Indy Johar, co-founder of Project 00, Senior Innovation Associate at The Young Foundation, Demos Associate, and Respublica fellow calls for much-needed change in social innovation.
This article first appeared in Dark Matter Laboratories https://provocations.darkmatterlabs.org/
The last ten years have been an important, formative period for the revival of social innovation, we have seen a new generation of actors contribute to the renewal of our societal goods. The work of the Young Foundation, Nesta, McConnell Foundation, MaRS, Big Society Capital, SIX, TACSI, Impact Hubs and too many others to mention have been critical in. seeding this question and driving its renewal globally.
Much of the work, has been focused on prototyping, understanding where the opportunity for change is and testing out micro additions or addressing edge failures in the welfare model — be it public, private or civic. Modest beginnings, and rightly so.
Thereby, the work to date has largely been limited to relatively small scale interventions — tinkering & fixing at the very edges — social innovation projects driven largely by black swan procurement. Simultaneously and slowly over that period, the sector has become stuck in the hope that “a theory of scale and impact” borrowed from the venture capital and. Silicon Valley start-up landscape would be structured salvation.
This is not to decry an age of testing and discovery but it is also important to collectively recognise we have not gone after and meaningfully challenged mainstream social institutional infrastructure and its associated outcomes — which consumers spend in the orders of Billions. As a community we have also failed to move any significant chunk of resource that the government allocates to military, technology or business innovation, into social innovation and the everyday services and social structures we most rely on.
Increasingly we are recognizing the next 10 years of social innovation will require a new step change. Driven by a combination of factors.
Setting the context:
A. Unmet social need:
We are increasingly living in an age of growing unmet social need. It is accelerated by a combination of shifting macro factors, from a constraint of public capital, changing demographics — a growth in the population needing societal investment — be it young people, our elder generation, or people left exposed by the shifting and the precarious nature of our economy & inequality. This is coupled with a greater comprehension, knowledge of the scale of the challenges we face and their long term impacts — i.e how a limited number of adverse factors in the lives of children can have long term consequences for the child and of course any welfare infrastructure.
B. Startups to system transition:
Increasingly, and simultaneously we are recognizing that tinkering at the edges of our systems. won’t get us there — given the rising scale of the challenge. Shifting well-being in society, or addressing the rise of chronic diseases or incarceration rates, or the inclusive benefits of growth, or educational outcomes — cannot be addressed by minor interventions at the edge of the current model — but require whole scale system wide reform of an order we have not witnessed for nearly 50–70 years. We were once creating the NHS. and a modern public — university system but institutional renewal for society has not materialised out of the social innovation field so far. Yet this needs to be. a time of generational renewal — a time for reimagining our societal infrastructure and human development.
C. The rise of a complex multi-actor world:
As we move to a complex, emergent and unknown world — we increasingly need a new institutional infrastructure which recognises the following: The challenge is not government but distributed governance.
The challenge is not about unlocking or shifting the statistical mean/or median of contribution but moral and ethical responsibility to unleash us all. The challenge is not the public sector but the distributed creation of public good. The challenge is not public or private but interdependence. The challenge is not just disruptive innovation of new products and services but the coordinated activity across our institutional infrastructure. The challenge for financing is not about risk diversity across sectors and. portfolios but finding synergy within portfolios and places/systems. The challenge is not about getting one man on the moon but about getting civilisation up in the stars.
D. The Bureaucratic Revolution:
Much of our social institutional infrastructure was designed to be fit for the Industrial Age, powered by the efficiency of Weber managerial bureaucracy. A combination of cloud computing, platform and blockchain technologies, data science and radically distributed processing power — is giving birth to a new age of bureaucracy — powered by a relatively zero margin cost of administration. Together this revolution has already upended major existing markets from hotel rooms to taxis — matching supply and demand — in real time, toward platform markets, powered by reputation technologies. Whilst there have been a few attempts of applying this thinking to social infrastructure — it has largely been naive with efforts focusing on the efficiency of resource allocation as opposed to the fundamentals of care.
E. The future of doing good:
In a future where our social impact and financing landscape is driving the financialisation of our current ideas of good; doing “good” will by necessity need to be re-defined as the discovery of public goods as yet unpriced and costed or fundamentally beyond market or pre-market. Doing Good requires us to continuously be in search of Public and Collective goods as yet undiscovered, or currently being polluted. This is our contribution to the future.
