New ways of doing

The original article appeared on The Guardian

Social innovation is the new global obsession. It might be a nebulous idea but it has huge potential.

Lord Darzi, following his review of the NHS, is so enamoured of its powers that he’s set aside a £50m annual budget to encourage its spread. Governments in Singapore, Denmark and China have also invested generously. Social innovation seems to be the new Klondike. But what exactly is it, and does it have the potential to trigger political change on a scale ruling parties might prefer not to imagine?

A group of more than 80 social innovators from 17 countries have just spent three days in San Sebastian, Spain, at the first summer school to find some answers – and make connections. The event was co-organised by the UK’s Young Foundation, named after Michael Young, Lord Young of Dartington, who breathed social innovation (Open University, NHS Direct, Consumers’ Society), and headed by Geoff Mulgan, Tony Blair’s former adviser.Advertisement

In Innovation Nation, American John Kao quotes painter Jasper Johns, “Do something. Do something to that, and then do something to that. Pretty soon you’ve got something.” But that “something” could be socially innovative and exceedingly bad for mankind: Hitler’s concentration camps come to mind. So what kind of “something” were these social innovators interested in creating?

The language around social innovation easily slides into smoke and mirrors. One definition says it’s finding new ways to satisfy unmet social needs. Certain problems are proving intractable – climate change; an ageing population; long-term chronic diseases; economic inequality. How do we generate social change from the bottom up, releasing the capacity in people to find fresh solutions?

Mulgan pointed out that innovation only becomes imperative when crisis looms and institutions react to the past rather than tackle problems of the present. In the UK, for instance, the NHS is still centred on acute hospital care – but more than 15 million people suffer from chronic diseases like arthritis and diabetes that require a different support.

“Thinking differently”, working against the grain, breaking down barriers, is the social innovation route. Thinking differently led to Red Nose day – combining comedy, public participation, social need and television.

The summer school offered a range of examples of thinking differently. Kim Youn-hee from the Hope Institute in Seoul described how a complaints festival encourages individuals to voice their dissent on a website and work to correct the problem – important in a country new to democracy.

Jack Heath from Australia set up Inspire, a web-based organisation designed by and for young people that supports the 75% of youth who have mental health problems and who don’t seek help and encourages civic engagement. Since 1997, teenage suicide rates have dropped by 55%. Alessandra Dalcolle described the workings of Banca Prossima, the only bank in Europe that solely lends to the third sector: 250,000 non-profit organisations that support the needs of more than 35 million people. The bank funds projects with a high social value. Profits do not go to shareholders but to a special solidarity fund.Advertisement

None of these could have been as effective four decades ago. What’s made a difference is the web; grassroots activists connected globally. But huge challenges remain. One is diffusion. Invention is the creation of an idea; innovation is its development, implementation and scaling up. Diffusion is the valley of death for social innovation.

The Darzi review pointed out that while £3.6bn of public investment went into health innovation in 2007-8 (with very mixed results), only 4% of that was spent on diffusion. A second but no less important concern that was raised constantly at the camp was the end goal of social innovation.

Does it require a political context, the articulation of a common set of values? If it does, what does that mean for countries such as China, where its ability to radicalise is, for now, best kept covert? Some said they saw social innovation as a spark – what happened next was the concern of others.

A second group argued that it was the only route to the creation of a socially just world in which individuals are recognised as more than shoppers, consumers and labour fodder, and in which their capacity to work together for the common good is recognised and utilised – politics minus the cynicism. “What this is, is the beginning of a movement,” said one of the participants. “Of what I’m not entirely sure.”

· Yvonne Roberts is a senior associate of the Young Foundation