The cracks in everything…

By Josine Stremmelaar (Hivos) and Remko Berkhout (Transition Companion for changemakers). Views are the authors' own. 

In our previous blog, we congratulated the social innovation movement on its achievements for the past ten years. In this blog, we focus on the future. We offer three shifts for the social innovation movement to enhance its transformative potential.

Focus in times of turbulence?

These are turbulent times. There is no shortage of adrenalin filled apocalyptic prophecies: “Hack the planet!”, “Reboot our systems!”. Trump and Brexit are merely our least favourite bogeymen. Headlines spelling disaster wake us up, but can also distract.

For reality is more complex and progress remains underreported. Look at the global HIV/AIDS response for example. That fight is far from won, but humanity has come a long way in less than four decades, thanks to the collective efforts of ordinary citizens, activists, bureaucrats, pop-stars, philanthropists, tax dollars and doctors. Sometimes, say in the case of women’s rights in the MENA region, holding the line is the best we can hope for. Sometimes it’s nothing but a cop-out. Europe’s migrant crisis comes to mind. Decay, crisis and bad policy sow the seeds of progress. Think of flourishing social innovations like time banks, energy cooperatives and community-based healthcare schemes.

Yes, for the next decade we need more social innovation. Yes, we need to strengthen and grow this movement. But the biggest challenge is to smarten up, to become better at spotting and exploiting the leverage points for change. The question is how, in the words of Michael Edwards, to "move the ‘thinnest'" of innovations in the direction of deeper impact.

A good example is the Finance Innovation Lab. Their ambition is to build a financial system that works for people and planet. The team at the heart of this growing community understood early on that one of its main tasks is to forge connections between radical innovators, reformers and campaigners. They develop working methods connecting societal change, institutional change and personal change. Learning, documentation and generous sharing are seen the best method for scaling. Their documented stories and methods inspire countless other initiatives across sectors.

Momentum towards the masses

Clearly, the world of lived realities offers the most fertile soil for a more transformative social innovation practice. As Alex Ryan argues, social innovation is fast becoming mainstream in policy circles, but has not yet been able to reach the masses.

The pitfall of elitism is around the corner. Ordinary citizens and activists get turned off by 'vogue' concepts such as pop-up markets, innovation labs, fail-fests, and prototypes. ’Hipster talk!’, pensioners told us on a recent visit to the acclaimed Belvedere house of stories in Rotterdam.

If we are serious about putting people at the center, we need to move beyond user profiles, beyond sanitized concepts of change. Inclusive social innovation may require a practice that is slower, more expensive and less sexy. In our Food Change Lab in Fort Portal, Uganda, we try to actively engage informal street vendors. Unorganized, dispersed and controversial, this group is hard to reach, yet they hold fundamental pieces of the puzzle of how a fast growing African city eats. The social innovation in this case is nothing magical other than enabling a seat at the table of the urban planners shaping the future of their city.

From genius to scenius

The broader point here is a shift from from ‘genius’ to ‘scenius. The toolbox of individual innovation processes is filling up nicely. More attention is being paid to the architecture of social innovation eco-systems. But ‘scenius’ goes a few levels deeper and suggests more attention to the fertile grounds of creativity, collaboration and curiousity. The social innovation movement can’t afford to turn its back on issues such as closing civic spaces, the curtailing of freedoms, and the destruction of social infrastructure. There are trade-offs begging reflection. In countries like Kenya, tech hubs can barely absorb donor offers for hackathons and innovation prizes, whilst human rights organizations can’t find the funds to fight impunity and corruption.

Worse perhaps, sometimes we become our own worst enemies. In Berlin, social investors are replacing cheap spaces for creatives with centers for start-ups. Can we let governments get away with refugee quotes and spending cuts for crucial infrastructure such as libraries and youth centers, whilst celebrating the few that find the endurance and creativity to re-invent themselves? Can we follow the example of cities like Hull and Bristol and strike coalitions with movements for alternative currencies and universal basic income as enablers of more transformative innovations?

What if we would treat such linkages as the ‘low hanging fruit’ of a more connected practice? Can we turn the breadth of the social innovation to deepen our understanding of change, how it happens, how it gets coopted and how we can navigate our way forward? As we suggested in our previous blog, social innovation brings together bodies of knowledge on public sector reform, international development, design thinking, software development and a range of other disciplines. This is a great resource to work from. But we need more cross-fertilization, more transdisciplinary research and methods to root such work in everyday lived realities. If this sounds abstract, it is because it is: we need to find different ways of producing knowledge, beyond the academic science, beyond the realm of the rational.  Bring on the painters, poets, graffiti artists.

Following after Leonard Cohen: The challenge for the next ten years is not to find a perfect offering. We need to become better at finding the cracks in everything.

That’s how the light gets in.