Government 2.0, Sustainability

The Economist on social innovation

I read Let’s hear those ideas at the Economist with great interest, to get a sense of how social innovation might be represented to a business/finance audience.  It is quite a good piece, but one aspect of it stood out for me:

However, so far the enthusiasm for social entrepreneurship has run ahead of its effects. The problem has not been a lack of good ideas… The problem is instead one of speed and scale. Successful innovations have spread only slowly, if at all. In business, entrepreneurial firms that do well grow fast; but social entrepreneurship does not yet have a Microsoft or a Google. Policymakers hope that with encouragement from the state social entrepreneurs’ best ideas can be spread faster and wider.

While I agree that we need to diffuse social innovation more widely (and as rapidly as possible), the idea of scaling, of creating the next “Microsoft or a Google” in social innovation perhaps misses part of the point.

Ezio Manzini has spoken about small, local, open and connected [site no longer available] social innovations being an appropriate path forward for diffusing social innovations.  In his recent talk he talked about how such innovations have economies of scope, as opposed to the more traditional view of economies of scale.

Through connecting and synergising, social innovations have the potential to maintain the important local-ness and human scale while replicating the benefits to a wider group.  I’m sure I’ve read in one of his papers (though I can’t seem to find the reference) that in fact trying to increase the scale of social innovation may actually reduce the sustainability of the activity, suggesting that trying to scale such innovations is perhaps looking to solve the wrong problem.

This is not to say that social innovation doesn’t need support.  The Economist article points to some great initiatives in the US and the UK that are allocating funds to support social innovation.  More of that is definitely needed.

Something to consider, though is Ezio’s suggestion that Government needs to consider how to engage with such initiatives, leaving enough room for innovation to occur, while building the frameworks that support the longevity of initiatives.  This is a different way of working for Government agencies and I suspect it will take some adjusting for this transition to occur.

My hope is that funds are directed to create the enabling structures that support more social innovations — e.g. supporting the communities who are already innovating and encouraging further innovation — rather that taking specific ideas and trying to scale them to apply to conditions that are poorly aligned with those that saw the innovation emerge in the first place.  While the latter approach may work in some circumstances, I suspect that it may backfire if not done with care.

(I note that Raul has an alternate take on the article over at the ASIX blog.)

Business 2.0, Sustainability

Social innovation in business

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking (but clearly not a lot of blog writing!) about the idea of social innovation in a business context.  This ties into some previous thoughts I’ve posted about values and sustainability as a lens for innovation.

Two articles that I’ve come across recently expand on this concept.  The first is from Tim Draimin and focuses on shifting from Corporate Social Responsibility to Corporate Social Innovation.

In the article Tim references Michael Porter’s thoughts:

Michael Porter suggests that CSR has evolved.  He speaks about a concept he calls “shared value” or “corporate policies and practices that enhance the competitiveness of the company while simultaneously advancing economic and social conditions in the communities in which it operates.”

The thinking goes that while traditional CSR programs are often viewed as an adjunct to the core business, something that happens “to the side”, the idea of CSI is that the benefit comes from the core business itself.  (While I do have reservations about the Corporate Social Innovation moniker, I do think the concept has merit.)

This is akin to what Adam Werbach outlines in his book Strategy for Sustainability when he talks about North Star goals and aligning sustainability goals with core business activity.  To my mind this also very much aligns with the concept of “betterness models” as put forward by Umair Haque.

I was reminded of this article (which I read quite a few weeks ago now) when I came across Dan Gray’s post on delivering short-term “quick wins” for sustainability within the context of a longer-term sustainability agenda.

In his post he says:

The authenticity of your commitment stems from the materiality of your actions – i.e. beyond the thin veneer of charitable giving, cause-related marketing etc., that commitment should be self-evident in the very products and services you provide, and the manner in which you conduct your daily business.

And goes on to quote Jonathon Porritt:

In an ideal world, all actions taken by a company to enhance its own commercial success should simultaneously generate benefits for society, over and above those that come directly through the use of that company’s products and services.

