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SIX Global Council Ideas for the Future: How to fund a brave new wave of social innovation

Author: Jon Huggett
SIX Global Council
Published Date: 2 September 2015

This article was written by Jon Huggett (Chair, Social Innovation Exchange) and is part of our SIX Global Council series on Ideas for the Future. 

Are funders of social innovation backing winners or wasting money? Does social innovation need funders with a fresh approach?

Most funders of social innovation follow a similar path. But many great social innovations I’ve seen were funded quite differently. And the best thinkers in SIX are sketching out a new approach – in articles and at meetings. SIX convened the first meeting of its funders’ node in July.

Mainstream advice to funders is usually something along the lines of: “Pick an idea you like, back an innovator, create a ‘backbone’ organization for harmony, invest to scale, and fund research on the evidence”. SSIR has published numerous articles on this approach. Mostly this is evolutionary, not revolutionary. Most funders stay with the pack, rather than move to the edge. They look to improve, rather than challenge the status quo. 

I’ve lived with three great social innovations over decades: two that I like and one that I do not. Their progress has followed a very different path. The two social innovations that I like are smoke-free workplaces and equal marriage. The one I find disturbing is mass incarceration.

Social innovation offers the hope of a fairer world: something more than marginal improvements to public services. Brazilian philosopher and politician Roberto Unger is excited about the full potential of social innovation, the potential to widen the sharing of power. Michael Young, arguably the pioneer of social innovation, always aimed to shift power away from elites, especially the “meritocracy”. Social innovation as a field is growing, challenging exclusion and inequality. Social innovation is becoming more social: sharing power for social ends, not just using power for social ends. 

Funders who want radical social innovation can share power in six ways:

  • Instead of picking ideas you like, pick ideas that everyone likes
  • Instead of backing hero innovators, back “leader-rich” movements
  • Instead of trying to run collaborations, collaborate as peers
  • Instead of orchestrating harmony, welcome rage
  • Instead of investing in scaling organizations, invest to spread impact
  • Instead of encouraging erudition, use words that include and invite

This approach fits much better with what I’ve seen, and what I’ve heard at SIX.

The social innovations that have changed my life

When I started work after university in 1978, meeting rooms had ashtrays. Many of my colleagues smoked. I’d already tried and given up. Many meetings were the proverbial “smoke-filled rooms”. The first place in the world to ban smoking in the workplace was San Francisco in 1986. The world’s press was derisive, with comments on the lines of how ludicrous it was that in a city known for its freedom you could not even enjoy a smoke. In 25 years, smoking outdoors became the norm in a range of countries. This social innovation did not follow the main stream.

In 1978, in Victoria Park I sang “Glad to be Gay” with Tom Robinson, which had risen in the charts, despite being banned by the BBC. In 1979, Village People made the video of “In the Navy” on a frigate, which the US intended to use for recruiting, until someone explained the lyrics. We hoped for a freer world, but I did not expect equal marriage in my lifetime. AIDS in the 80s pushed us back, with many countries such as the UK also cutting civil rights for gay people. But from the 90s onwards, and especially from 2008, there was an institutional revolution. In 2013, the USA, the UK and France equalized marriage. This path was not mainstream.

In 1977, I spent a week behind bars as a volunteer. I was struck by how a prison is a college of crime. Criminologists in the 1970s regarded prisons as anachronistic and ineffective at cutting crime. Yet since then, we’ve seen a huge increase in incarceration, with massive investment in prisons. When it comes to locking people up, the UK now leads Europe, and the US now leads the world. This is a huge social innovation, which did not follow the main stream.

Each of these innovations followed the more radical path. Each was popular, or populist, depending on whether you like them or not. Each movement was “leader-rich”, without a single hero. None had a “backbone” institution to coordinate collaboration, which was widespread, effective, cacophonous, and often not harmonious. The institutions of each movement faltered, often stumbling as they scaled, while the innovations spread.

Each case was won with clear, plain words. Erudite research and “evidence” was at best marginal. The revelation that cigarette smoke could harm not just the smoker prompted non-smokers to say “yes, I do mind if you smoke”. But more powerful was the support from non-smokers by voting for the ban in San Francisco, and flying Northwest Airlines when it took the leap of banning smoking. There never was any “evidence” that same-sex marriage harmed “traditional” marriage. The change in attitude came from lesbian and gay people coming out in huge numbers. In 1985. only a quarter of people in the US said that they had a friend who was lesbian or gay. Now three quarters do. Prisons have always been colleges of crime, but “ “three strikes and you’re out” has proven enduringly popular. We vote for “tough on crime”.

