Beijing Social Innovation Conference

A few blog posts about the Beijing conference on social innovation from others already, but here’s my contribution/reaction…chronologically, for want of any better ordering method.

SUNDAY: Arrived after a good flight chatting to Brett Wigdortz (of Teach First fame) and Steve McAdam (from Fluid) amongst others, and having flitted between Mission Impossible Three and China Shakes the World. Given my short amount of time, Brett and I caught the tube into the centre of Beijing that night for a brief glance at Tiananmen Square, and a good roast duck….before the real work began….

MONDAY: I was slightly disconcerted on my way down to the opening ceremony by the fact that the CNN news report I’d been watching in the hotel room had been cut off in the middle (it was concerning Nepal/Tibet border shooting: see this article for both sides of the story), leaving a black screen.

Anyway, we kicked off with intros from the organisers and dignitaries. Couple of quotes I captured include Gerard Lemos (of British Council) saying that social entrepreneurs had "optimism as a social duty, even a moral duty", and that this was driven by "people who understand people", and that "policy should be driven by practice, not the other way round".

Geoff Mulgan (of Young Foundation) said that YF saw this as the "beginning of a global network of shared thinking", and hoped it would "speed up the process of innovation and learning". More interestingly, perhaps he also talked about "tapping into collective intelligence", and the need for "leadership providing the space for innovators to evolve". Finally, he also related it back to Michael Young who had "a clear focus on needs, an empathy to understand how people are experiencing those needs and a willingness to act" to address them.

Other highlights from the various presentations included:

– Ezio Manzini (from EMUDE, amongst others) discussing everyday social innovations at the grassroots, and of the importance of everyone getting the opportunity to be involved

– John Bird (of Big Issue) waking a few up by saying that "it was a crying shame that there aren’t more people like me up here saying ‘I was part of the problem and am now part of the solution’ " amongst other slightly tired, if entertaining ramblings

– Yang Xuedong, from CCPE, discussed the Local Innovations Prize, and how it had helped evaluate government performance in Chinese regions, and help make them more accountable; it was also interesting to hear how it had stimulated the development of local democratic politics in some areas

– Shen Dongshu, from Fu Ping, champions NGOs in China, and has a social entrepreneur school (capacity building focus), an entrepreneurial fund and other initiatives;

– Steve McAdam (see above) talked about their bottom-up, people-centred approach to planning and regeneration, next to which my notes simply say "very interesting; follow up"

– later we got more international perspectives with Peter Spink from Brazil reeling off countless interesting examples (an open access online participative budget, for example) and talking about genuine grassroots-led change, based on pragmatism, diagonal and horizontal relationships and "incremental learning-by-doing"….+ Rhoda Kadelie from South Africa giving some inspiring innovations from there, including dance and opera initiatives amongs the black community, as well as some damning critiques of SA govt; Josephine Green added the corporate design perspective from Philips, adding (intriguingly from a multinational) that "the concept of enough is one we ought to explore"…

– After the break-out sessions (too much to report here) came a banquet, a mask-changing dance and a poem, no less, in our honour….


Slightly smaller crowd on Tuesday morning (Monday night drinks anyone?), and an equally packed line-up. Simon Tucker from YF’s Launchpad kicked off, outlining some of their current projects, followed by Lv Zhao from the Shanghai NPO Network who gave an interesting overview of the Chinese NGO scene (I love the concept of a government-sponsored non-governmental organisation….but some would argue that many of our third sector organisations are in this situation as well…)

Mike Gibbons gave a clear and focused presentation on his challenges and approaches at the DfES’ Innovation Unit, particularly interesting around leadership learning, and enabling others to take risks

John Thackara discussed his Designs of the Time project in the North-East of England, and made the important point that technological innovation should be driven by social innovation/social needs, not the other way round….an interesting project to track

– another breakout session (which helped give me more of an insight into the Chinese third sector scene, if I can even categorise it like that) took place before the round-ups; the one key thing I wrote down here was from He Fan (I think) who said:

"in China everyone is born an entrepreneur" and "small progress in China is multiplied by one billion", followed by the payoff, "real social entrepreneurs should come to prove themselves in China"; that’s the sound of a gauntlet being thrown down, I believe….

I also found the Mondragon perspective very interesting (thanks Carlos), as scaling but keeping true to principles and values is a real problem in this sector. Mondragon have much to share on this, i think.

Final round-ups followed before dinner, and then a Wednesday morning meeting about the prospects for a social innovation network; watch this space, I guess….. but I’ll post up this mindmap to give an indication of the tentative beginnings of a mapping exercise….(click to expand, I think).


