U Innovate Us

This article was written by Josine Stremmelaar (Coordinator of the Knowledge Programme, Hivos) and Remko Berkhout (Consultant, Hivos) and is part of our SIX Global Council series on Ideas for the Future

The obsession with ‘superheroes of social innovation’ undermines the social fabric that is needed to achieve social change. What if we harness the power of ‘US’ for social change? Look to the community innovators, the major innovation investors such as government and grassroots leaders and you will see that it is already happening.

The social innovation field seems obsessed with superheroes, extraordinary innovators forging disruptive change. We try to find them with awards and competitions, bring their ideas to life and scale these through incubation, optimize their environment by imagining setting up local silicon valleys and inspire others to follow their example by putting success stories into a myriad of spotlights, often well ahead of delivery of substance.

This obsession with the extraordinary individual is a sign of the times, also visible in many other domains of social life. Witness the ongoing interest in the hunt for ‘Jihadi John’ or the latest whereabouts of Edward Snowden. It seems to be a way of getting a handle on the fragmentation, informatisation and globalisation that is unravelling the world as we know it. And truth be said, it is comforting that we seem to be able to grasp the broader social dynamics of change within 140 signs or 12-minute TED talks. It’s a lot easier to deploy “Change made simple” neo liberal style: it’s all about U and the extraordinary potential of the individual to make a difference – for better or for worse. And in the former case, please add a business model and stir up change at scale.

Quite likely however, U, the reader are beautiful in your own right but not an innovation superhero. (If you were, would you bother reading innovation foresights?). You’re probably one of US – a large supermajority of ordinary imperfect citizens. The good news is that the power of US harbours much more potential than the superhero narrative of innovation. Because those few superheroes might do fantastic things, but they will never be able to really change the world that we together we can. That insight is neither new nor revolutionary, just rather absent in the fast paced social innovation world. That is why we’re putting the spotlight back on US and are pointing out three perspectives.

 Firstly, the focus on individual innovators and their magic ways to solve problems obscures the fact that public institutions largely generate the problem-solving capacity of societies. As Mariana Mazzucato argues in The Entrepreneurial State (2013), governments are the biggest investors in innovation around the world.  Education institutions are crucial in developing society’s capacity to innovate and harbour our future leaders (see for instance this Futurelab handbook). Democracy enhances the potential of citizens to think for themselves, including the right to think differently. The cultural sector enhances societies’ creative capacities in their search for solutions (see for instance Animating Democracy). Yet, as we are experiencing times of crisis, austerity measures are eroding public institutions such as libraries and cultural institutions. These are not only crucial for the emergence of superheroes such as Daan Roosegaarde. They are also probably the best place to come together to better understand wicked problems and debate possible solutions. This is likely to provide a better base to curb problems in the social fabric of ordinary social interaction well before we need superheroes to come to the rescue. And so the power of US connects innovation to tough questions about democracy, freedom and the institutions of a 21st century open society. 

In a similar vein an US-perspective offers a reverse view on the scaling. It’s not about scaling up. Change starts with scale. U can change the lives of others, but only if it connects to US all, or at least to as many of us as possible. As Derek Silver puts it, it is not about the one leader that makes the first move. The essence is to have the courage to follow and encourage others to join you. So why would we all want to be inventors ourselves, why not aspire to become the most inspiring follower ensuring that innovations thrive?

For us, social innovation starts with generating new ideas and approaches that have the potential to resolve existing social, cultural, economic and environmental challenges for the benefit of people and planet. Individuals and collectives can be a source of these new ideas or approaches; however they alone are not capable of providing these innovations the traction to generate social change. Alan Fowler brings this out more clearly by stating that social innovations are “initiatives that are intended to alter the rules of the game – or the game itself – through the institutions that mediate and co-determine a society’s aspirations, trajectory, sustainability and its winners and losers (Fowler, Social Innovation: New Game, New Dawn Or False Promise, 2013). An example of such innovation is Twaweza in East Africa. This ten-year initiative works on improving the education system and other forms of public service delivery by enabling citizens to exercise agency in advocating governments to be more open and responsive in Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda. It deliberately does not establish small projects here and there, but uses innovative ways to work through institutions or what they call the ‘five networks’ through which they reach millions of citizens across East Africa.

A third perspective brings in the notion of power. So while luckily we always will have superheroes to save the day, their work will be never ending, as their actions do not change the power equation that sustains wicked problems. This role of power in social innovation is often ignored by those following a market logic of innovation. To be sure, business and markets can be just as much part of the solution as being part of the problem; but power dynamics are often the main reason why innovations cannot tackle problems systematically by changing the rules of the game. Think of the hegemony of neoliberalism, gender inequality and the broken relationships between man and nature; these continue to exist even though numerous innovations have scratched the surfaces of these problems. This notion of power is not new to the innovation game and the social innovation field is more and more enthused with the notion of ecosystems of change (see also Fowler for some interesting thought). While we applaud this trend, it is still very far removed from practice. Ecosystem ideas are often limited to the development of infrastructures for innovators to thrive (incubators for instance), while if that energy would be spend on a national agenda for ecosystems change you might have quite a different outcome. For instance, technical innovations can mitigate climate change effects, but it is not likely that it will ever halt climate change. The latter will also require innovations in how internationally climate agreements are being formulated and implemented from the global to the local level. It will also require citizens taking larger responsibility for their role in climate change. Can you already see an ecosystem agenda evolving?

 If this is the environment in which we operate, then why is there a continuous tendency to look at innovating for social change through the single small lens of individual or project-based change? Have we become Don Quixotes, set out to undo wrongs and bring justice the world, while losing our sanity? NO! We have just lost the capacity to connect the U to US. There is U in US and there is nothing wrong with superheroes, as long as we accept that narrative as being part of a much bigger story. 

So what would an US-narrative of innovation offer?

1.   We would have more attention for the question where society’s capacity to innovate lies and how we can enhance it.

     This could lead to a more effective investment in social innovation capacity than creating a general environment for any potential innovator to flourish. It might also lead to other priorities when making budget cuts. For instance, are we sure that we want to rely more on businesses than on governments to advance our innovation capital?

2.   We would see and support more synergy between usual and unusual suspects.

When seeing through the eyes of US, it’s only logical that connections are needed between all sorts of actors. Particularly productive relationships lie in where usual and unusual suspects meet; each actor probably all have a piece of the puzzle that you are trying to form. Of course, this is easier said than done, but you can start by providing a platform for these different perspectives and actors to come together (see also Steve Johnson, where good ideas come from).

3.   We would place more trust and resources in the hands of public and not-for-profit institutions. Governments can play a key role in fostering the innovative capacity of societies. NGOs are also particularly suited to pushing innovations towards transformation (see Edwards, Thick problems and thin solutions: How NGOs can bridge the gap).

4.   We would focus less on the innovations themselves and look broader at innovation cascades, scale and impact. This doesn’t mean that the innovation itself needs to be that broad, it means that our question is: how are we driving even the “thinnest” of innovations (as Edwards puts it) “in the direction of deeper impact through a continuous stream of small changes that head in the same direction – “baby steps,” if you will, along the road to transformation”. See also David Lane, Emergence by Design: Deliverable 2.2 (on cascades).

5.   We would get a different perspective on change that is not just about them but also about us. Rather than just applauding innovators (which is very justified, but makes us mere spectators), let’s start thinking about how we ourselves can contribute to transformation. Whether it is by following others, reconnecting to nature or by holding companies to account, let’s start by thinking how we can make a difference. Because we think that it is this day-to-day heroism that can make social change happen.