Sketching the social innovation landscape

It looks as if we’ll have a socially innovative autumn in London, with more opportunities and support for people wanting to do good stuff using new (tech) stuff. Here’s what I’ve picked up recently, and I’m sure I’ve missed a lot, so please add a comment with other events and activities you may know about. This round-up rather shamelessly favours my friends.

Social Innovation Camp last April gave us an inspiring and enjoyable model for developing web-enabled projects by bringing together techies and innovators for a weekend , so I’m delighted to hear from organiser Paul Miller that the team have raised funds from Nesta and the Young Foundation for two more camps and a series of monthly meetups.

The SIC team are generous folk – offering people nine ways to steal this camp at the recent 2gether08 Festival – so I’m hopeful that the camps plus monthly events will help develop their model more widely.

I hope we’ll also hear more from Government departments on their plans for funding social innovation, as I wrote earlier. Maybe they will join forces to create just one or two funds, instead of many own-brand promotions, and also support the associated mentoring and networking that’s needed.

Simon Berry has been promoting that during his secondment to the Department for Communities and Local Government, as he reports here on the blog he has written throughout the secondment … as well as running the ColaLife campaign. He’s now back as CEO of Ruralnet UK warming up for their conference the end of September.

Channel 4 has announced the appointment of Tom Loosemore, Ofcom’s senior adviser for digital media, to head up their £50 million 4IP Fund. As you can read in this Guardian piece Tom has an impressive track-record of innovation, and should be sympathetic to the sort of small as well as big media ideas outlined by Matt Locke in this interview for 2gether08.

I expect we’ll get confirmation from Steve Moore that there will be a 2gether09 Festival plus some other smaller get2gethers over the next year. Here’s how the last Festival finished, with thoughts about sharing the 2gether brand.

I believe that one strong theme in 2gether, and elsewhere, will be the new styles of leadership and different roles needed for social innovation. George Por was at 2gether08, bringing many years of practice and theory about the nature of collective intelligence, and we met up afterwards in Brussels to discuss some collaborations on this front.  Jemima Gibbons is blogging some terrific interviews about social and enterprise innovation while researching her book on Leadership 2.0. I met Jemima to interview her, but messed up the video, and instead found I got swept into the mix as well.

Jemima interviewed Lloyd Davis, founder of the Tuttle Club, giving well-deserved recognition to a small-scale social innovation that has made a  big impact this year just by providing a spot for people to meet over the Coach and Horse in Soho each Friday morning. No funding, no formal structure, just great people unled by Lloyd.

NESTA,  the body officially charged with helping make the UK more innovative, fund a lot of creative activities – like Social Innovation Camp – and also offer a range of free presentations and panel sessions, with associated drinks and networking. Event organiser Darren Balcombe recently ran a survey to ask us all what we thought, so they are clearly open to new ideas. The NESTA Connect blog, written by Roland Harwood and his team, is the place to keep in touch.

At the beginning of this year Whitehallwebby Jeremy Gould organised UKGovwebBarcamp, and opened the way for civil servants to get together with anyone – business or nonprofit – who wants to use tech to improve public services. Jeremy has followed through with small Teacamps every few weeks, and is currently writing a series of reflections – latest here – on how to promote adoption of social media in Govenment. The big challenge is to get some engagement from policy people, so an event that involved them rather than just the usual enthusiasts would be a great step forward.

Dominic Campbell recently provided a terrific roundup of current Government initiatives, with a series of recommendations that prompted comments from Jeremy Gould, Tom Loosemore and MySociety’s Tom Steinberg. Tom was co-author of the Power of Information report that led to creation of the Task Force which is looking at how to make better use of data that Government holds. In his comment Tom provides a  reminder of the cultural and institutional barriers to innovation:

If you’ve never worked in the public service in the UK you’ll have no idea how the idea of doing something you haven’t copied of someone else (preferably the government of Sweden, or a state government in the USA) is totally terrifying. These people need amazingly concrete, mass scale examples, preferably run by other governments that didn’t then crumble to dust as a consequence of some vast unseen side-effect of the project.

