Social innovation reporting for Big/Good Society (I hope)

Summary: how I’ve now joined the Big Society Network team with the idea of becoming their social innovation reporter. First story idea: why we need the Big Society Store as well as the Big Society Bank.

I’ve been writing a lot on the coalition government plans for Big Society over the past couple of months, and the Big Society Network, as you can see from posts here. That’s been mainly through general interest in ideas about supporting neighbourhood groups and social enterprise, developing new cross-sector partnerships, and shifting from consultation to the co-design and co-creation of local services … something I wrote a lot about on my earlier blog Designing for Civil Society.
I met and interviewed Network founders Paul Twivy and Nat (now Lord) Wei at their launch on March 31, before the election, and felt then that something special could emerge. However, as I wrote at the time, I might have been a little less interested if it were not for the involvement of Steve Moore.
I’ve worked with Steve on and off over the past four years, and admired him as someone who is an amazingly generous connector of people across different disciplines and sectors, and the complete antithesis of the sort of top-down, target-driven, project-managed, funding-led, jargon-laden programmes that have in the past done a lot to take the creativity out of civil society organisations.
Anyway, Steve is now a board member of the Network, and I was delighted when he asked if I would work part-time with him,  Paul and others. So I’ve taken the Big Society Shilling.
I’m not quite sure yet how it will work out, but based on past experience the best approach is to join in the flurry of meetings, listen out, join up the conversations, pitch your ideas, and keep moving.
My currently thinking is that one useful thing I could do is act as a social innovation reporter … following through earlier ideas that I mindmapped about the essence of social reporting.

While Lord Nat Wei is pitching some fresh new ideas – like big society ISAs to help fund local activities – everyone recognises that there is already an enormous amount of good work carried out by volunteers, charities, social enterprises and other organisations that make up civil society. David Kane gave us the numbers over here. Let’s not re-invent the wheel … but start by displaying the many good wheels that we have already.
One useful thing the network could do is to help people both find existing sources of inspiration and advice, and also highlight the sort of innovative developments in local government and civil society that we’ll need in future. Two events I went to last week epitomised that. The first was Local by Social, organised by Futuregov and IDeA, and admirably summarised here by Dave Briggs. The second was We are Enabled by Design , hosted by Enabled by Design, and again supported by Futuregov. There’s a summary here.
There was a little overlap in those participating, and certainly plenty of shared comment on Twitter, where people followed what was going on through the tags #lbys and #WeEbD, as you can see through searches here and here. There was live blogging for #lbys and #WeEbD and a terrific buzz … provided you were in London, or familiar with social media. That’s absolutely no criticism of the organisers who did a fantastic job with few resources, and offered the events for free. They were ten times the value of events I’ve been to costing hundreds of pounds (as a free-place social reporter I should say. Wouldn’t pay much for conventional events).
The difficulty is that some of the most exciting work and knowledge sharing is being done on a shoe-string, and those involved don’t have the time or resources to scale up their activities and engage more widely. Too often, when bigger agencies get involved, the events become more formalised, the ideas more packaged, the conversations more stilted.
I hope that one role for the Big Society Network will be to provide scale without losing  creativity. The first launch document from the network talked about doing just that by creating a mutual society with 15 million members, and an online platform supporting connections, campaigning and feedback.
I think, for example, that the network could benefit from looking at the site developed by Enabled by Design, which has an Ideas Factory and Product Reviews showing one area of innovation, and also at the much broader Social Innovator site developed from the excellent Young Foundation Open Book of Social Innovation … and then take things one step further.
Next year we’ll have a Big Society Bank to help fund local projects, as Lord Nat Wei explained. Why not a Big Society Store, as I touched on here and here? (Or a Good Society shop, to pick up a term used by the Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society. One continuing problem with Big Society is that it continues to provoke political dissent because it featured so strongly in the Conservative party manifesto. Or it may be the Your Square Mile shop, a term used by the Network. It’s what’s on the virtual shelf that’s important).
Over the years we’ve had hundreds of toolkits, knowledge-sharing web sites, online communities and the like promoting social action … but my experience is that busy practitioners or activists seldom look at them. Those actively using social media don’t look much either – unless an item is highlighted in a compelling tweet. We need to try something different, particularly since funding will be very tight with even less for development and dissemination.
How about an online space operating as a sort of DIY civic society eBay, where people could pitch their ideas, events, products and services, some for free, and some paid for. I also think we need some way to develop an open business approach, as I wrote here, where consultants and clients in this field share their work in exchange for crowdsourced expertise … plus some of the thinking from Paul Hodgkin of Patient Opinion on gift economies (Paul here on the new economics of voice, and some notes here from a session at Oxfordjam).
One of the big ideas in Big Society is making social enterprise more central to the development and delivery of public services. Where better to start that with the Big/Good Society Store … making it a coop on the lines of the People’s Supermarket recently opened in Camden. I think it might then be possible to get the mutual membership the network aims for.

(Disclaimer: all ideas for the store are personal – I don’t know if it is somthing the network will go for. Just exercising a bit of inovation reporting license).


  • June 20, 2010 - 7:41 pm | Permalink

    Great stuff David – your efforts in tying together various streams of activity and discussion is so valuable!

    As we have discussed before, the venn diagram of all the various bits of civically-tinged innovative activity is gradually moving together, with more and larger overlaps being created.

    Someone or something is needed to start to tie everything together and take some kind of an overview role. Maybe the Big Society can do that. After all, it’s government policy now, not just the promise of a political party during an election.

