6 things social innovation can offer to an out of control world

Author Charlie Leadbeater concluded the SIX Wayfinder with six things that social innovation can offer to the future: 

I want to say a few things of what might be coming and how to interact with it.

Over the past two days at the Wayfinder, we’ve had a lot of conversations on the good work that we do and the challenges and opportunities ahead, but I do think that if we’re all doing such amazing work, we do have to ask ourselves why does everything feels so shit?

That is the question.

I want you to imagine in your mind that we’re going to a town that has faced a kind of existential crisis, and the existential crisis has wiped out the material basis for the culture of the town. The people of the town have gathered in the square and they’re being made various offers for the future and what we have to do is go into the square, along with a bunch of other people and make an offer to them.

The question is what is our offer? Are we offering systems change, service design, rapid prototyping, a lab? Is that what we’re offering?

Because there are a bunch of other people in that square who are offering control. What they’re saying is the world is a complex and uncertain place and I am going to get it under control for you because if it feels out of control. So you see the rise of authoritarian populism, the sort of gutting of democracy, the democratic recession that we’re living through which will not come to a halt if Trump is deposed.

Yetunde Aina from Nigeria said if you think that democracy is the best way to run a country you should come to Nigeria. When I asked, well, do you think that sort of efficient authoritarianism is better she said, quite possibly. Tarik Yousef said that visiting Shanghai was interesting, because here was a kind of state that was getting things done in a way that challenged his ideas.

Alongside those people offering control through politics there’s a bunch of other people offering control through technology. That’s basically Facebook, Amazon, Apple, etc. They’re telling people to just wake up, look at me – a phone, a screen, a tablet – and I will tell you what to do.

Just follow what Siri or Alexa tells you to do and it will tell you where to go and what to eat, what to buy, who to mate with, where to go on holiday. Just follow me the technology says.

And actually in the situation that we’re in, if people don’t trust politicians, why not trust an engineer because they seem to know what they’re doing?  Because they deliver all this stuff to us, that’s cheaper and faster and quicker and actually if we just allow them to control our lives it might be a lot better.

What about a world where we all got an Apple basic income? Imagine a future where Apple pay us just enough to keep Apple going, and we get a sort of Apple basic income, as long as we buy everything through Apple.

So if the problem is that the world is out of control, and that’s what it feels like, lots of people are going to offer control as a solution.

If we think, which I think we do, that authoritarian solutions repress human potential, that they’re bad for democracy, for equality, for dignity and all sorts of other things; then this is the enemy, both the cause of the authoritarianism and the authoritarianism itself which is our enemy. Tough on authoritarianism, tough on the causes of authoritarianism, so to speak.  

What do we, the social innovators and entrepreneurs, have to offer?

Here are six quick things that I’m absolutely sure we’re going to see more of. What is our offer in relation to these tendencies?

1. Escapism

We are going to see a lot more escapism. If you face an existential crisis you want to escape from it. There will be more offers of escape, of distraction, of relief, of respite, or fantasy, fantasy fiction, of immersing yourself in a world of Sky sports for instance, or in the world of drugs. Chris Sigaloff, in her opening talked about social innovation as a fake fantasy. A fake fantasy world that is sort of like a holiday camp

Escapism, I think, comes in good and bad forms.

I think what we have to offer is a good, utopian escapism. We have to offer a good escapism, we have to go into the square and say to people, come with us, and we will get you out of this mess. We are your escape party. That escape party is about imagining a different possibility, a different future in a world where capitalism cannot re-imagine itself. That’s what’s happening. The capitalists cannot re-imagine capitalism. So it’s going to have to come from somewhere else. And it will come, hopefully, from us. So I think we need to defend escapism of a good kind.

2. Resistance

The second thing we’re going to see a lot more of is resistance and not just resistance to Trump, not just people with banners, not just marches, important though all of that will be, but resistance to living unacceptable lives. I think we’ll see more acts of resistance aimed at what Mark Moore calls creating the right kind of relationships because you feel as if you’re not being treated with the kind of dignity and respect that you demand. One of the really good things about the world is the universalisation of the aspirations for dignity and respect. This is a really powerful idea.

