New thinkers

September 18, 2009 at 4:37 pm 1 comment

By Peter Baeck

lampe billede

Every successful social innovator or movement has succeeded because it has planted the seed of an idea in many minds. (Mulgan, Geoff, Social Innovation, What it is, Why it Matters and how it can be accelerated.  (Mulgan, Geoff, Social Innovation, What it is, Why it Matters and how it can be accelerated)

Social systems will often sustain themselves and resist reform even though they are not developing or their efficiency is declining. Reasons for this are that agents rely on the security and stability provided by a well defined system and since a reform will seek to redefine all or parts of the system, the agents who fear that they will not be able to understand these, will therefore try and maintain status quo. Agents understanding of the potential benefits of reform are at the same time often diffused by the short term negative implications of reform such as increased spending and worsening performance. Alternative thinking and new ideas will however always emerge as a reaction to a social system that is facing problems such as a financial crisis, a decline in efficiency and support etc. These new ideas will often occur in the periphery of the system created by agents who has lost confidence in the system because it no longer fulfil the needs of ‘some of’ its users. It’s these needs not being met that will often lead innovators to develop alternative solutions. According to Geoff Mulgan this development often begins within small and locally connected institutions that are quick to adapt and develop when facing new challenges. Reactions and the ideas they generate are not just to institutions not living up to known challenges, but also to institutions not dealing with unknown challenges. As Robin Murray mentions this is for example the case with environmental movements, who generated knowledge on sustainable energy and global warming long before these areas were backed by public policy. And there could be considerable gains for society as a whole in following and using the knowledge and trends generated within these networks. How de we design a system with a better flow of knowledge from periphery to the core of the system? One way to do this could be to apply alternative methods to the way the system understands its providers and users. The traditional systemic setup will in some cases not be capable of understanding new patterns of behaviour such as new consumer needs or alternative ways of delivering service. In The Ten faces of Innovation Tom Kelley describes how this with ’etno-raids’ where the relations between user and provider are understood from a different perspective through the use of anthropologist and ethnographic methods. This gathering of new knowledge about familiar subjects can then lead to innovative thinking and the development of alternative service designs. In the report ‘Increased knowledge sharing and innovation in the public sector’ The Danish Agency for Technology, Sience and Innovation, conclude that these tools when applied correctly can have a positive impact on user satisfaction and efficiency. According to Mulgan a social systems flexibility and ability to adapt as a whole can be measured in its capability to transfer solutions from the periphery to the core of the system. Facilitating this process can be done by identifying which agents within the system could gain from the introduction of new ideas and solutions, and then using these agents as platforms for implementation.

The interesting question is how to design a system where the distance between successful ideas or valuable knowledge developed locally and central government is minimal, and the redeployment of these to all relevant localities within the system is quick and efficient.

In my opinion the big barrier will be assessment and evaluation by central government. Therefore circumventing central government and letting the local ideas be shared and deployed freely within an open local network could be a better option, but by doing this there is the risk of creating a very fragmented public policy where the overall strategy gets lost in the complexity of the local networks.  This unless the local network it self is based on a centrally designed platform that frees it from central interference but ensures a relative streamlining of policy in deployment and implementation.


Entry filed under: Government Departments, Innovation Policy, Local Authorities, Local Innovation, National Agencies, Regional Bodies, Third Sector Innovation.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. antheahollist  |  September 21, 2009 at 3:22 pm

    Interesting points. The irony of that quote (Every successful social innovator or movement has succeeded because it has planted the seed of an idea in many minds), is that the more minds the idea is planted in, the more the sceptics come out (particularly those within government). The thing is that often within governments there is too much bureaucracy which is often incompatible with the flexibility of social innovation which means that even if the distance between successful ideas or valuable knowledge developed locally and central government is minimal, there is still too much red tape, to little joining up (between government departments which further hinders knowledge share and the developments of ideas); and to much ‘ancient’ thoughts/ people within the government. I do not necessary think that is it entirely a lack of understanding that makes people maintain the status quo, but I do think there is a great need to make the opinions/ideas/knowledge of users and providers open access, as well as a valid and legitimate source of data. In addition there is need to make governmental knowledge open to the public domain and to encourage criticism and scrutiny.


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