  • June 20, 2010 - 10:15 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Dave – joining up is only possible if folk like you do the heavy lifting of blogging events and trends!
    Agreed about the venn diagram and overlap, and hopefully it being official policy helps. I floated the idea of the Store because I think we need some currency to tie together the gift and paid-for activities. Otherwise will we keep on doing this stuff?

  • June 20, 2010 - 10:57 pm | Permalink

    Hey David,

    An idea I’ve pushed before – but I’m not sure we’ve got right yet – is the simple need to take the connecting out to communities and existing networks of practitioners – rather than trying to bring the busy practitioners into online environments from the off.

    The challenging reality is that may involve people far more used to self-organising open spaces spending a bit of time starting off in boring committee meetings and old-style events; only slowly creating the space and skills for more dynamic forms of self-organising and sharing.

    Probably the best example of social media at an event I’ve seen recently was when Amplified came to the Fair Trade Futures event in Oxford last year. Most of the people there had no idea about social media and connecting through digital space – but got a real flavour for it on the day.

    However, we didn’t crack building long-term networks after that event well enough – and so some of the potential was lost.

    I wonder also if going back to earlier discussions of training and skill-building for social reporters is worth exploring. And accredited training too – in tough times offering training with accreditation in return for people sharing stories and build networks within local communities could be one route to building the foundations that would support future, diverse, big society online spaces…

  • June 20, 2010 - 10:58 pm | Permalink

    David, I’ve found this one of the best posts on the Big Society I’ve seen. I think you cut through a lot of the uncertainty, and of the hype, and lay it out as it is.

    The DC10plus Product Catalogue will be launched quite shortly, and I hope this will provide a contribution to the debate about the sort of local initiatives which might be encouraged as part of the Big Society.

    I am hopeful that the Big Society might represent a new start which allows us to identify some new approaches to community regeneration that learn the lessons of the past and use some of the tools that are available to us now. I am thinking of approaches like Sunderland’s e-Neighbourhoods programme and Bristol’s Carbon Makeover

  • June 21, 2010 - 8:37 am | Permalink

    Tim – thanks so much for raising the online-offline organising issue, and people and skills needed to do it. I hope we could get a group together looking at principles, formats, methods, skills, resources drawn from both community development/engagement work, and from social reporting/online organising. I’ve recently had similar conversations (in part) with Chain Reaction, Futuregov, Democracy Society and others. Then could develop both the training you mention, and some product for the store, including workshop games.

  • June 21, 2010 - 8:39 am | Permalink

    John – thanks so much for he encouragement! The big test is whether any of this stuff makes sense, and connects with what’s happening. We can’t build from scratch. The DC10plus Product Catalogue sounds interesting … any more info welcome

  • June 21, 2010 - 9:15 am | Permalink

    Oh now this sounds interesting. i agree too, one of the more readable and ‘crap-cutting’ discussions about BS!

    I too like the idea of BS Stores. These could each be offering answers to BS questions and community scenarios. So as you walk along the BS High Street with you BS ISA or funding from the BS Bank you can chose and selec products that suit. Some may cost, some may be free and some may involve a skills exchange, barter or swap.

    Anyone with a small or large idea should be able to trade providing their product is a relevant digital solution that can help communities in the Big Society.

    Right, better go and get my Big Society Bag for Life!

  • June 21, 2010 - 11:43 am | Permalink


    Good to meet you at the EBD event last week. I share your concern about the sustainability of projects run on a shoestring and what I am looking at presently is how you connect those sorts of projects to revenue sources other than public funds – which I suspect will be less available after Tuesday!

  • June 21, 2010 - 6:06 pm | Permalink

    We need to look at how we can better encourage people to use existing resources rather than just creating new ones.

    Agree with Tim that where we may need to focus on support is on building those relationships of trust so people feel a sense of ownership over these techniques and can even bring their own into the mix for others to scale up.

    Where there is a gap is the “DIY civic society ebay” where people could pitch their ideas, events, products and services, some for free, and some paid for. Would certainly enable councils like mine to dip into and involve the people with the ideas and services to come on board and test some of these on our projects.

    If you added a competition element to this, it could drive the incentive to add ideas.

    Also important is how to encourage the further research and development of ideas so that they can be protoyped in practice in the community. If there was a way for councils or community groups who had specific needs and were looking for particular skills (i.e. social reporting) or resources (i.e. engaging with local people online), then you could match that back to services social innovators could provide (on perhaps a social franchising model)?

  • June 21, 2010 - 6:54 pm | Permalink

    @paul – thanks. Do you think that the store idea could be pitched in a way that would appeal to community and volorgs who aren’t big online enthusiasts?
    @Philippa – tomorrow will indeed set the scene. It’s worth engaging directly with Nat Wei on the Big Sociey blog – he’s in the middle of things as special adviser. Did you see his article on social ISAs?
    @noel encouraging to hear that the store could be useful to councils. Have you got any more thinking on the transformedbyyou model?

  • June 21, 2010 - 7:43 pm | Permalink

    @david From the feedback we got after the events, there was a need to actually develop the prototypes in real life. So we’re developing a virtual innovation space where developers will be able to test and prototype applications that tackle the challenges set in We’re only just starting by sounding out the local digital community on how they could contribute and where the gaps are. We’re also working with Kent Business School to look at how we better involve innovators in helping us prototype solutions to those challenges.

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