Overall – lots of material, lots of speakers, lots of thoughts, lots of good networking: a really good beginning to providing some momentum and focus in this area, widening out to encompass multitudes, as it were, rather than becoming stuck in the same areas and silos. As ever, hearing from other fields (design, architecture) and other locations (China, Brazil, South Africa) is inspiring and fires off other ideas…

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Social Innovation blogs and links

I’ve just returned from Beijing, at a Social Innovation conference, which was tremendously interesting….and of which a more focused post soon. But, in the meantime, here’s a list of blogs and sites that I follow in the wider world of social innovation:

– First up, the mighty WorldChanging, who are also connected to TED (and the TEDBlog; see TedTalk for podcasts)

Social Innovation Conversations, led by Tim Zak and others…for the podcasters amongst you

Doors of Perception for a design-centred approach (see their take on the Beijing conference here) which is newer but has interesting stuff around social markets and investments; Acumen Fund is a funder of social entrepreneurs with a decent blog…

Springwise is an offshoot of Trendwatching, giving a ‘daily fix of entrepreneurial ideas’…

Audeamus, this blog (!), the 4 Non Profits PACE blog, and (the active bits of) SocialEdge pretty much cover social entrepreneurship

– David Wilcox’s Designing for Civil Society is interesting on partnership, governance, networking and knowledge…and Clay Shirky is great on the interface of society and technology

– Of the (UK) think-tanks, Demos’ Greenhouse is most active and most wide-ranging

– There are also RSS feeds of (crazy, humorous, and sometime socially-oriented) new ideas from the Global Ideas Bank, Idea A Day and HalfBakery

I’ll add to this soon: all suggestions welcome…

UPDATE: (more sites than blogs, now)

– John Thackara adds design-related innovation links to the pot, of which I’ll pick out particularly…
Architecture for Humanity, the Next Design Institute and GeekCorps as well as the Stanford Social Innovation Review, which I should have mentioned before

– Site-wise, social entrepreneurs are also well-represented on the new spangly Ashoka site, as well as Echoing Green, Schwab and others.

Headshift is good for social software stuff

– Uffe from Kaos Pilots (who deserve a link here as well, of course!) sends through Emerging Futures which is a new one to me

– Also, ideas and technology-wise, we can throw ShouldExist and Lazy Web (for tech ideas) into the mix, as well as MySociety‘s portfolio, including Pledgebank, WriteToThem and TheyWorkForYou

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Bangladesh, North Wales, London and Beijing

A few things to report in on this weekend; sorry to group such disparate things together….

– the first, of course, is Muhammad Yunus winning the Nobel Peace Prize for his pioneering work in microcredit; he’s had many plaudits (rightly: read Audeamus and Social ROI blogs, for example) which I don’t need to add to. Worth reading some articles about his work on the Global Ideas Bank, though; search for ‘Grameen’

– from Bangladesh to Wales…I spoke at a BLOC seminar in Betws-y-Coed the other evening, along with Francis Irving of the mighty MySociety, and Alan Harris of KnowNet. Will blog about this more soon (particularly the most amazing taxi drive ever…), but take a look at the BLOC site which is doing interesting things around promoting creativity, technology and enterprise across Wales.

– and across, more predictably, to London, for the launch of the Enterprise for All Coalition’s launch of its report "Progressing the agenda"; it’s an excellent piece of work, and very much accord with SSE‘s current thinking, so I will post up when it’s available for download. In the meantime, you can read the Times’ take on the report within this article

– and, finally, the SSE blog is off to Beijing to a Social Innovation conference; internet access allowing, I’ll be blogging from there over the next few days….

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We-think throws its pages open

Charles Leadbeater, author of the Rise of the Social Entrepreneur and other myriad texts of interest, is publishing an interesting new book, entitled We-Think, next year. It seems to be bringing together various strands from his recent work into a coherent whole, particularly the Pro-Am Revolution stuff he did with Paul Miller at Demos.

