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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