Author Archive

What MP3s can teach public services

There are two stereotypes about innovators.  The first is of the outsider, alone in his garden shed (and yes, it is a ‘he’).  The second is of the enormous corporation, with endless resources for R&D.  Of course, both of these have produced amazing innovations, but so have a thousand other types of innovators.  I was reminded of the danger of those stereotypes by a piece from Mckinsey on innovation and the US economy.  Sure, it probably landed in your inbox too, but in case you didn’t read it, here’s the standout line: (more…)

May 25, 2011 at 4:54 pm Leave a comment

Announcing M(ums)-Power

We are working with UCLH, Microsoft, Mumsnet and others to launch a new project funded by the Health Foundation looking to improve antenatal care.  Great service makes a difference, and for pregnant women, that difference can mean everything.  But pregnant women do not always experience great service, without knowledge or control at the vital moment.  This project is about changing that – putting power in the hands of Mums and ensuring antenatal services work around their needs and concerns.

Just 38% of mothers believe they had access to good antenatal information and too few feel as supported as they should.  This project will work alongside women, learning from them to create a friendlier, more helpful and more convenient service.  It will work with the people women meet during their pregnancy, to think about what more they could do to help and reassure them.  It will also look at the tools and systems the service uses.  For example, it will look at what can be done through the internet and telephone to provide good information and access to things like test results and appointments. (more…)

May 23, 2011 at 6:04 pm Leave a comment

Innovation in policy-making

We did a small piece of work recently on the role of innovation in central government policy-making.  Arguably, both the challenge departments face and our prescriptions were fairly predictable.  For departments, time and money is tighter than ever and too often innovation can feel like a luxury.  For us, in policy processes of a few months duration, spending a few hours drawing on a broader range of methods and perspectives is a pretty smart move.

Perhaps most interesting was our synthesis of the range of things that limit the use of innovation in government policy-making: (more…)

May 20, 2011 at 12:06 pm Leave a comment

Private-sector spin-ins and innovation

I am always told that you learn a great deal by failing.  It’s true, failure is an intrinsic part of innovation, but you learn far more by succeeding.  Particularly in public service innovation, where failures can affect the public and cost public money.

This thought is prompted by the £300m losses at Southern Cross, which operataes 750 care homes in the UK.  As in health, we know very little about the failure regime in social care.  (more…)

May 20, 2011 at 9:31 am 3 comments

From products to public services

In the future, perhaps driving and heating will be public services.  I have written in the past about the trend that is seeing products turn into services.  People are hiring or borrowing bikes, cars and tools in ways they didn’t before.  Now I have a sense of the two forces behind this trend:

1) Economics.  In the past, the progressive compromise was to let capitalism get on with it and to re-distribute income.  As the wealth distribution reaches Victorian levels of awfulness, there is a strengthening view that this is insufficient.  Both Maurice Glasman and Phillip Blond have argued that the state should redistribute capital and not just cash, ‘capitalising the poor’.

2) Ecology.  As we develop the green technologies that can avert climate catastrophe, we will habitually use equipment that is cheaper to run but more expensive to purchase.  Green boilers and cars will generate lower bills but higher prices.  At our Climate Change Dialogue last week, it was powerfully argued that one important green innovation priority relates to the business models that can make this work.  We need companies that can help people adapt to leasing solar panels and cars to help us transition to this new world.

We should not run together issues of justice and the environment too readily – too often, ideological aspiration is framed as planetary necessity.  At the same time, to renew themselves, progressives must be acutely sensitive to strategies that can help both the planet and disadvantaged people.

By John Craig

May 16, 2011 at 9:19 am 7 comments

Two kinds of innovation contest

“There’s an incredibly vibrant scene around Old Street roundabout, with some very smart people in the area we can help out”.  That’s David Willetts, talking about Innovation Unit, I can only presume.  However, he made the comments a the launch of ‘Silicon Idol’, a £1m government contest for internet firms in the Shoreditch area, so it’s possible he had some other bright young things in mind.

As ever, it seems Government is more excited about technical innovation than social innovation – a balance we have long been working to correct.  However, now our near-neighbours Unltd are fighting back with a contest of their own with the launch of Big Venture Challenge.  They are launching the search for the ‘next Teach First or Big Issue’, seeking ’25 exceptional people, 25 Radical Ideas’.  Applications open on 9th may, so if you have a high-potential public service innovation, here’s your chance to show that the smart people of Old Street can change the world, not just the internet.

