What’s the creation story behind every social innovation?

SiG Note: This article was originally published on The Melting Pot Website.  It has been cross-posted with permission from the author.

Disruption AheadSocial innovators are often the disrupters, the ones who swim against the tide and question the status quo.  We may find them uncomfortable and challenging, but these people are also inspiring, determined and resilient.

Take the ‘Social Innovator personality test.’ How many of these needed core skills and qualities do you have?

Making connections * causing disruptions * having persistence and a critical mindset * clarity of vision * courage of your convictions * an ability to learn and reflect * to take risks and experiment * question results * have focus, but also openness * and, of course – the ability to “sell.”

During 2014, The Melting Pot initiated a collaborative enquiry process into social innovation and how it might flourish in Scotland.

Gatherings took place from Inverness to Edinburgh. Using ‘The Art of Hosting’ participatory processes, we dived into understanding the cultural conditions that help or hinder people, communities and organisations of all sizes who have a passion for creating solutions to our pressing eco-social challenges.

You can read more about our findings here. For fun, here are the recommendations turned on their head.  

How to kill social innovation in 5 easy steps!

First – spot those disrupters and put them down – go on, tell them their mad ideas won’t work.  These non-conformers who wish to do something different are a nuisance with their radical notions. Their dreams are too big, too complex.  They don’t know what they’re doing and it will certainly never make any money!

Second – don’t assist those disruptors, or offer them a chance to collaborate. Keep yourself to yourself.  Don’t move out of your comfort zone, talk to, or help anyone!  Don’t go out of your way to make connections or introductions, you might catch something – like a scary new proposition…

Third – seek out the answers to our societal problems from another place, somewhere like London, New York or Shanghai. Those disruptive ideas under your nose, on your doorstep, the ones that take account of the cultural fit can’t be any good, can they? And anyway, it’s more fun to go on international jollies (sorry, I mean learning journeys).

Forth – never accept anyone else’s wisdom, or seek to learn form them. What do they know anyway? There’s no point taking time out of your busy schedule to reflect on your learning – you’ve just got to keep doing – at all costs.

Fifth – work from your bedroom, alone – you can’t afford anywhere nice and professional to work anyway, not on what is invested into the social innovation pipeline. Yes we need jobs, but they can only be produced from companies that focus on economic growth, not social capital.

Now forget all that. For social innovation to thrive in Scotland, we must create a culture to:

  1. Encourage – literally lend courage and support to – those seeking to address inequality, those who are questioning the status quo, creating disruption and taking risks.
  2. Foster connections, creativity and the generation of ideas amongst innovators in all sectors.  Enabling genuine participation and collaboration across sectors releases socially innovative ideas.
  3. Cultivate local solutions where social innovators can work with communities to define and co-design solutions within their community context.
  4. Create safe places and spaces for learning, reflection and sharing all the stories: the successes, the tricky moments, the failures, the highs and the lows of experience.
  5. Invest in social innovation – provide the physical resources to enable social innovators to work with focus, purpose, determination and persistence. 

Melting PotThe Melting Pot would like to thank the Scottish Government for commissioning this work, so that our policy makers can better harness our people’s talents, energy and ideas to make Scotland flourish.

Find out more about The Melting Pot, Scotland’s Centre for Social Innovation, and our Social Innovation Incubation Award programme (all disrupters please apply!).

Down the Rabbit Hole…three weeks of social innovation

Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?” he asked. “Begin at the beginning,” the King said very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop” - Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
 

Three weeks ago, I joined Social Innovation Generation (SiG) National as the Communications Intern. As the greenest bud on the tree of knowledge in the social innovation field, I began at the beginning: with the learning essential to working within a network committed to building a culture of continuous social innovation in Canada.

As a sociologist and community activist, I have long been interested in and actively pursuing systems-change, unaware that this work often flirted with the concepts and approaches used in social innovation. Immediately prior to SiG National, I was researching consumer responses to proliferating marketplace opportunities to shop ‘ethically.’ Would ‘ethical shopping’ practices ignite a wave of mainstream behaviour change? No, not yet. Not really.

In the past three weeks, it has become clear that my interest in transformative social change is an interest, a passion, for social innovation: systems-level change that has “durability, scale and transformative impact.” My current process of learning could not be more poignant, relevant, or powerful.

