What if we all thought like Charles Leadbeater?

Charles Leadbeater, a leading authority on innovation and creativity, visited MaRS in mid-September as part of his tour with Social Innovation Generation’s Inspiring Action for Social Impact Series, and delivered a public presentation on innovation in the public service as part of the MaRS Global Leadership Series.

Charles Leadbeater on Social Innovation – MaRS Global Leadership from MaRS Discovery District on Vimeo.


Charles Leadbeater articulates the need for revolutionary change so calmly that it’s almost frightening. We certainly don’t expect a soft-spoken management thinker to advocate for uprooting systems like it is the only reasonable way forward. The implications of innovation don’t really strike us all that often, because many of us don’t really understand it. This is where Leadbeater comes in.

Leadbeater recognizes that we are living in a new culture where people take communication for granted; they expect to have a voice, to be constantly connected, to be able to organize in new ways. These cultural changes lead to modified expectations, which lead to new institutional expectations. So large institutions that don’t easily change seem detached, self-referential, and incomprehensible – like the government taxation system.

His second insight is that while we all rely on systems for day to day functioning and to provide us with choices, we are finding it increasingly difficult to live within them. While a lack of systems agitates us, overbearing systems force us to live through their lens; eventually people become institutionalized and robbed of their autonomy. Many such systems are suffering from stagnation – they are cold, functional, and efficient, but often alienating. They are often rejected by those who can do so, and people adopt the other extreme – highly empathic, small-scale systems. Leadbeater uses the example of people who visit farmer’s markets. They are great experiences for those that can access them but difficult to scale up and out.

So we ping pong between extreme systematization and extreme empathy, but we can’t afford to live in either quadrant, literally and figuratively. Systems create ‘a huge backwash of nostalgia’ but we can’t go back to the pre-industrial era. The question that prompts the search for innovation then, is – are there good structures that combine empathy and systems?

Yes. There are examples of great systems that maintain relationships, serve lots of people and still retain a sense of empathy. For instance, great cities build public spaces that encourage relationships, which in turn enrich the cities in a number of ways.

Charles uses a matrix to chart four broad ways in which innovation can be pursued. This, arguably, is one of his great contributions to our thinking about how to enact change.

While space does not permit a fuller discussion of these different ways, here are some of my key takeaways from Charles’ speech:

  • Innovation needs to be understood and pursued with conscious effort. We generally invest a lot into improvement, trying to fix a broken system using the same processes, but understanding new approaches allows us to use them.
  • We don’t need to go out of our way find innovation, because it is already around us.  We just need to learn to look in the right places. Leadbeater has found innovation mostly in areas where there is lots of demand but little supply, and people are forced to innovate.
  • Where it is present, innovation needs to be recognized and actively fostered. Otherwise it might wither away – witness the growth of mothers2mothers, which started off as a simple mentoring conversation, and has expanded to 700 sites in nine countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Innovation needs to be given resources so that it can thrive.
  • Innovation demands patience – success is rarely immediate. There are plenty of great ideas that have never scaled because they weren’t given the space or because the funder ran out of patience.

In the end, Leadbeater’s fundamental message seems to be that everyone can be an innovator. You don’t need to be working at Apple or live in a Brazilian favela to come up with new ways of doing things that work.

With the world’s shared challenges only deepening, there is more incentive than ever to to try something different. As a senior public servant recently remarked, “The worst that could happen is failure, and that certainly couldn’t be worse than the status quo.”

Watch Charles Leadbeater above speak about high-impact innovations, and how we can learn from them and scale the solutions capable of addressing Canada’s persistent social challenges.

Charles also participated in a webinar during his tour of Canada. In conversation with David Eaves, Canadian public policy entrepreneur and open data advocate, Charles discussed open innovation and how it is affecting public policy and systems change. Download the webinar here.

For more from our Inspiring Action for Social Impact Series, visit our national website.

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About Nabeel Ahmed

Managing Editor, www.socialfinance.ca

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