Reimagining relationships and changing systems in Johannesburg 

Insights from an event in Johannesburg which was organised by SIX and Hivos, as part of a programme of work in 2014-16 which aimed to increase exchange and learning between social innovation and international development communities across Africa.

The task of reimagining relationships and thinking about system change is no easy task. The benefit of brining these two communities of social innovation and international development together was the ability to view challenges from different angles and hear from other perspectives. 

Social innovation is a lens, a never-ending process, a tool; a response to a specific problem/context/need- it is not an end in itself. 

We brought together a wealth of experience from academics, designers, funders, foundations, people working in their communities, small-scale practitioners and more. There were people from the arts, housing associations, the LGBT community, social innovation sector, business, and humanitarians. 

All of these different perspectives helped provide rich and interesting discussions and really enabled the participants to learn from different sectors and countries. We looked beyond the fad of technological solutions, and examined the issue of citizen collaboration at a more systemic level. This event teased out definitions, explored thinking in practice and explored the following questions:

  • What can we learn from what is happening already in different parts of the world?
  • How can we build the capacity of citizens to think differently, create new solutions, and adopt and adapt solutions from other parts of the world to fit their own context?
  • How can we help shape the right conditions to support innovations to thrive?
  • What are the relationships being reimagined, by whom and how? 

There were four themes that came up again and again through conversations and we thought that these themes offered a unique lens in which to think about reimagining relationships. These themes offer both a friendly critique and helpful way to understand what we mean by reimagining relationships. 

  1. Power – When you change systems and reimagine relationships, these relationships are never neutral. There is both vertical and horizontal power that needs to be understood.  It is also important to remember that not all people or systems are created equal. This inequality is important to remember to avoid the assumption that all contexts are the same. There is no one size fits all solution to systems change. Zaheera Jinnah, a migration scholar at the University of Witswatersrand spoke at the event and importantly reminded the participants that ‘it’s naïve and unhelpful if we think that all people are treated equal’. Particularly migrants and those who are outside of formal systems, are unable to change systems in the same way as formal citizens.  
  2. Technology – Loe Schout of Hivos commented that it is very easy to both overestimate and underestimate the power of technology. However, technology can be a game changer- changing not just the rules and the way the game is played- but the game itself. However, Loe also reminded us that technology is not always used for social change- The internet is increasingly the new battlefield for human rights. Governments are blocking access to information and are building firewalls to prevent their citizens from accessing to information. Human rights defenders, digital activists and journalists are arrested and freedom of expression is under threat in many countries and parts of the world. While operating in this context the social innovation community should be more aware and concerned about these developments.
  3. Language – Not everyone shares the same understanding or definitions of the words or phrases that we use- particularly across sectors. As Zaheera Jinnah pointed out, the concept of ‘citizens changing systems’ excludes some groups, as not everyone is a citizen or has access to different power structures. It is important to understand the need to create a space for discussion to understand what certain terms mean.  
  4. Trust – Cedric de Beers, of the Soros Economic Development Fund, spoke about relationships having both emotional and intellectual attributes. Trust is a vital component of both, particularly when developing new relationships or reimagining existing ones.


To learn more about these discussions and some of the case studies, you can download the report – Reimagining relationships: How citzens collaborate to change the systems in which they live

View photos from the event