To get a sense of what the book is about, here’s the introduction which bears a long quotation…:

"The basic argument is very simple. Most creativity is collaborative.
It combines different views, disciplines and insights in new ways. The
opportunities for creative collaboration are expanding the whole time.
The number of people who could be participants in these creative
conversations is going up largely thanks to the communications
technologies that now give voice to many more people and make it easier
for them to connect. As a result we are developing new ways to be
innovative and creative at mass scale. We can be organised without
having an organisation. People can combine their ideas and skills
without a hierarchy to coordinate their activities. Many of the
ingredients of these forms of self-organised creative collaboration are
not new – peer review for example has been around a long time in
academia. But what is striking about Wikipedia, Linux, Second Life,
Youtube and many more is the way they take familiar ingredients and
combine them to allow people to collaborate creatively at mass scale.

guiding ethos of this new culture and forms of self-organisation is
participation. The point of the industrial era economy, was mass
production for mass consumption, the formula created by Henry Ford. In
the world of We-think, the point is to take part, to be a player in the
action, to have a voice in the conversation. And in a participation
economy people want not services and goods, delivered to them, but
tools so they can take part and places in which they can play, share,
debate with others. Workers could be instructed, organised in a
division of labour. Participants will not be lead and organised in this

The people who take part in these collaboratives are
neither workers nor consumers. They are participants and contributors.
If the 20th century marked the rise of mass consumerism, one feature of
the 21st century will be the rise of the mass participation economy:
innovation by the masses not for the masses. Innovation and creativity
have been elite activities, undertaken by special people – writers,
designers, architects, inventors – in special places – garrets,
studies, laboratories. Now innovation and creativity are becoming mass
activities, dispersed across society. We-think is an effort to
understand this new culture, where these new ways of organising
ourselves have come from and where they might lead. They started, as
most radical and disruptive innovation do, in the margins, in open
source, blogging and gaming. But they will increasingly become the
mainstream by challenging traditional, hierarchical, top down and
closed organisations to open up. They could change not just the way
that the media, software and entertainment works but also the way we
organise education, health care, cities and indeed the political system."

Which all looks and sounds very interesting. And in the spirit of creative collaboration, Leadbeater is making the book open to read, comment on and print out. Of particular interest to the social entrepreneur will be the sections on Open Work and Open Leadership; you get a taste of the latter from a recent article entitled  "Jimmy Wales, not Jack Welch" (pdf…)

[via Designing for Civil Society, via the Open Blog etc….]

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Double devolution and social entrepreneurs

Yesterday, I attended a Transforming Neighbourhoods seminar here at the Young Foundation, hosted by the Lead Policy Advisor, Paul Hilder. It was a stimulating presentation and discussion around their three strands of work in this area, namely:

– influencing
– research
– local learning/policy

It was interesting to get some flesh round the bones of the phrase "double devolution" which is being banded around with increasing abandon, it seems. Specifically, what a reformed first tier (of neighbourhood forums, community councils etc) would look like and how this would change the landscape for grassroots social entrepreneurs and community activists. Some key points (for me) were:

– 73% of people support changes that would give local neighbourhoods greater control over some services and budgets (the "some" is probably the most important word there)

– the comparison with other countries: how exceptionally large Uk (and especially English) local government is compared to France, India, Brazil, China etc.

– that such representative neighbourhood bodies will have to be demand-led (i.e. gaining powers to act, to influence, to hold to account and to take control ONLY where citizens want them)

– that an element of the local authority budget should be given to the neighbourhood, but not too much (!) [various worries about extremism and the like]

– that the biggest barrier to all of their suggested moves (many of which may appear in the government white paper, and more on which you can find on their page from the link above) may be culture change within local government

I don’t think I’ve fully digested all of what it might mean (for our students/Fellows/ourselves), but certainly prompted a few thoughts.

And following on from that was Michael Lyons’ piece in the Guardian today which looks at the relationship between local government and the third sector. He has some criticism for social entrepreneurs/social enterprises ("overhyped, raising unrealistic expectations abuot what they can deliver") and the local authority officials ("stuffy, rule-bound"), even if he acknowledges that some of this is crude stereotyping. There’s not a small amount of truth in this as well, though.

Lyons’ primary challenge to the voluntary sector is to "show clearly the value they create" and develop "new measures of value…to give a strong basis for making investment decisions". The associated challenge to the local authorities are to make service commissioning less output and target driven to allow this value to be demonstrated. He then calls for the two sides to "meld" and "cast aside [their] preconceptions" of the other to form a dynamic alliance.

Stirring stuff, and more food for thought. Strongly agree with the need for the 3rd sector to show the value of its values, as it were, and for local government to attract energy and diversity into it. Ultimately, this vision will live or die by the necessary culture change referred to above, and to whether power and, yes, money is truly devolved to these lower echelons. Will the changes come slowly as double evolution or swiftly as double revolution? As Paul Hilder ended his seminar yesterday: "We’ll see".

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