Social Innovation is (not) Finnished

Ok, so the wordplay has faltered…

Anyway, attended a Demos event last Friday morning on social innovation which included the likes of former Prime Minister Esko Aho ("the tsar of innovation"), Cliff Prior (the new CEO of UnLtd) and Jonathan Kestenbaum (CEO of NESTA), as well as the Demos Helsinki guys who came to visit us earlier this week.

Aho spoke interestingly about the need to invest in not only R&D, but also what he called innovation applications, and the ecology of innovation….and that this applied to social innovation too. Catherine Fieschi, acting Director at Demos, added that "we need to provide safe spaces to take risks…[and] only very legitimate institutions can do that"…hear, hear.

Kestenbaum was impressive as well, although starting misleadingly by quoting the government social enterprise figures (which there is, as I have reported before, some scepticism about) as  proof of "social innovation". Misleading because those figures represent, at best, part of the wider third sector which is, in turn, only one of the three sectors where social innovation can occur.

Anyway, after that, he had much of interest to say, particularly around what tools/techniques from the venture capital world could be transferred (summary: yes to analysis/frameworks to view, no to milestones tied to finance) and around the need to invest in people more than ideas. Or, as he put it, always better to invest in A-grade management with a B-grade product than B-management with an A product, because the former will make it an A product, whilst the latter will drag it down to a B….He also spoke about the gap between "the scale of the problems and the scale of the solutions", and of the need for the UK to "adjust the failure tolerance level"…Finally, he added that the bottom-up vs. top-down dichotomy is a false one, and that ‘true’ social innovation occurs when the two meet.

Plenty of food for thought there, not least around scaling the number of opportunities to take risks or ‘prototype’ and then scaling those ‘prototypes’ that can work/replicate; and around the need to invest in people.

Other speakers included Roope and Aleksi from Demos Helsinki, whose paper on the Welfare State in the Age of Communities will no doubt be available online soon…., and also Cliff Prior, CEO of UnLtd, on the power of networks for social entrepreneurs, which provided something of a grassroots, grounded contrast to some of the discussion earlier, and some interesting examples (not least Green Knickers) which certainly caught the imagination of those present.

All of which provoked some interesting discussion and debate, although I’m not sure the understanding of social innovation was as clear as in some of the Young Foundation’s recent work. Nevertheless, with Demos, the YF, NESTA et al involved, there is clearly a flourishing interest which is overdue in this area, and one which is only set to increase and take social innovation, as Jonathan Kestenbaum put it, "mainstream" in the years to come.

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