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Think local, former U.N. leader Kofi Annan tells Miami forum

In the Ritz-Carlton ballroom in Coconut Grove on Monday, Kofi Annan, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, addressed a crowd of well-dressed world savers to open the Continuity Forum of the Americas Business Council (abc*). In a speech that touched on the environment, the Arab awakening, democracy in Latin America, the spiraling conflict in Syria, nuclear war and resource scarcity, Annan encouraged attendees to address these and other problems by thinking local.

“People ask me all the time, ‘what should one do to become a global citizen?’ I tell them, get involved with your community, your city, your town, your village,” Annan said.

For abc*, a think tank dedicated to “people, planet and philanthropy” in the Americas, Miami is the center of that community. Smack dab in the middle of the hemisphere, for two years Miami has hosted the annual Continuity Forum that attracts more than 300 people from all over North and South America. Rebecca Mandelman, senior director of the abc* based in Miami Beach, said she has recently seen more and more of these would-be world changers coming to Miami to stay.

“There’s this intellectual thirst in Miami that brings a lot of these forces together,” Mandelman said. Referring to the co-sponsoring organizations — many of them local, like the Knight Foundation, Univision, PODER magazine and technology company Ico Group — she said, “Miami is like the fulcrum, the center for people in our community.”

The three-day conference, which sold tickets in advance, features a full roster of impressive speakers, including Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes. But the main focus is the competition between 32 “social entrepreneurs” who will present their projects to be judged by the five chairman of abc* and the foundation’s 23 fellows. The best three projects will receive $100,000 grants, media support and business connections for two years.

“We evaluate them by their potential to make the greatest impact,” said Mario Scarpetta, director of Colombian cement and energy company Inversiones Argos and co-chairman of abc*. To evaluate their effectiveness, he said abc* would review each project’s “strategic business plans and economic models of their impact.”

The projects range from a museum of sacred Peruvian plants and an indigenous tourism agency in Mexico to a Nicaraguan organization dedicated to fighting cancer and a “green roof” sustainable building company. The presentations, videos and question-and-answer sessions took place in English and Spanish, and Mandelman said she hoped the casual conversations between sessions would lead to future ideas and organizations.

Even entrepreneurs whose projects are not chosen for the abc* grant have the opportunity this week to interact with investors and leaders of the industries they seek to influence. Pati Ruiz of Grupo Ecológico Sierra Gorda in Mexico said her alliance of five conservation organizations is already active in central Mexico, but if awarded the grant she would use it to expand to the rest of the country and into South America.

“The strength of our project is that it’s already up and running,” Ruiz said in Spanish after her presentation. “We have the tools to expand and reproduce what we’re doing.”

Although most of the conference attendees were excited about the ideas, some expressed frustration with the lack of avenues for individuals to get involved.

“I think that’s the problem with a lot of these conferences: There are no action items, nothing you can really do if you’re not a big-time donor,” said one attendee who didn’t want to be named because he works for one of the co-sponsors of the conference. “We come, watch, applaud and leave.”

Still, abc* continues to connect some of the most creative innovators in a younger generation to current political and business leaders who have the resources to give their ideas wings, Mandelman said, and the rest of the Continuity Forum promises to help make this happen.

“We believe that collective engagement can advance the Americas,” she said.