I offer that this points to the new path to fund social innovation. 

Instead of picking ideas you like, pick ideas everybody likes

Geoff Mulgan wrote that the benefits of innovation do not always trickle down. Innovation hubs flourish alongside rising inequality. Some innovations are even designed to increase inequality: consider most immigration policies and apartheid. A meritocratic elite crafts most innovation policy. Social entrepreneurs often come from a different background than the people that they try to help, seeing their work as “giving back”. In contrast, most business entrepreneurs I know share a similar background to their customers. 

Instead, funders can pick innovations “socially”: share the power and ask many, not few. The public wants change that is good, not just novel. It is easier to go “with the grain” of what people want, helping the willing instead of changing the unwilling. The people can drive change, whether we like it or not.

The best way to find out whether innovations are fair to people is to ask.

Instead of backing hero innovators, back “leader-rich” movements

Most innovation funding goes to heroes or geniuses. We like to mingle with the great. Most of us have subscribed to meritocracy: the idea that talent is shared so unevenly that power should be kept in the hands of the smart few. If things go wrong, funders like having one throat to choke.

Instead, funders can back shared leadership. 

As Josine Stremmelaar and Remko Berkhout wrote in “U innovate Us”, great social changes are “leader-rich”. No single hero led the movements to drive smoking from workplaces, and to let gay people marry. Swarm intelligence can beat individual genius: Wikipedia is better than any encyclopaedia written by selected “experts”. Music has gone from symphony to jazz to dance music, where innovation is crowd-sourced from composers, performers, producers, DJs, and sound engineers. Science patents have become increasingly collaborative.

Consider backing good people doing smart things, not smart people doing good things.

Instead of trying to run collaborations, collaborate as peers

We all like to say that we are collaborative, yet we often prefer independence to interdependence. Much collaboration for innovation is hierarchical, with a “backbone organization”, which concentrates power by focusing on vague mission and values, not specific impact goals.

Instead funders can lead by example: role model consensual peer collaboration. Consider MEAM and the Campaign to End Loneliness. Henry Kippin argues that collaboration should be to maximize impact. Other authors have talked of “horizontalism” and “new power vs. old power”, sharing the “current”, not hoarding the “currency”. 

Instead of orchestrating harmony, welcome rage

We value smooth cooperation. Angry people are tiresome.

Instead of avoiding conflict, a funder can fan the fires. If social innovation is not irking, it is not working. Schopenhauer commented: “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” Michael Young argued that it was better for people with the problem to own the solution. People with the problem can rage for change.

Instead of investing in scaling organizations, invest to spread impact

“Scaling” has become the new form of old power. Governments prefer to source from a few large suppliers. “Transformative scaling” of organizations can centralize power and entrench a CEO. The large U.S. organizations that deliver ineffective scale programs have been called the “social-industrial complex”.

As Andrew Barnett has pointed out: “Charitable foundations that have been set up in perpetuity have all the time in the world”. With so much time, funders can pick from a range of “end games”, leaving the scaling of organizations to specialist investors. An “ecosystem” of small organizations can beat a bureaucracy. Network economics can beat scale economies. Investors specializing in scaling, such as Big Society Capital, are scrambling for “investment-ready” organizations. Organizations that help ideas spread, such as the International Centre for Social Franchising, are growing.

Instead of encouraging erudition, use words that include and invite 

Social innovation uses a mellifluous profusion of obfuscatory multi-syllabic works of Latin origin, which exult in terminological inexactitude. Lengthy papers discuss “definition”, and the overlap with social enterprise and system change. Some like that “social innovation” is itself unclear, and therefore less threatening to government funders than “change our world”, which is what we really want. A senior BBC journalist once told me, “Social innovators like to sound clever”.

Instead, to ease collaboration and social leaders, funders can keep the words that draw in the intelligent, interested, uninformed outsider. Knowledge is power, which we can share. The more we share, the more we can change.

A manifesto for a new way to fund social innovation?

The mainstream is well funded. Can we encourage funders to break away from the pack? Could this fund a new, brave wave of social innovations?