Ways to move forward:
- The nature and typology of the challenges we face.
Over the course of the last 15 years of social innovation we have increasingly recognised — the fallacy of single magic bullets, societal innovation is by its very nature complex, sticky and wicked.
In this reality:
The minimum viable scale of intervention is beyond the individual but requires collective action, challenging the persistent illusion of the consumer, and individual, at the centre of innovation.
That big social challenges like young people’s well-being, educational attainment and. homelessness are affected and influenced by a complex system of actors, conditions, policies and incentives and therefore require a whole system of interventions & system innovations to drive substantive change.
- A billion dollar problem.
Social innovation has got far too used to thinking and operating at a micro scale, with project short-termism at its centre. Given the scale of modern welfare systems, and the scale of long term social care liabilities we are facing — we need to operate beyond the ice cream economy of the UK (the UK alone buys £1 billion of ice cream a year — our biggest social investment fund is only £600 million). Take for example the incarceration budget of California alone which is 10Bn and the UK’s NHS budget some £140 billion — social innovation and social investment has, it could be argued been operating, imagining & innovating at the scale of corner shops when increasingly we will be asked to think about a new generation of societal infrastructure. Radically imagining how we invest to drive well being, educational outcomes, urban renewal etc.
- Recognising there is no magic bullet.
Given the recognition that many of our social challenges or wicked problems are both complex and interdependent — take for example the above work done by the Foresight Unit in the UK Government — it becomes obvious there is no single magic bullet, start up or intervention, which can singularly drive the change necessary. This requires a new model of innovation — one in which the “theory of change” cannot be restricted to a singular service design, or social start up — but instead requires co-ordinated, collaborative and institutional innovation — across a movement of actors, agents, institutions and organisations simultaneously. This model of change sits outside of our conventional knowledge base of “innovation” which to date has largely been focused on single corporates and enterprises as opposed to across organisations.This also challenges our current models of governance, accountability, incentive, investment, contracting, service design, organisational design and of course leadership to support this.
This future of social innovation requires us to also recognise change in this world cannot be designed as a strategy written for one organisation but has to consist of the investment in growing a movement of change, or shared intent, a mission which is an open invitation to take part and innovate together; a shared language and understanding of interdependent issues; and the distributed collective intelligence and agency of a movement. This is a future which fundamentally asks us to rewrite the models of change — from hard power to soft power, from command and control to protocols, mutual accountability, investment & system leadership.
- Sector focused, to place focused.
Much of our current allocation of investment and intervention has to date been made on a sector basis — Health, Education, Well-being etc, indeed even the Sustainable Development Goals are structured largely in this manner but increasingly we are recognising that in a systems world — the apparent efficiency of bundling activity in the form of sectors no longer translates to an efficacy of outcomes. Social investment in a village — requires a full system intervention — from irrigation, sanitation, health, education to access to markets — focused on leveraging the spill overs of each “sector”. Similarly driving dramatic change in educational outcomes — is reliant on a multitude of “sectors” from housing, culture, health, environment. Increasingly we are recognising in a systems world — place (a proxy for dense system interactions & spill overs) is a more effective means of organising for real system change and impactful social investment.
- The role of the city hall.
Townhalls and city authorities are critical actors in the future of social innovation but perhaps not in the way we have become used to over the last 10 years. Increasingly we are recognising their traditional policy and capital levers are broken or simply lost.
This is driven by a combination of factors. The long history of public service privatisation and outsourcing, an increased awareness of the wicked and complex nature of social challenges that has disabled a Councils’ capacity to control and act, whilst paradoxically the demands on what they are required to achieve as primary custodians of local places, has grown.
Taken together this context means city authorities are having to evolve and embrace a new role as place curators, as platforms for social change, with the capacity to bring together a ‘swarm’ of contributors.
This is a future which requires us to acknowledge that the public good can come from public, private and collective actors, and to re-imagine legitimacy based on radical relational openness and massive civic participation — unleashing and democratising the power to co-create our society.
