Ideas that change the world – and what else is needed

October 22, 2009 at 2:49 pm 1 comment

By Sarah Gillinson

Two events in two days on ideas that change the world – all very encouraging! Tuesday night saw the launch of the UN Intellectual History Project’s final publication, ‘Ideas That Change the World’ whilst last night kept the revelations a bit closer to home – John Denham MP was talking about the future of local government  at the RSA, based partly on insights from another big idea, Total Place.

Both events offered evidence of ideas that have had real impact on people’s lives – from the UN Declaration on Human Rights and the mobilizing effect it has had on governments and citizens across the globe, to the power of thinking holistically about the overlapping public services that affect the quality of our lives. Importantly, both Richard Jolly (co-author of the UN book) and John Denham took their thinking a step further. They outlined the structural changes they believe to be necessary for turning the insights of these successes into mainstream practices that will spread their lessons.

In both cases these recommendations are, at heart, about creating organizations that are able to understand and respond to their constituents more freely and effectively. Jolly et al. propose a new set of organizational structures and practices for UN research bodies to make them more collaborative, flexible and of higher quality. These include more, smaller, local research bodies and open recruitment practices.

John Denham proposes new powers for local government that will make them more directly responsible and accountable to users for the plethora of services they provide. These include greater powers of scrutiny for local councilors, commissioner-focus on service outcomes rather than processes, and “data on public services that is truly public” to allow more people to assess shared challenges and propose better solutions.

In both cases, these recommendations represent major steps forward in thinking (open recruitment at the UN?!). But neither addressed the question of how we kick-start the necessary changes in behaviour in both staff and ‘users’ of both organizations. This seems particularly crucial given the time-critical nature of the challenges that are faced in both cases – global action to stop climate change was needed yesterday. Public services need to make cost-savings, whilst improving outcomes for users by the start of the next fiscal year. Culture change at a glacial pace just isn’t good enough. What are the tools, support and incentives that will be offered to the people operating within these structures to help change happen fast?

Many people suggest that the crisis itself is an important spur (‘necessity is the mother of invention’) but that kind of pressure can equally easily incentivize greater risk-aversion, as well as encouraging people to try new things. And as Peter’s blog earlier this week pointed out, whilst households may be beginning to change their behaviour as a result of the economic downturn, policy-makers and service providers, for the most part, are not yet.

Total Place is changing behaviour in its 13 pilot locations – but not without active facilitation and support for new ways of thinking and working.

So we need proactive ways of getting people energized – and even excited – about sharing responsibility for solving this crisis constructively. We also need the tools that will practically help staff to start delivering ‘more for less’ – they can’t be expected to pick new ideas and approaches from a vacuum. These two things can only come together.

Our radical efficiency work is attempting to start addressing this by learning from people who have already done it. We are building an outline model of what it takes to begin delivering more for less and will be exploring the question of how to mobilize these ideas with expert practitioners and thinkers over the next couple of months.

Ideas that can change the world are crucial – but we need to get realistic about supporting and incentivizing people to bring them to life if they are to have real impact.


Entry filed under: Government Departments, Innovation Policy, Local Innovation, Research. Tags: , .

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. uberVU - social comments  |  October 23, 2009 at 12:51 pm

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by totalplace: Innovation Unit blog: Ideas that change the world – and what else is needed. #totalplace…


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