Climate of crisis and what this means for the social sector

Author: Josiane Smith

In the summer of 2019, I moved back to London to take on a new role as the  Partnerships and Growth Manager for SIX. I had just returned from six years abroad, exploring what social and economic development looks like in different cultural contexts around the world. I moved between the Middle East, London and New York to work with businesses and nonprofits in positions that gave me firsthand insight into institutional, organisational and grassroots change.

SIX is fuelled by the belief that change is more effective when people work collectively, and has been identifying and connecting isolated people and organisations within social innovation since 2008. As someone whose early career was crafted around cultural translation, relationship-building, and information-gathering, I joined SIX to build out their value as this growing global exchange – convening the unusual suspects of social innovation, creating opportunities to exchange information and insight among multiple stakeholders, building capacity around systems and social change, and fostering an ecosystem based on mutual value, relationships and trust.

What intrigued me about SIX was how global their conversation around social innovation really is: from bringing foundations around the world together in Canada; to running a Social Lab Symposium in Hong Kong; from rethinking research and practice in Latin America, to launching a new policy declaration with the European Commission which centres social innovation across all EU policies and programmes.

Ten years later, SIX has helped create a lively and people-led exchange between socially innovative thinkers and doers. Our relationships mean that trust is at the heart of everything we seek to do: grow the social innovation movement; broaden the conversation around it; and invite new people, sectors, and regions into the exchange.

But this kind of partnerships and ecosystem-building work faces a serious threat.

Our exchange is built primarily on social capital, which is built on social trust. Trust is a crucial element of our wellbeing as individuals and societies, of the functioning of our democracies, and of the resilience and innovation of our economies.

And yet the environment around us is steeped in accounts of breakdown. There’s a deafening tone of crisis around our planet’s climate, the erosion of our social and moral fabric through the attention economy and corporations’ relentless pursuit of profit and data, our dangerously declining faith in the robustness and fairness of our public and political institutions. Without even a hint of irony, the British public recently heard from our second unelected Prime Minister since the Brexit vote, that restoring trust is a basic democratic mandate.

That it is.

But our attention, and our personal sense of reality, have both started to become “colonised by current events,” as Oliver Burkemann puts it; we’re experiencing what Adam Greenfield describes in his recent book, Radical Technologies, as a persistent “low-grade sense of panic and loss of control”.

This climate of crisis threatens what we do at SIX and the way we do it, so we have started asking some serious questions…

Questions like – how do we work with others to write new stories about our shared future? What stories of restoration should we be telling to build a better future for all? How do we navigate a kaleidoscope of lived experiences to create, what Daniel Schmachtenberger calls, “deep synergistic relationships” – the kind that paint a picture of “elegantly ordered complexity” and emergence? How can we live out what Paul Collier calls our “obligation to each other”? How can we support societies in transition?

In other words, how can we put social innovation to work?

Leading with our values

For one thing, SIX has chosen to lead with our values as we navigate increasingly more complex and new terrain. Our values are not just for show. They’ve helped us make decisions when we’ve been offered new and exciting opportunities, when we’ve faced dilemmas or conflicts of interest, or when we’ve had to confront hard truths and areas of uncertainty.

Recently, we’ve started having conversations about whether – or how – we externalise and communicate these values to the networks we are part of. I’ll write about that next time. But at its core, by centring our values in all conversations and decisions, we’ve created a space with better boundaries* where we can be clear about what we are and what we’re not, what we will and won’t contribute to, what we can ask of our partners and what they can ask of us.

* Priya Parker has a compelling way of writing about how to create purposeful exchanges and spaces in the Art of Gathering. Recommended read!

Opening up the sector

We’ve also proactively committed to taking on projects that serve to “open up the sector”. This came from a realisation that since we focussed on building a “social innovation community” at the beginning of our ten year history, we became insular and safe within our existing communities of practice and circles of friends.

But we recognised that we – as others in our sector – haven’t done enough to connect and engage isolated people and organisations that wouldn’t necessarily identify as social innovators. The Unusual Suspects Festival is a great example of piloting then replicating a model which has now taken place in five cities so far. It was developed in partnership with several UK public and private organisations, and served to widen the conversation around social innovation, build social cohesion through meaningful exchange and increase the likelihood of cross-sector partnerships.

Creating interconnections

The third attempt at answering some of those pressing questions is fundamentally shifting how we conceptualise our exchange and de-centralise ourselves in the process of sharing intelligence, knowledge and insight. Similar to theories of complexity, networks, distributed governance and systems, we look at the interconnectedness of all parts – all our seeming siloes of activity – and give space to the emergent properties of the whole that none of the parts individually could express. Our approach to cross-sector, systems thinking is also an article that’s coming soon, so I won’t talk more about it here.

But in the face of what feels like so much crisis, adopting values-led, people-led, and systems-thinking approaches as both mindsets and skill-sets is crucial for those of us who work in social development and still believe it.

The future is on us.

You can reach out directly to me, to share some reflections or propose new ways we should work together via and @josianesmith.