There are, of course, a number of cultural drivers that make consideration along these lines important for businesses moving forward, and I think they tie into the shift we’re also seeing in relation to social technologies (social networks etc.).  A quick summary of my current thinking is that people are seeking:

  • Human connection: as organisations have grown in size and become more and more depersonalised, people are wanting more human interactions and personal response.
  • Authenticity and transparency: from greenwashing to the GFC, the market’s trust has been eroded.  People are looking for organisations to say what they mean and mean what they say.
  • Co-creation and collaboration: people are taking a more active role in developing the products and services that they use.  And if they don’t find what they’re looking for, they will often create it themselves.
  • Environmental and social responsibility: global warming, looming limits to natural resource consumption, pollution and waste; respect for human dignity with fair wages and conditions — people want to support organisations that take these issues seriously, not just as something “to the side”.

Building a business (or service/product/brand) that resonates in this new “economy of meaning” requires a rethinking of an organisation’s role in more than “market” or financial terms.  But also, I think, a re-evaluation of an organisation’s relationship with customers/constituents, stakeholders, and the environment.

And I believe that it is in this rethinking that significant opportunities for innovation can be found.

Sustainability

Ezio Manzini speaking tour

While researching my report on design thinking and sustainability I finally had a chance to read some of Ezio Manzini’s papers on the topic. While I’d heard many good things about Ezio’s work (especially from Dave and Penny), I’d not had much of a chance to really dig into it.

The focus of the papers I read were on the concept of “enabling solutions” – that is designs that, rather than taking away problems, build people’s efficacy to solve the challenges they face, increasing their “resourcefulness” (to borrow a term from Emily Campbell’s RSA paper You know more than you think you do: Design as resourcefulness & self-reliance [PDF 356KB]).

While at the time I didn’t fully appreciate the relevance of these papers to my intended report, by the time I’d finished writing it I realised Manzini’s ideas had been very influential. Which is why I’m so excited to see that Ezio is speaking in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney next month in a tour co-organised by ASIX, TACSI, and the Centre for Social Impact.

In each state Ezio will be doing both a public forum: “Small, local, open, connected” and masterclass: “Next economy – enabling sustainable ways of living”. From the masterclass blurb:

Perhaps the world’s leading expert on sustainable design, Ezio Manzini sits at the interface between design, community and social innovation with a focus on scenario building toward solutions encompassing both environmental and social quality.

This masterclass will explore how the interplay between social and technical innovation is opening up brand new opportunities. How can we conceive and deliver “enabling solutions”? How can individuals, businesses, institutions, associations and communities collaborate in the framework of viable business models to support sustainable ways of living?

This masterclass is for policy-makers and practitioners who are interested in sustainability, social innovation and cross-disciplinary collaboration.

I’d thoroughly recommend this tour/series to anyone interested in sustainability and/or social innovation – I’m sure it will be an engaging and inspiring set of sessions…

Social media & networking

Network effects

Late last week I was flicking through ABC’s iView service and stumbled across the documentary (under the ABC Docs section) entitled ”
How Kevin Bacon Cured Cancer“.

I figured it would have something to do with the 6 degrees of separation concept and decided to set aside any misgivings I had based on the title and watch a bit of it to see if it had anything of interest.

It turned out to be a great program, focusing in part on Duncan Watts’ academic work on social networks. I’d thoroughly recommend checking it out if you’re interested in social networking.

As an aside, I’m with iinet for my home broadband, and iView is “free” (i.e. bandwidth consumed watching iView is not counted in my monthly download allowance).

NGOs & Nonprofits

Social Tech

I’ve mentioned the Social Tech meetups a few times on this blog. Well, now the group has a blog of its own.

The site provides an outline of the group’s goals, as well as giving us a way of promoting meetups outside of the Facebook group. We’ll also hopefully be able to continue some discussions from the meetups online.

There’s not a lot there at the moment – just an announcement of the next meetup and some coverage of part of the discussion at the last meetup – but it will grow over time.

P.S. for those that are looking for an OpenID sign-in – it doesn’t appear that WordPress.com hosted blogs support OpenID in this way. If there’s a setting I’ve missed, lemme know…