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Social Innovation: how do we find the right problems?

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We are very lucky in London to have a number of organisations dedicated to promoting innovation in business, social enterprise and the creative industries. But where does innovation really come from, and is there a direct link between these initiatives and actual innovation? Are we in danger of focusing too much on the supply side and not enough on the real world problems that demand innovative solutions
Last month, NESTA hosted an Innovation Edge conference, which was a big celebration of UK innovation, especially in the public sector and among new commercial startups. Photos from the day give a picture of just how ambitious the conference was, and Roland Harwood’s blog is a good place to get a NESTA view on the event, and the comments seem to be almost unanimously positive. I have to confess to being slightly ambivalent towards the event as the main sessions (aside from Bob Geldof, who I missed) were actually quite poor and I object quite strongly to injecting the the word ‘Britain’ into every sentence as the UK Prime Minister chose to do. Notwithstanding the fact that the format was quite traditional, I think Roland and those people at NESTA who are actually engaged in promoting innovation deserve great credit for a successful event
This week sees the Channel 4 2gether festival in London, organised in conjunction with UnLtd, Involve, Ipsos Mori, polyWonk, Social Innovation Camp and the UK Catalyst Awards to bring together innovators across a range of social, business, educational and creative sectors to tackle major social issues. The event will also host the launch of Channel 4’s 4IP digital innovation fund. The perpetual motion machine known as Steve Moore has been the driving force behind this initiative, but lots of other people are supporting the event too. Definitely worth attending if you are in London, as I unfortunately won’t be. Bringing people and organisations together in these events is undoubtedly useful, and I suspect just the connections alone generate some innovative new ventures or projects.
In addition to NESTA, there is also the RSA Networks project that seeks to harness the knowledge and innovative thinking of RSA fellows to generate social good – see this excellent roundup of lessons learned from the project so far. There is also the UK government’s Innovation Unit, which “…is devoted to stimulating, incubating and accelerating innovation to achieve transformed services with better outcomes for citizens.”, and is also involved in a project that Headshift are helping to implement: the Innovation Exchange, which seeks to provide a clearinghouse for ideas and potential projects that brings together innovators, commissioners of services and potential service providers
But to what extent is actual innovation an outcome of these initiatives? Sometimes I wonder if there is not an oversupply of people interested in innovation for its own sake, independent from the real problems that surround us. Despite having attempted to absorb a fair amount of innovation theory, I always come back to the basic idea that ‘necessity is the mother of invention’. I would put my money on somebody with a burning problem and a passion to solve it rather than a well-meaning group who want to help every single time. Innovation is as much about problems as it is about solutions, just as creativity is often driven by constraints and limitations rather than freedoms and possibilities
DJ Alchemi’s recent article Against Method in Innovation is a breath of fresh air amidst a lot of uncritical, rather foggy writing on the topic:

“I’m kind of surprised that the abstract concept of innovation remains so popular with policy makers and agencies…

Using innovation as a catch-all term to cover a wide range of changes in products, services and organising creates the expectation that these changes share important characteristics and, critically, may share similar solutions. But do they, should they, or could they? To take the relatively narrow domain of integrated IT, on the one hand you have the Apple approach; on the other open source. How much do they have in common? Not an awful lot.”

Over the years, I have watched a lot of public agencies put a lot of time and money into what they thought of as ‘innovation’ or service improvement, and looking back, most of this proved to be wishful thinking at best
A few years ago, we worked closely with an NHS quango that had been set up with a brief to innovate and improve service delivery in a difficult and under-supported area of health care. Yet, for the most part, the people chosen to lead the organisation were at that stage in their careers where they wanted to build a little empire, secure their funding and go to a lot of meetings. They were the last people I would expect to be able to “deliver” innovation. There were in fact people in the network trying to think differently about, for example, how we diagnose and treat young people; but they were largely overlooked in favour of less challenging recipients of support who were more closely aligned to the buzzwords and ideology du jour emanating from government. The only thing guaranteed to take their mind off cultivating their new bureaucracy was the imminent threat of funding cuts or extinction. In that sense, they are actually quite typical of the attitude of many large organisations in both the private and public sector. They had a few very talented and committed people at the top and the bottom, who genuinely cared about service improvement and the impact this could have on peoples’ lives; but they had created a zone of bureaucratic mediocrity in the middle that spent its time building empires and protecting the organisation from disruption
For me, this gets to the heart of why large companies and organisations, especially those that rely on government funding, are not often the best locus for innovation. But we should not forget, as Geoff Mulgan writes in a fantastic article about public sector innovation, that it is often individuals within public organisations and the civil service who come up with some of the most successful ideas for programmes. So what is about the organisations themselves that acts against successful innovation

What stops public organisations from innovating?