… which is why mySociety goes for the small but power tools that focuses on a specific need (e.g. Pledgebank, Fixmystreet), as Tom explains here in relation to e-democracy. On that front, the Ministry of Justice Building Democracy site is attracting a host of ideas, and Steph Gray and his team at DIUS are showing how a Government Department can be innovative in its use of social media in its Science and Society consultation.

Dave Briggs offers some step-by-step advice to local authories seeking to innovate using social media … and now that Dave is becoming a freelance digital enabler I know we can expect lots more in the next few months. I’m sure this will join up with the work of Steve Dale and Michael Norton who are promoting public-sector Communities of Practice at IDeAexplained here in an effective short video by Michael.

The UK Catalyst Awards will be a focus for web-enabled social innovation, with the next stage of development emerging at the Chain Reaction event in November. You can join an awards group on UnltdWorld (after registering) make suggestions for Chain Reaction sessions here.

Registration has now closed for the workshop on Power and Participation organise by PRaDSA (Practical Design for Social Action) on September 4-5, but there should be some follow-up buzz on their blog and mailing list (apply to join).

The Innovation Exchange is currently selecting projects for their NESTA-funded Next Practice programme on the themes of excluded young people and independent living. Earlier in the year the Exchange ran a couple of Ideas Festivals on these themes, where I did some video, so I know there will be some innovative proposals coming through.

The 250-year-old RSA recently revamped its website, including videos from their excellent events programme. This opens the ways for a relaunch online of the ambitious RSA Networks programme (also NESTA-funded), which started last year with a terrific one-day open space event. The aim of the programme – which I wrote about in a series of posts here – is to harness the collective wisdom and enthusiasm of the RSA’s 27,000 Fellows (members). Chief Executive Matthew Taylor – who blogs here – hopes we will form a civic innovation network. In this blog post Matthew reflects honestly on the challenge for the RSA:

The RSA’s history is both a help and a hindrance. On the downside we are trying to change a very established organisation. It’s a bit like IBM going from selling computers to being a high level consultancy (a process which nearly killed the corporation).

Where we used to offer Fellows status and membership of a club we are now offering membership of a network of thought leaders and civic entrepreneurs. Getting buy-in from Fellows to this new offer is the key challenge facing our new Director of Fellowship Belinda Lester

On the upside the RSA’s brand, the willingness we meet when we ask people to work with us and our reasonably robust financial model mean we can stay the course.

In innovation failure is as essential to learning as success, but for new initiatives mistakes in planning or application can be fatal. The web is full of abandoned experiments in social innovation. Our new networks platform will have learnt important lessons from the too clunky nature of version one.

I think that is a fair reflection of the general challenge for social innovators. On the one hand we may not want to be held up by the governance structures and caution of most traditional charities, yet on the other hand we need a framework of support within which to take risks.

The social innovation landscape needs a bit of infrastructure, and since NESTA fund so many of the initiatives they should be in a good position to broker some collaborations. I think it is fair to say that all the projects, events and initiatives I’ve mentioned (except one) pride themselves on open collaboration models, which make working together much easier. The odd one out is the RSA, which is making its network Fellows-only, and building a walled-garden within the landscape. I and others have argued against that, but senior management decided otherwise. Now they see what’s going on outside their walls, I hope they may reconsider and join in, since the aim should be to provide social rather than member benefit.

Update: on reflection, the CoP programme is not open, but it seems to me there the initial focus is professional development for participants, leading later to social innovations. I can see that some RSA Fellows might wish to keep discussions private, but perhaps within the new RSA Networks system it would be possible to give project leaders the option to make their project public where appropriate.


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  • February 19, 2009 - 2:07 pm | Permalink

    Hi David,
    For some reason I only just saw this – thanks for the name check! Looking forward to discussing how much the landscape has developed at the RSA workshop this afternoon.

  • February 19, 2009 - 11:31 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Jemima – I think the social innovation landscape has changed. More social media networking … but for what? More SI start ups .. but will they scale? Growing concern about problems of new tools and culture adoption within traditional organisations … but what to do, inside or out? Definitely needs Leadership 2.0

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