Social Innovation Camp plans a bigger tent

Lots of initiatives are trying to match social technology with social problems but few have an explicit underlying model to turn great ideas into practical projects. Social Innovation Camp made a successful start in London in April, as I reported here, and the organisers now have a chance to follow through with more funding from NESTA to run a further camp on December 5-7th.

They have put out a call for ideas, and as with the last time, you pitch proposals which then get filtered to a small number (six last time) that 80 people work on in teams over the weekend.

However, it looks as if SI Camp could become more than an occasional event. According to organiser Anna Maybank, the aim of the NESTA funding, and support from the Young Foundation, is to enable SI Camp “to grow into an organization running two Camps a year, in addition to monthly Meetup events, providing a focal point for the community of interest which is developing in London around the use of social technology for social innovation”.

I couldn’t get to the first meetup last week, but from Anna’s report it looks as if there was a great mix of good ideas, conversation and, well, sociability.

I think this could be really significant. As I reviewed here, there’s lots happening in London – and elsewhere in the UK – on this front but not much focus. I would personally trust the SIC Camp crew to act as catalysts and convenors, if they continue to be as open and collaborative as they were in their first round of activities.

I say that with some conviction, because I’m doing a small piece of work on developing a framework for thinking about collaborative innovation, and that nudged me into first developing a set of terms to describe this activity, and then analysing some programmes and drawing out lessons that may have general application. SI Camp came out really well.

Fortunately NESTA have published an excellent evaluation report (download) by Aleksi Aaltonen, and I was able to check my experience against his record. You can read my description of the process, a set of collaboration terms, and some themes and lessons. Here’s the main points from that analysis:

Purpose. The goal for everyone was very clear throughout the process: work together to develop web-enabled solutions to social problems that you have defined. The organisers were also clear about their philosophy of the way that social technology can help people create big changes from small beginnings.

Control. While the SI Camp organisers created a strong framework and process, they left people to organise themselves into teams, and were prepared to allow an additional project to develop during the weekend. They planned carefully, then left things open and flexible.

Ownership. There was no attempt by organisers to claim ownership of ideas or the model. After the event they encouraged people to take the SI Camp model and apply it elsewhere. The ethos of the event generated by the organisers encouraged everyone to share their ideas.

Attitude. Everyone turned up with a shared expectation of collaboration, and the format of the event reinforced that. Sociability helped.

Communication. The blog kept people up date before, at and after the event, and participants were able to communicate through Twitter and a Backnetwork online system (inivitation only). This worked well because most people were confident online – and also meeting face-to-face.

Leadership. The SI Camp organisers created the vision, raised funding, set the terms of engagement, and the process to select projects. They then moved into a more facilitative mode of working and created the self-organising space within which people could develop their projects.

Motivation. While the prizes were small – £2000 and £1000 for winner and runner-up – people appeared motivated by the chance to work collaboratively in a friendly, fun atmosphere to create some innovative projects.

Online system. There was no purpose-built online system: the organisers used WordPress, Backnetwork and Twitter. This meant that costs were low and there was no substantial lead-in time.

Project development. The process for gathering ideas, choosing and then developing projects during the weekend succeeded in producing seven strong projects. However, the critieria by which projects were chosen were not particularly clear, and there was relatively little support after the Camp for projects. It may be that the second phase of development from October 2008 – with monthly meetups around the December event – provides the opportunity to build networks of support and generally keep the buzz going.

Networks and teams. SI Camp has the potential to develop networks of people interested in web-enabled social innovation, while recognising the need for more tightly-formed teams to develop projects.

Events. The next phase of SI Camp development recogises the need for people to continue to meet to maintain momentum. While the projects are web-enabled, the process is substantially face-to-face.

Diversity. While there was a fair spread of interests at SI Camp, most of those attending were young, tech-savvy people. The next phase offers the opportunity to recruit more widely – but will this make it more difficult to get the rapid bonding of interests? Is a wider spread of interests and backgrounds important if the SI Camp model is to make a major impact on social problems?

Trust. The open, participative nature of the process appeared to create the conditions within which people were prepared readily to share their ideas.

Overall model. The Big Idea behind Social Innovation Camp is that web technologies enable people to develop innovative projects outside traditional institutions. They can build networks with others and “this allows an individual to affect change by themselves on a scale that previously would have been difficult to achieve.” SI Camp piloted an accelerated face-to-face demonstration of how this can produce a lot of ideas and some developed projects. The monthly meetups and a further camp may begin to show how far the approach can scale up, particularly if others take up the invitation to “steal” the idea and run their own camps.

I am not, of course, saying that SI Camp is the only way to bring together people working at the sharp end of social problems with web developers and other geeks … just look at reports from the 2gether08 Festival to see a wider range. ((OK, I’m a bit biased on that one since I did the online work). We’ll also get another round of fresh ideas from Phase 2 of the UK Catalyst Awards at Chain Reaction in November.

However, SI Camp does provide a radical approach for those (like Paul Birch and Paul Miller here) who believe innovation can be really difficult within existing organisations. Dan McQuillan, one of the SI Camp organisers reflects on that here:

For me, the far-reaching potential of social-camping comes when the aim is not just to improve the current system (whether that’s charities or subways) but to develop something free of legacy constraints. The unfolding impact of the social web will come from the erosion of 19th century structures (such as charities and corporations) and the (re-)emergence of people-powered solutions. My German is way too limited to tell which way the Bremen SocialCamp leaned on this point, but there were obviously some interesting folk involved (hat tip to Christian Kreutz for that link).

Part of the creative energy for Social Innovation Camp came from freeing the participants from the expectations of their days jobs; the camp was a license to say ‘all power to the imagination’. But how deep does this go – is it just the excitement of demob-happy designers, geeks & charity workers ignoring the fact that Monday morning will come again? Or does it prefigure some genuine social restructuring, which would make the camps a relative of Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zone. After all, the “the socio-political tactic of creating temporary spaces that elude formal structures of control” is also a neat summary of social media. It’ll be interesting to see how this unfolds over the next months, and Social Innovation Camp will be pitching in now that we’re back!

I do have a social innovation model from within an established organisation, which I’ll report on as soon as I can work out a way of drawing out the lessons in a positive fashion. It’s easy to have fun when there are no institutional constraints … but we do need to look at re-invention from within. Or do we?


  • October 6, 2008 - 11:37 pm | Permalink

    Hi, interesting analysis. I especially like your remarks on Purpose, Control and Ownership.

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