I was very taken with Jon Huggett’s story about living in a post-truth world as a gay man and living in truth. What Jon was saying was that he can now live in truth: he can say he loves his partner. Living in truth, this is Václav Havel’s phrase form The Power of the Powerless in 1978 where Havel says, an act of resistance is to live in truth when you live in a system of lies. That is modern America where a president systematically lies. To live in truth is an act of resistance.

I think there’s plenty of offers we can make to people to say we can help you resist, we will help you fight and help you live in truth.

3. Coping

The third thing is there’s going to be a lot more coping, because what people do in a crisis is that if control is illusory, escapism is a tendency to fantasy, and resistance is exhausting they you end up coping. Angela Merkel is basically the world’s Coper in Chief. There’s no ideology, there’s no vision, let’s just cope, let’s keep this all going. Keep calm and carry on. Why do we have such a public cult of resilience and grit: because we are consciously creating our own coping capabilities.

So another offer we should make is this: If you’re coping, we’ll help you cope better. When Amalia Zepou talks about what’s happening in Athens basically she’s saying people are coping, but what we’re going to do is help them cope better and build on those capabilities. 

4. Creative conservatives

The fourth thing is that we should learn to think of ourselves as creative conservatives. I know that this is controversial because conservatism stands for hierarchy and tradition and its deeply regressive. But it is also very powerful and there may even be a truth to conservatism, or some kinds of conservatism that we need to acknowledge, at least when conservatism is about conservation.

I think that what we are about is conserving the space and the possibility for human potential, for, if you like the potential to live life to the full. What we’re against is authoritarianism, sectarianism, or domination by technology, inequality, everything which cult creates a sort of culture of indifference to humanity.

5. Radical conservationism

Call it, if you like, a radical conservationism. It does involve, importantly, going back as well as going forward. It does involve what Stephen Huddart said about indigenous knowledge; it does involve going back to some basics. It does involve what Rachael Brown did, talking about those young men in that prison about finding through music, the possibility of humanity even when you’re in an inhumane system.

There are lots of ways in which I think we are creating this possibility of being human, and keeping open that space. That is a really powerful idea when there are so many things that are dehumanising- whether it’s immigration control, or technology, or inequality.

We had this very interesting exchange between Uffe Elbaek and Mark Moore where Uffe ended with this thing about the beating heart and Mark said yes, I have given a talk where I ended by saying you have to connect up the hearts. Then today my new intellectual inspiration and guide in life, Pope Francis, tweeted “A youthful heart does not tolerate injustice and cannot bow to the throw away culture nor give in to the globalisation of indifference”.

The point about being a movement is you have to move people. You cannot move people unless you touch them. You can be a group of people who share ideas and kind of go along together but if you have a movement you’ve got to move people. To do that you have to reach a kind of register, which the right of politics reaches the whole time: pride, belonging, nation, blood, we need our own equivalent of that.

6. Transformation

The final thing is we need to offer transformation. Rather than talk about disruptive innovation we need to talk about innovations which are transformative and generative and which change the rules of the game, create new relationships and with that, create new flows and resources through society.

There are lots of big transformative ideas out there. We don’t quite realise how big they could become. There’s a big idea, which is about the future of work and income and artificial intelligence and basic income and so on and so forth. There’s a big idea about the future of companies, of which BCorps are the start. There’s a big idea in Celina’s idea that you can map in real time an entire society against the SDGs, you could work out where it was failing and succeeding and theoretically how you can reorganise production to meet the social needs best placed on the SDGs.

I think this is our time actually. It may not feel like it because it may feel as if the tide has just gone in the opposite direction, but this is our time. Because now, more and more people want the kind of ideas that we are talking about.

And so I’ll leave you with two quotes, the first is from Abraham Lincoln: “The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise — with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.” So a rallying cry to progressive vision and thinking afresh.

And here from Pope Francis yesterday: “As Christians and all people of good will it is for us to live and act at this moment. It is a grave responsibility, since certain present realities, unless effectively dealt with, are capable of setting off processes of dehumanisation which would then be hard to reverse.” This is a call to action. It’s a call to big ideas. And this is our time; this is why the ideas here have such a big resonance. Be ambitious, be hopeful but be sure that what you’re doing can make a big difference.

Charlie Leadbeater speaking at the SIX Wayfinder