This now near future requires city authorities firstly to recognise and lead what should be called a place system balance sheet: a balance sheet of assets and liabilities much larger than their own but of the region. Rather than focusing on managing themselves efficiently, they need to unlock the collective economies of scope of all citizens, corporates and NGOs. In this future, the Town Hall becomes the primary platform for democratically legitimate movements for social change, with a shared mission and shared accountability focused on growing the collective consciousness, wisdom, intelligence and agency of the system as a whole.
- Building the politics of change.
We need to acknowledge progressives be it left or right are increasingly unable to build a political mandate for these social innovations. Political mandates are increasingly built on managing fear, political mistrust & polarisation and focusing and narrowing welfare on the “deserving poor” (as opposed to a universal societal investment). Evidence or no evidence, progressive policy is stranded in think tanks and any meaningful next generation social innovators are increasingly understanding it is not necessary to innovate but also build the political mandate for change on the ground; co-creating, co-designing, co-negotiating, collaboratively investing in the space for civic conversation, interrogation, learning (not consultation) — (this is increasingly unlikely to be gifted by politicians from on high).
- Reinventing our institutional dark matter.
Social innovation and social change has often been focused on re-imagining products and services which drive change on the ground, leaving the institutional dark matter untouched. However, this is no longer sufficient. The systemic nature of social change, along with the scale of transition necessary, requires us to reimagine our institutional infrastructure. This includes how the State accounts for future social liabilities & costs, shifting from institutional/organisational balance sheets to system balance sheets, commissioning and procurement in a way that focuses on a movement of actors — collaboratively driving outcomes, doing contracting in real-time for multi-actor, outcome focused innovation, re-imagining risk management in a complex systems world, regulation & governance for a distributed and dynamic world and doing Randomised Control Trials for a complex emergent world — where “social interventions have millions of design possibilities and outcomes dependent on complex combinations between them.
- Building the city region-based Research & Development infrastructure.
It’s an uncomfortable truth, that billions are spent on social outcomes, without the necessary R&D infrastructure to support the innovation necessary, and certainly not the devolved capacity for Research & Development at a city region scale. Whilst the social sector has always conducted research & development to some degree the scale and the complexity of the challenges we face needs new capacity. Challenges of educational attainments, youth mental health, an ageing population, or retooling our welfare system into a preventative one will not be solved by our current models of project-eering and micro investment. They will require systemic devolved investment in R&D and not necessarily incrementalism but real societal moonshots to support new practices, systems, tools or products which can drive a mainstream revolution.
- Building deeper skills & capabilities of Social Innovation teams.
Whilst much has been done in the last ten years it is clear the social innovation domain has not yet been able to attract the full range of talent required. Whilst service designers, corporate financiers, Social Scientists and artists have been attracted to the domain — we will need to significantly add to this talent pool in addressing the scale of challenge we are facing. We will need to attract and complement more technical skills to teams including data scientists, coders, financial instrument designers, smart contract designers & lawyers, campaigners and movement builders — this is increasingly essential if we want to have impact.
- The need for radical intentionality.
Finally and perhaps most critically. The future of social innovation needs radical intentionality.
Will our models, practices, accelerators and architectures of system change be so bold as to get us to Mars (our modern proverbial moonshot) or are they systematically designed to sustain, conserve and mitigate the perceived liabilities of today; i.e will they help us find our place in the stars or will they effectively only help us fight for our place in the dirt? (To quote Interstellar)
Incrementalism through 1.2x improvements is not sufficient to address the scale of challenges we face as a global civilisation. Incrementalism even if levered by systems innovation is not going to drive us to overcome the technological, cultural, governance, emotional and organisational leaps necessary.
System change focused innovation needs a radical intentionality with a disruptive redefinition of interventional capital from the late 20th-century doctrine of market failure fix; where interventional capital become a subservient actor /tinker/fixer to the market system as opposed to creating whole new realities (markets to those of you inclined in that way!)
Social Innovation needs massive systemic missions, the missions which seek to put humanity in the metaphoric (and literal in due course) stars.
For without unleashing our collective audacity social innovation cannot really help us fix the systemic challenges of today let alone unlock the possibilities of tomorrow. That is the real challenge for the next 10 years of social innovation.
With great thanks to Cassie Robinson and her help in editing this piece!