There’s never been a better time… could this be social innovation’s moment?

By Martin Stewart-Weeks, founder of Public Pupose Pty Ltd and Board member, The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI). Views are author's own.

Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree
— Martin Luther

The question, in the end, is whether or not social innovation amounts to anything at a time when the world appears to be going to hell in various sorts of unattractive hand-baskets? Is it a movement of people and organisations who want to innovate and, in the process, tackle some pretty big questions about the way power, control and accountability is arranged in society and what that means for people and human potential?

Or has it become a movement of people and organisations whose dismay about the contemporary state of the world is translating into what Charlie Leadbeater described as a “human social conservation” movement, battening down the progressive hatches until, presumably, the storm passes and things get back to normal?

Two resounding messages resonated throughout the two-day Wayfinder meeting on the future of social innovation in London last week (SIX Wayfinder, 16-17 February) in response to these big, uncomfortable questions.

One message was that, far from recoiling to conservation and, in effect, going into hiding, this was exactly the time for social innovation, and those who professed to live by its values and ethics, to show what they were made of.

And that meant, unequivocally, to answer the call for a deep belief in people and human potential and a moral and practical conviction to work patiently, purposefully and optimistically to solve problems, change systems and confront cultural and political conditions that erode hope, opportunity and, in the process, deny a decent, flourishing life for all.

The second message was that social innovators had to remember the power of heart and spirit at the core of the relationships between people from which change that lasts is always forged.

Like any field of practice, sometimes the performance – in this case, co-design workshops, postIT notes, writing strategies and business cases –  can obscure purpose and intent.  There is work to be done, for sure, and it needs to be done well and with professional energy and capability.

But the work isn’t the point.  A co-design workshop changes nothing.  An idea, as one participant put it to a small gathering of Australian and Canadian social innovators, is not a design.

In many ways, the two-day conversation about the future of social innovation, convened by the Social Innovation Exchange (SIX) and hosted by Nesta, convened around a simple question.  What is the point of social innovation, particularly right now?

The answer, it turned out, was “quite a lot”.  Even more, the answer was that, if we were up for it, the temper of these disrupted times might be just the conditions in which social innovation’s best instincts and practical responses might be tested as a strong foundation for hope and practical change.

These few notes offer a personal reflect of what that means for those of us who are engaged in this venture in the period ahead.

Some themes in the discussion

There were some themes for me running through the two days of presentations and conversations, both formal and informal.  For example:

  • There remain difficult questions about where, as people interested in solving problems and shifting systems, to press for change. Do we work inside the big institutions of government, business and civil society? Or do we invest our time in the networks of creativity, experimentation and disruption that form outside of those structures?
  • There is little deep and sustained change in social systems and structures without different flows of resources and much more even and widespread access to the assets, including power and authority, of change and reform. Social innovation needs to sharpen its instincts and practice to press for these larger system and structural changes. And that meant being prepared to play a role as more than technicians, engaging the political foundations of social and cultural structures more overtly.
  • Are we in danger of kidding ourselves that our efforts are having the deep structural change we claim when often the solutions on which we are labouring remain mired in relatively small, disconnected silos and can’t cross the “chasm” to scale and systemic impact? In fact, is there a sense that, in many areas, we are going backwards?
  • The alignment, or lack of it, between the social innovation value or impact an individual or a network or an organisation seeks to achieve, and the values it manifests in the way it behaves, will determine success and lasting impact.

What we believe

In one of the sessions, we were challenged by Danish writer, entrepreneur, leader of The Alternative party and MP Uffe Elbaek to think about what values brought us to the social innovation movement.  How would we define the things we believed about social innovation and its practice?

In conversation with CEO Carolyn Curtis, the two of us responded to the challenge with some values that we felt spoke to our personal beliefs and the beliefs of TACSI, about the power and potential of social innovation.

There were some of the things we came up with:

  • A belief in the importance of equality and fairness
  • Practice what you preach
  • Sharing what you learn
  • Know your limits, which is another way of saying being humble
  • A fundamental belief in people, their potential and expertise
  • Something pretty basic about collaboration and the sense that we’re better together
  • Persistence and curiosity
  • And a need to keep going, even if things look dark and difficult…”we just have to keep going and keep trying”.

What about the demand side?

Mark Moore from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government reminded us of the importance of focusing less on the supply side of social innovation (the people and organisations who “do” social innovation) and more on the demand side (the people and communities who might want social innovation, need it and even pay for it and resource it).

I picked up a fair bit of interest in his exhortation to spend more time doing two things.

One is remembering to ground the impulse to innovate in the lived experience and capability of the people most directly affect by the things we want to change or improve.

People are experts in their own lives, we constantly say at TACSI.  The “why” question should ground the “what” and “how questions.  As professionals and practitioners, we often come to problems with draft answers, instead of arriving with some draft questions.  Even better, we might be wise to arrive with no questions or answers at all, but simply an attentive predisposition to look, listen and learn.

The other consequence of spending a bit more time on the demand side of the equation is that it forces some basic questions about whether we believe that our work as social innovators produces a value for people that can, and should attract resources and investment to be sustained.  When you worry about demand, you are in effect asking the unnerving question “do people want this” and, in some cases, the similarly unsettling question “do we think what we’re doing brings value that people would be prepared to pay for?”

Professor Moore also reinforced the importance of understanding that social innovation is partly about material change, but in the end, it is the business of altering relationships and the way people relate to, and set expectations for, each other that matters most.