Social Innovation 101

Why systems-level change? Social innovations target the root causes of complex problems – problems that are simultaneously cultural, social, dynamic, evolving and seemingly intractable. This means taking on and challenging the whole system that created the problem in the first place, without knowing how the system will react. In this way, social innovation is a form of lived experimentation, where innovators act with deliberate intention in the face of complexity and uncertainty, pursuing positive impact with no guarantee of transformative change (1). 

Dense waters

Social innovation is framed by a vast literature of theory, thoughts, insights and complex thinking. Diving into that literature has been the cornerstone of my acculturation at SiG. As I dove, I couldn’t help but notice that some of the more theoretical precepts of social innovation resonate with Alice’s experiences in Wonderland: could Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland be used to illustrate some of the more elusive preliminary concepts of social innovation? Why not.

Having so recently begun at the beginning myself, here is the (brief) ‘Alice in Wonderland’ guide to key social innovation concepts, dedicated to all the other new buds on the tree of knowledge:

EMERGENCE
John Tenniel

John Tenniel

“….for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat-pocket, or a watch to take out of it, and, burning with curiosity, she ran across the field after it, and was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge. In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.”

Complex systems – like life – are unpredictable.  How could Alice have predicted a talking, formally-dressed rabbit? Yet Alice has strong opportunistic instincts for potentially transformative change: she responds quickly to a novel opportunity and jumps in head first into a completely uncertain and previously impossible reality.

A key precept of social innovation then is that systems change depends on both innovative action and emergent opportunities: the ability to seize potentially ambiguous opportunity in the pursuit of transformational possibilities previously unimaginable. How many are brave enough to see and follow the White Rabbit into uncertainty when the moment is right?

RESILIENCE

“How puzzling all these changes are! I’m never sure what I’m going to be, from one minute to another.”

John Tenniel

John Tenniel

As the conditions of Wonderland require her to become a different height, Alice mobilizes the resources around her to find ways to adapt her size, experimenting with cakes, bottles, fans and mushrooms. She keeps experimenting with different options to get her size to the best height for the given, evolving circumstances, despite being both afraid and tired of the process.

Alice’s capacity to negotiate such dramatic change demonstrates resilience: our capacity as individuals and communities to creatively adapt, co-create, and respond effectively in the face of constantly changing conditions. Resilience serves as both a framework and desired outcome of social innovation: it as a way of identifying opportunities for transformation (i.e. build capacity) and of strengthening communities’ response to externally-imposed transformation (i.e. climate change).

THOMAS THEOREM

“And the moral of that is: Be what you would seem to be…”

In a debate with a Duchess, Alice points out that mustard doesn’t seem to be a vegetable, but it is a vegetable. The Duchess responds that you should really only ever be what you seem to be. Her comments speak to a poignant concept known as the Thomas Theorem: there are real consequences to how we think about, understand, and perceive the world.

It sounds simple, but it is truly a powerful concept. If a problem seems intractable to us, it will be; if social divisions seem set in stone, they will be. Social innovation involves thinking about and understanding the world in new ways that frame and ignite new actions; in other words, social innovation “holds thought and action in tension” because “whether we think about things matters;” thought inspires action and vice versa (2).

DISRUPTION
John Tenniel

John Tenniel

“I could tell you my adventures—beginning from this morning,” said Alice a little timidly: “but it’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.”

For Alice, her engagement with the broader social context of Wonderland has transformed her, ‘disrupting’ who she is so much that she cannot answer the simple question: “Who…are…you?”

Social innovation disrupts the system into which it is introduced, transforming both the system and the innovator themselves. Alice’s experience of transformation is analogous to scales of disruption: personal and system-wide. Both Alice and the society she interacts with have their routines, beliefs, and power systems disrupted by their interaction. While Alice is not ‘innovating’ (she’s dreaming), her experience of disruption points to an important lesson: as successful social innovations cross-scale, they ignite cascading changes that are disruptive at the individual, community, and systems level. While the original intention of social innovation is positive impact, that will not neutralize pushback from the system.

There may always be a Queen of Hearts and her army (system stasis) pushing back against any potential revolt of her kingdom; we must always try to consider all the players in the system when we’re thinking about social innovation.

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Note: All the italicized quotes are from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) by Lewis Carroll.

1 Frances Westley, Brenda Zimmerman, and Michael Quinn Patton (2006). Getting to Maybe: How the World has Changed. Random House Canada.

2 Frances Westley, Brenda Zimmerman, and Michael Quinn Patton (2006). Getting to Maybe: How the World has Changed. Random House Canada, pp.22.

 

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