How public services can save the world

April 30, 2010 at 1:57 pm 2 comments

By John Craig

The greening of our public services will be vitally important in the greening of our society. As well as green technology, society needs green institutions and lifestyles – it needs social as well as technical innovation. The public sector has a vital role to play in supporting both.

The public sector should of course spend smarter. It should invest in technical innovations that can make it both leaner and greener. Over the coming years, as we emerge from the economic crisis, attention will naturally turn to the role that the £700bn government spends every year can play (admittedly it will be a little less by then).

However, the public sector also has a vital role to play in supporting the social innovation that will help prevent dangerous climate change. I am often told that the public sector doesn’t do innovation. Not unless you count the internet, the moon landings and the eradication of small pox, I tend to reply. From public health to communication technology, the public sector has been at the forefront of innovation for decades. Even in an area like mobile telephony, around two-thirds of innovations are thought to have relied on public investment and support.

And in social innovation, the public sector has certainly helped promising ideas get to scale. From universal education to social security, great social innovations have started life in civil society and grown to scale with the public sector’s help. As it has been in these areas, so we at the Innovation Unit believe it will be for green social innovations.

Clearly, it hasn’t happened yet. At NCVO’s conference on third sector innovation last year, Geoff Mulgan pointed out that, taken as a whole, European governments’ stimulus packages allocated just 1% of their spending to ‘green’ activity. The need to prop up old industries has been so urgent, new low carbon ones haven’t got much of a look in.

However, momentum is slowly building. Unltd report growing interest in environmental innovation from social entrepreneurs. In the private sector, companies like M&S are starting to take the greening of services from the periphery of corporate responsibility to the mainstream. And in the public sector, we are starting to see the creation of the kind of teams and networks around carbon reduction that change on this scale will require, and the associated events are starting to get bigger.

So, demand for social innovation is starting to grow and more social innovation is starting to happen. During this year, we will be working as a broker to bring them together. We will identify five high-potential third sector innovation projects with the potential to green public services and help them to build the relationships with the public and financial sectors that they need to make a dramatic difference.

We hope we can play a small role in helping the public sector to drive green social innovation.  Amid the recession, the private sector is being painted as the engine of growth and the public sector as a drag on growth. There is much talk of re-balancing our economy, including around green products and services. But in building the society and the institutions that will demand these products and services, the public sector will be key. In this way, the public sector can itself be a catalyst for green growth.

Please help us by spreading the word, and find out how the Green Next Practice programme could help your public service or social innovation.

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Entry filed under: Green Next Practice.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. thirup  |  May 10, 2010 at 11:29 am

    Great blog. I look forward to seeing what project you end up working with. Public sector can go green and support a green sector. Denmark would for example not be one of the leading producers of windmills and windmill technology if the windmill industry hadn’t been subsidied by the government throughout the nineties. JUst as bloom energy can’t develop the fuel cells of the future without subsidies.
    It doesnt always have to be about subsidies though. I think Shine is a good example of this. over a three period the extra investment in energy efficient GP practices is being paid back in energy efficiency savings.

    Reply
  • […] How public services can save the world « Disciplined Innovation And in social innovation, the public sector has certainly helped promising ideas get to scale. From universal education to social security, great social innovations have started life in civil society and grown to scale with the public sector’s help. As it has been in these areas, so we at the Innovation Unit believe it will be for green social innovations. Comment (RSS)  |  Trackback […]

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