optimistic. I think there are a number of factors that could gradually reduce the perception that nuclear weapons are essential to our security. One is the diminishing role of these weapons in military strategy. They are not war fighting weapons, and they are unusable in the conflicts that we face today. Having nuclear weapons doesn’t help you win in Syria. And when something isn’t useful or helpful, costs issues come into sharper focus. And we’re already seeing this, with new House Armed Services Committee members set to challenge the Trump administration on the proposed modernization of the nuclear space because it’s so costly. I’m hopeful that we’re at the beginning of a rising recognition that these weapons aren’t all they’re made out to be.