In that sense, social innovation is inescapably a political venture whose fundamental task, beyond the problem to be solved and the system to be changed and the conditions to be shifted, is to rethink citizenship and the interaction between people in and with society.

Drawing on American philosopher John Dewey, Professor Moore noted we could define social innovation’s core purpose as calling into existence a “public” capable of pursuing their own purposes. And that demands what he described as a “declaration of interdependence”, a belief in the things we can do together based on an acceptance of the things we owe to each other.

People and human potential: a call to arms 

At the end of the two days, Charlie Leadbeater brought together many of the threads into a powerful call to arms for social innovators.

Far from being cowed by, or fearful of, the difficult times in which we seem to find ourselves, social innovators should recognise this is precisely “our time”.

He made the point that we are at a time when it feels to many people that the world has grown out of control or that at least significant forces are at play that render many of the elements of their world less stable and predictable than ever. In that environment, there will be those offering to help people get some degree of control back into their lives.

That might come from “strong” leaders who tend to favour varying forms of populist authoritarianism.  It might come from the technology world, whose tools and platforms offer a sense of direction, purpose and control by aggregating and influencing tastes and preferences.

Or it might come from those within the social innovation movement who can offer a viable and attractive response to these natural reflexes which guide so much of people’s behaviour in the face of uncertainty and a sense of losing control – escape, resistance, coping, conserving and transformation, for example.

What is it that social innovators can offer people to shape those reflexes in ways that privilege human potential, our obligations to and for each other and an ability to stand against prevailing conditions in favour of enduring values.  In a post-truth world, for example, Charlie reminded us that choosing to stand with truth was itself an act of resistance.

And, with great timing, just on the day we were grappling with these big questions, Pope Francis gave us a practical demonstration of how it might work as he tweeted “a youthful heart does not tolerate injustice and cannot bow to a ‘throw away culture’ nor give in to the globalisation of indifference”

Some conclusions

Now would seem not to be a good time for those interested in social innovation as a mindset and practice for change to get disheartened or be fearful, despite plenty of evidence of things going on in the world that might prompt copious quantities of both.

But we also must be realistic.

As innovators anxious for change that lasts, we need to show more respect for the structures and complex DNA of the domains in which we seek to have an impact. We should spend more time to get to grips with their substantive contours and rhythms – the depth and expertise of these domains – before we can credibly claim a right to change them.

The risk, without that investment of time and learning, is that the innovation effort will appear flimsy or wholly inadequate to the real scope of the issues being tackled.

Systemic change isn’t necessarily correlated with organisational size.  It is increasingly possible to have big impact from relatively small, but well designed and carefully connected pieces of change and intervention applied at the right points of pressure in the larger system.

There was a persistent theme over the two days about the inescapable political quotient with which social innovation is increasingly freighted if it wants genuinely to shift systems and see deeper changes in societal patterns and structures.  The risk is that social innovation comes across as overly “managerial” and technical, a set of techniques like management consulting that can be applied in discrete projects and programs.

More and more of the work of social innovation lies in an ability to make visible the fault lines in prevailing economic, cultural and social structures that play out in many of the inequities and gaps which innovators seek to “fix”.

The four Rs

Throughout the discussions, I heard a consistent focus on four elements whose interaction was as important as their individual impact on the quality and success of social innovation:


We believe in people and the quality, power and potential of their interactions.  Social innovation is, at its core, about human potential and opportunity in a society that is fair and generous


We believe that nothing change, or stays changed, without changing the way resources – money, power, opportunity – are fashioned, shared and accessed. The flow of, and access to, those resources need to change in some fundamental ways.


We believe that changing institutions and structures is only possible if their complexity and depth are understood and respected.  You can’t change something you haven’t taken the time, and humility, to understand at some depth and over some time.  You can be impatient, but you can’t be disrespectful or arrogant.


We believe that the structures and institutions of the wider economy and society need to be gradually redesigned for access, legibility and accountability.

Finally, a persistent discussion through the two days was about the purpose and direction for the social innovation movement and, to some extent of SIX itself.

There were two basic responses.

One response was to build and spread a set of cross-cutting capabilities and competences which are increasingly necessary across many of those “missions”.

Those competencies would include building the capacity for more and faster experimentation and agility in the search for better ideas and results, growing and deepening the capacity for good measurement and evaluation, developing skills in new business models that can sustain investments and resource flows that sustain programs and interventions over the longer term, improving the art of collaboration to turn the instinct for “better together” into new and more confident practice.

The other response, though, was to attach the energy and commitment, as well as the methods and tools, of social innovation to the big “missions” of change that we want to see in some of the conditions and structures of society – rethinking citizenship, shifting how we learn and gain skills, new approaches to health and social care, climate change and so on.

I am reflecting here recent work by Marianna Mazzucato to reinforce the importance of “directionality” and mission in the work of powerful and effective innovation.  Her point is that innovation is not a question of quantum, but of direction.

And choosing the directions in which to point the innovation process was not about picking winners, but determining where society and the economy needed to focus resources, expertise and energy to solve the big themes of reform and change most likely to deliver dividends of growth, sustainability, opportunity and equality.  Smart, inclusive and sustainable are the bywords for the impact that “mission led” innovation might seek.

Although the two days in London left me with plenty of questions and some doubts about whether and, if so how, we might reinforce and spread the social innovation “dividend,” in the end I left with some considerable hope.

I suspect Charlie Leadbeater is right.  These are exactly the conditions – fear, uncertainty, a loss of control and confidence in our better angels – in which the instincts and values of social innovation will be tested for their endurance and relevance.

I’m inclined to believe we will find both. I hope so.