5 steps to help build movements for social impact and system innovation – lessons from Istanbul

Last week 150 people from more than 50 countries gathered at the Istanbul Innovation Days to share, learn and discuss how building movements for government and cross-sector innovation might enable social impact at a larger scale. The event was hosted by the UNDP in collaboration with Nesta.

I returned from Istanbul with new insights and new case studies on public sector innovation and creating impact in the development sector. The gathering also reaffirmed my belief,  that network organisations, like SIX, hold the key value toward the collective efforts which movements require.

The social innovation ecosystem is not lacking in knowledge, but it is lacking investment in connections, networks and translation of the knowledge existing. As Milica Begovic at UNDP quoted Dave Snowden: “If you have 1$ to invest in knowledge management, spend 0.1 on content and the rest on connecting people”.

If we connect we are more likely to enable change for good and social development, but more than just connecting is needed. It takes the right people, the right link,  and the right ‘facilitator’ of that connection – all of which prove that network management is a specialist practice. But it is not an elite action, we all need to  play our part. Here a five steps that can help:

1) Connecting is a capacity and is essential for the social innovation ecosystem to flourish

Providing these connections and enabling a network, and the transfer  of knowledge, solutions and strategies requires dedicated organisations and people invested in and equipped for this task. Actors who know how to build a network are able to provide the  opportunity for people to connect and organise in a way which enables experimentation and new approaches. Connecting through networks allow us to be  creative about our collaborators. As Beth Simone Noveck indicates in ‘A Democracy of Groups’: in networks “… we can do together what we cannot achieve alone…. ordinary people can now become a group even without the benefit of a corporation or organisation. They can make decisions, own and sell assets, accomplish tasks by exploiting the technology available. They no longer need to rely on a politician to make decisions. They can exercise meaningful power themselves about national, state and local—indeed global—issues.”  

Frontline workers and social innovation (SI) actors need to be given the space to co-define the network and connections they need to overcome challenges or to develop SI in their practice. With intermediary and network focused organisations, this ‘space’ can be developed and designed for them to make these connections happen. Network organisations provide not only advice  and spaces for connections, they also outline  another way of collaboration. The umbrella approach of networks has the ability to connect and broker awareness, helping to avoid the development of bubbles and silos.

2) Cross-sector system awareness can avoid innovation silos

Innovation actors often identify themselves within specific pockets of change and development agenda. We are either capacity builders or solution developers. We are either strategic oriented or focused on emerging issues. This pattern of siloing is  not necessarily useful. Work is often ‘labelled’ as e.g. policy innovation or public sector innovation or civic innovation. This ignore the key ties between these practices – and keeps innovation from becoming real movement of change. If we really want to disrupt the system and foster movements for real system change, we need cross-sector systems awareness and collaboration. Nesta’s skills team provided a useful image to captures this common labelling.

Whilst being aware of one’s own mission and expertise is good, there is a tendency for some innovation and development practitioners to misunderstand how they might connect around the implementation of these missions.Peers are often identified as individuals, or organisations, either in the same sector or with similar levels of seniority.

At SIX we have always worked to build  a cross-pollinating approach, and our view of peers is most often cross-sector. We believe that your peer is someone who shares a similar mind-set and not just job title. That your peer is defined based on the shared challenge and interest. Only by engaging for a wider systems awareness can we foster the right co-ownership, networks and peer-partnerships that can set the basis with  movements for sustainable impact.  

In Istanbul, participants agreed that a first step to enable this cross-sector approach is to build a shared language within the system. Systemic change requires individuals in a network to act collectively with a combined agency, intelligence and awareness.  As McCarthy,Miller, Skidmore put it: “Networks are the language of our times, but our institutions are not programmed to understand them”.

3) Separate the people and the change itself to allow for experimentation
Lankelly Chase funded the Point People to create the Systems Changers project. Cassie Robinson explains the key  recommendation from the project  is the need to separate people from the change (the problem and solution) itself. We too often fall quickly into a delivery mode and let own biases and preferences take charge. The Point People have outlined a helpful set of Design Principles for System Changers. We need to ensure that people not only hold the skills and expertise, but also that they are able to navigate conflicting tensions.

4) Focus, don’t get seduced – innovation is often about the boring stuff in the ‘back-office’

We tend to focus our energy and attention on startups and  new ideas. We get seduced by the ‘top of the iceberg’ – the fresh idea or the exciting service. But the real innovation has to occur  in the back-office around the ‘boring stuff’ argued Indy Johar. What are the blind spots? How do we unleash the human capital throughout the system? We need change that is rooted deeper in the system’s operations.

According to Marco Steinberg ‘Governments are built for a reality that no longer exists.’ We tend to keep trying to improve the efficiency of what was or what is. This is not solving our need for change, not leveraging innovation. We must redesign to focus on what could be or maybe even embrace an anti-establishment mindset as a force of good?

InWithForward  use an approach for grounded change which identifies existing societal interventions and examines how these can be scaled to innovations. Using past examples from history to learn about the gaps between interventions and innovations, they draw knowledge from the tools that were introduced and used to help address these gaps enabling innovations.

5) Make change visible – all the way through the change process!
A visible  change process makes an important difference in taking advantage  of the invested efforts. It makes it easier for affiliated change agents to stay engaged and it helps promote transparency and clarity of potential outcomes. It also increases the understanding of the different steps of the change process, which  helps prevent the mistake that innovation practitioners are trying to copy solutions based on the solution itself.

Having more insights to the process, design and steps makes it easier to adapt and replicate. If a solution is simply copied it tends to fail, since important ‘hidden’ circumstances and context aren’t  taken into account.

Visibility should be highlighted throughout the change process. This also helps keep the momentum, energy and interest and  ‘nudges’ involved stakeholders  to learn from the process, and to adapt future processes ahead. This helps avoid the trend of ‘starting up’ again and again without learning from previous cases, or without being aware of what is already known.

Knowledge systems need openness and interactions to leverage the knowledge it holds. As Dan Gillmor, the first newspaper journalist to have a blog has said “Any beat where the important knowledge is widely distributed should be imagined from the beginning as a network” and today’s data innovation help making change visible.It points us to knowledge, facts, trends, problems that can help us learn from what we are doing – and about what we are not doing yet. It allow access to the history, usage and span of various innovation.

Want to know more about the conference?

If you didn’t have the chance to participate I would recommend you to take a scroll through the twitter ‘minutes’ at #IID2017 and be inspired by the dialogue and insights shared.

Want to know more about SIX?

Get in touch with me at Julie.Munk@socialinnovationexchange.org or (twitter @julie_munk)