The other week I attended an interesting and thought-provoking day at NESTA about social innovation, with many of the major players in the field (NESTA, Innovation Unit, Young Foundation, etc) in attendance. On the same day, the Innovation Unit had launched a report, called ‘Honest Brokers: brokering innovation in public services’. [see here for more and to download the pdf]
Matthew Horne, who wrote the report, spoke about it briefly on the day, and I’ve since read the whole thing. The general gist is that social innovation is important, and that innovation in other fields (technology etc) has many intermediaries to help it come to scale and grow (such as hubs, incubators, labs, accelerators and so forth). As Horne writes,
"Innovation brokers help to mobilise innovations, identify opportunities that the current system undervalues and they broker relationships between disparate parts of the system…. In particular, they broker relationships between ‘innovation creators’, ‘innovation seekers’ (such as commissioner of services), investors and policy makers."
He goes on to recommend that the government seeks to create propitious market conditions for these intermediaries working in the social/public sector. And create these conditions by promoting innovation, regulating to encourage it and investing/using money to leverage in other investments. The pamphlet is more specific about where and how to do this, so I’d recommend a read.
Some cynics on the day drew a parallel with the old (false) maxim that "Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach"; i.e., "Those who can, innovate; those who can’t, broker". Others felt that it was no great surprise to find an innovation intermediary organisation writing a report that recommended greater support and resourcing of innovation intermediary organisations.
There might be the odd grain of truth there, but there’s many worthwhile points of learning in the report. For example, it makes the clear case that "the innovation imperative is also an economic imperative", because the current centrally-driven approaches are not solving the problems we have, and are becoming increasingly unaffordable. I also liked the stuff on how and why innovation doesn’t work in the public sector / social spehere: "monopolistic sectors…tend not to be very innovative. Sectors with lots of very small players tend to be good at incremental innovation. Sectors with many small players and a few large players tend to be better at more radical innovation". Which very much very much put me in mind of SSE’s long tail argument.
Also, what if we started to view SSE as an innovation intermediary? In the list of services such organisations provide (expert consulting, experience sharing, brokering, diagnosis + problem definition, benchmarking, change agency, influencing policy….), I found myself putting a tick by many of them, to differing extents, for SSE. Further to this, the innovation research reaffirms SSE’s beliefs in diverse networks and in the need for a safe trusted space; as Horne writes:
"Innovation-rich sectors tend to be highly networked, with a high number of random connections between individuals and organisations and a high level of social, cultural and professional diversity within these social networks…..[this] explains the important role that brokers play in estaboishing and maintaining such networks and relationships….
Building relationships between innovators in different organisations and creating rules that make it safe to share, be open about problems and potential solutions is important"
Which again reminded me strongly of NEF’s findings about SSE students and Fellows and the benefits they gain from networks of support, resource and opportunity, and from a safe space to test out and discuss their ideas. Indeed, just as we have been saying to people that social entrepreneurship is about transforming ‘beneficiaries’ into leaders of change, so this report calls for "the next era of innovation in public services…to focus on the participation of the service users themselves " and, finally, for "systems that give the public tools to innovate for themselves".
My only caveat comes from an example we heard on the day, from the DOTT team (who are considered an innovation intermediary). Horne writes that innovation does not come from centralised organisations searching "for innovations and then impos[ing] them on others". Yet the Dott 07 example of Low Carb Lane, in which they introduced low-energy innovations on a street in Northumberland, demonstrated that intermediaries can also impose ideas on others. Most of the residents were more worried about crime, the burnt-out garage at the end of the street and so on, not on issues of climate change. The fact they had no ownership over the project also meant it was unlikely to be sustained.
Which led me to my final conundrum, one that all innovation intermediaries should be considering: how can we match the large-scale problems identified by research and evidence (chronic illness, ageing population, climate change) with the concerns and wishes of those at the grassroots (which vary region to region, street to street). I think SSE’s approach, of supporting and empowering those often coming from the problem they are aiming to solve, and then networking them effectively and building their capacity to make change, can play a significant role in this. Thinking of ourselves as an innovation intermediary might help push this forward.