First, they lack one of the most important drivers for innovation: an imminent threat or a problem that impacts them personally. The sad fact is, the survival of many of these organisations is unrelated to their performance, and it is precisely this absence of cause and effect that means many of them descend into bureaucratism. People with real needs and real problems are usually the most highly motivated to find solutions
Second, they place too much emphasis on buzzwords, ‘strategy’ or official policy, and there is a natural tendency to pursue innovation that addresses these objectives. Think of ‘choice’ in the UK health sector or ‘social cohesion’ in community relations. The problem is that these buzzwords often represent the codification of yesterday’s problems or issues, and by the time funding calls or innovation programmes start looking for ‘solutions’, the time lag is so great that you end up fighting the last war, not the current one
Third, classical approaches to innovation often try to target innovation directly, rather than creating the conditions for innovation to occur and to spread. As Robert Austin argues in his 2006 Harvard Business School W
orking Paper, many successful innovations are the result of accident or coincidence

In business, there’s a saying that goes “if you don’t know where you’re going, any map will do.” You can almost always get managers to nod in agreement with this suggestion that you might as well not start something if you don’t have its end objective well defined. Working without a clear definition of your objective is considered wasteful, inefficient. But if you are trying to get outside what you can anticipate and see in advance, if you are going after the truly new and valuable, this way of thinking can be a problem. This is one truth about innovation that artists seem to understand a lot better than managers.

Finally, many organisations cannot resist the urge to create a platform, place or process, ostensibly to support innovation, but it often simply constrains it. People who innovate are not in the habit, on the whole, of going to a special place to engage in interactions and sharing that might result in innovation. The RSA, Unltd, NESTA and other organisations have all created their own online platforms to support innovation, and whilst each has it merits, I wonder whether that is the right approach, or whether we should instead be reaching out to find the problems, ideas and potential innovations that are out there in the wild. As Roland Harwood wrote recently:

A common mis-conception is that users will somehow innovate for or with larger institutions, however I think the fact is that users first and foremost innovate for themselves, however there is scope and rationale for larger institutions to tap into their ‘top 1%’ – i.e. the fans of their brand/product or service to co-create value for both.

At Headshift, we have done some projects using social software for explicitly innovation-focused purposes inside internal communications, science/R&D and marketing functions for corporate clients, and these have been fascinating, if perhaps too early to suggest definitive conclusions. In most cases, there was not a clearly defined ‘innovation process’ but rather a belief that joining up the reading and writing of smart people working towards a common cause is likely to lead to better collaboration and, if we are lucky, innovation. This is also the approach we are taking to our work with the Innovation Exchange – seeking to aggregate, recombine and facilitate connections between people with matching needs, rather than create another environment in which we ask people to congregate to innovate

How might we harness user-led innovation?

In the public sector, and civil society more widely, imaginative approaches to stimulating user-led innovation are much needed if we are to build services for the new century. User-led innovation has become more achievable since the advent of the internet, and more recently social computing, which has brought us ideas such as the architecture of participation or easy group forming as the experimental wing of political philosophy
The usefulness or otherwise of building a platform for user-led innovation or horizontal innovation, as described by Eric Von Hippel, is an interesting question. To their credit, many organisation today realise that they are not the only source of innovation and they are seeking new ways of involving users in innovating and improving what they do. The holy grail they have in mind is the distributed network of people responsible for the Linux kernel or the kinds of stories told by people like Don Tapscott in Wikinomics such as ideagoras
One mode that I think has potential is the barcamp-style gathering, which the Social Innovation Camp recently tried out, bringing together web developers with people who wanted to launch projects based on social objectives. The organisers have been very open about learning lessons from the event in the hope of repeating it in the near future, and whilst I think some tweaking is needed to better match up people, problems and potential solutions, it strikes me that the basic idea of participative solution design is a good one for this purpose
Incidentally, one of the “winners” of the first SICamp was a project called Enabled by Design, which aims to crowdsource the development of assistive devices, innovations and ‘life hacks’ to help people with disabilities or constraints enjoy better independent living. Currently in the UK, the provision of such devices and advice bears all the hallmarks of a health service run like a massive factory. From the simple issues, such as there being essentially one type of crutch, in a fetching gun-metal grey, to the fact that it is not possible to procure household adaptions that do not look like they were designed for a Victorian hospital, the use of assistive devices on the NHS is not an altogether uplifting experience. This is one of those problems that immediately stood out as a ‘must have’ rather than just a ‘nice to have’ in terms of filling a clear need, plus it has all the characteristics of a very big problem that looks solvable through a series of small, human actions joined together by the kind of real-world incentivisation model that works so well on the internet. Watch this space
Enabled by Design reminded me very much of Patient Opinion – a simple idea, with a clear need that aims to improve the big, impersonal process of healthcare provision through lots of small-scale, human actions, but run by people who feel the need and are highly motivated to fulfill it
It will be interesting to see what emerges from Channel 4’s commendable support for 2gether and 4IP. With so many good people and project being brought together, there is a lot of potential for good things to happen
Here are some bookmarks relating to innovation in the meantime.

One Response to Social Innovation: how do we find the right problems?

  1. By osimod on July 11, 2008 at 6:35 pm

    Lee, no time to elaborate but just to say I fully agree and you are spot on. I think it is a general problem for many government policies. Many government departments are today desperately looking for legitimacy of their existence, and that is why government action are often trying to find problems for which its action is needed.