The myth and truth of the heroic individual

Geoff Mulgan, of the Young Foundation (our landlords and colleagues here in Bethnal Green) writes interestingly in the Guardian yesterday about social innovation (a summary, effectively, of their recent Social Silicon Valleys pamphlet). Effectively, the argument is that social innovation (of which social entrepreneurship/social enterprise is a substantial part) has been underrecognised, undervalued, underresearched and undervalued, as compared with technological/product/scientific innovation. Mulgan believes that the time is right for a revolution, no less, in the way social innovation is supported + how research and development in the field are put into place.

Intriguing stuff. One bit that stood out for me was the following:

“But social innovation still tends to be left to energetic individuals (and, indeed, much of the limited support that there tends to be focused on individuals despite the abundant evidence that lasting social change usually comes from movements, networks and teams).”

This relates to something that I brought up in the last post about this belief, on occasion, that the School believes in the concept of the heroic individual who solves everything. I think there’s something of that in the paragraph above. Really, though, SSE approaches the development of social entrepreneurs as a group experience in which networks are paramount, and in which they form their own teams and, in some few cases, start movements.

It seems to me that the key is not to diminish the focus on support for individuals leading social change, but to ensure that the importance of building networks, getting people to buy into what you do, creating teams of support/champions, knowing when to expand/delegate successfully, and so on, is embedded in that support. Having just come out of a stakeholder evaluation workshop with SSE students and Fellows (of which, more soon), the thing that came out above all else in terms of importance to (and impact on) them and their project was networks, teams, support…indeed, one of them used the term ‘team’ to describe the people she now has around her.

What it comes down to, to purloin a phrase from elsewhere, is an investment in people. Should there be more investment in research of unmet needs? Yes. More collating of new innovations? Yes. More testing of models? Yes. More development of organisational solutions? Yes. But no matter how powerful and innovative the idea, how desperate the need, or how failsafe the model, it is the people involved who will most likely determine its success. Not heroic individuals striving on their own, but remarkable individuals who are engaged with the community (thematic or geographic) they are aiming to serve, who have an innovative solution to an unmet need (big or small), and who have the drive, commitment and characteristics to build a team and network around them to make it happen.

After all, if you look at a lot of the social innovations in the article, how many would have happened without such social entrepreneurs: Curitiba? (Jaime Lerner). New Lanark (Robert Owen). Grameen (Muhammad Yunus). Open University (Michael Young).etc…….Could they/did they do it on their own? No; they built teams, tapped into networks, started movements, piloted ideas etc. But nor would it have happened without them.


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