By John Craig

April 13, 2011 at 10:22 am Leave a comment

Cameron, Capello and the Big Society

by John Craig

Last week I was in Toronto to speak at a Symposium on the Big Society – a fun opportunity to go toe-to-toe with Philip Blond and to catch up with my friends at the brilliant, Mass LBP.  I told the audience in Toronto that I felt about the Big Society the way I do about the England soccer team – I don’t like the guy in charge and I’m really not sure about the tactics, but I can’t fight off the hope it might amount to something.  So I find myself – against my better judgement – standing on the sidelines shouting encouragement.

When American presidents during the Cold War developed the narrative of the Free Society and the Free World, it gave the civil rights movement a strategy – to hold those in power to that standard of freedom.  We should do the same with the Big Society – stop worrying about the idea and hold the Government to account for the reality.  The claim is that the Big Society is for the many not the few, but if it is not simply to be a charter for those already with power and resources, there is work to be done.  In Blond’s analysis, the Big Society is an attack on two things; big state and big market.  Predictably, the Government has only heard the first of those messages, so that far from a new politics, it is business-as-usual for the Conservative Party.  There is no compromise involved in Labour challenging the Government to live up to its rhetoric on the Big Society – they would be exchanging their weak claim that is insincere for the strong claim that it is hypocritical.

The biggest reason, of course, that the Big Society is struggling is our fiscal crisis.  However, there is a second important reason at the heart of Coalition thinking.  Their views of the state and civil society presents them as competing for the same territory – so that society can only step forward as the state steps back.  International and historical comparisons show that state and civil society grow together, just as in de Tocqueville’s America, the advent of the public postage system hugely expanded the ability of sectional interests to communicate and organise privately.  As Alex Himelfarb said at another Toronto event, ‘the big state without the big society is an empty shell, but the big society without the big state is a myth’.

April 3, 2011 at 3:35 pm 2 comments

The car club tipping point

Fresh from our fantastic Festival of Ideas in Newcastle, Innovation Unit was at SDUK 11 on Thursday, a national sustainability event.  It was great to hear from David Mckay, DECC’s Chief Scientific Advisor, who showed off the Department’s new Pathway 2050 tool, which allows citizens to play with environmental policies – from energy to transport – to find their own pathway to emissions reductions.  The tool is impressive, but one questioner from the floor from a local authority observed that, in practice, very few of the policies were under local control.  Playing with the Pathway tool was great, he said, but what could local authorities most usefully do?  One of the first things Mckay highlighted was the work local authorities can do to initiate and support car clubs, both by using them and by regulating parking.

That’s a striking endorsement from an important figure.  Certainly, if London is anything to go by, commercial car clubs have already passed their tipping point.  And in Newcastle we heard from the very impressive Commonwheels, a non-profit looking to bring the benefits of car clubs to small towns and rural areas where there aren’t the margins to attract corporates.  Local authority commissioners were impressed by what they had to say – let’s hope champions like David Mckay can help to push car clubs past the tipping point right across the UK.

By John Craig

March 21, 2011 at 1:30 pm Leave a comment

William and Kate include Innovation Unit favourites in their Royal wedding gift list

By John Craig

When I went to meet Prince Charles at Clarence House before Christmas (courtesy of the Prince’s Trust), there was the odd whisper that I might just have been jumping on the gravy train.  I now have emphatic proof that I was lobbying hard for two partners in our Innovation Exchange work!  As part of their wedding celebrations, Prince William and Kate Middleton are inviting their 1700-strong guest-list to make donations to a group of 26 specially selected charities, through a Royal Wedding Charitable Gift Fund.  Among the 26 are both Dance United and BeatBullying, both of which worked with Innovation Unit as part of our work to support high-potential third sector innovations.  Both organisations do fantastic work and richly deserve this nomination and the support and exposure it will bring.  Huge congratulations to both of them.

March 17, 2011 at 4:51 pm Leave a comment

Really radical heart surgery

An NHS Review published today proposes ending child heart surgery in four or five hospitals in England.  This would almost halve the number of institutions performing child heart surgery.  That may sound like a painful cut, but even within the profession itself, the notion that this work must be done at scale is well-established.  With such a range of complex procedures, one-person operations just cannot perform as well as teams of specialists that can constantly sharpen their sills.

However, by international standards, let’s not pretend that this represents radical change.  As our research, Radical Efficiency highlighted, Narayana Hrudayalaya has not just brought scale to heart surgery but ‘walmartisation’.  Founded by Dr Devi Shetty, Narayana performs perhaps twice as many heart operations each day on adults as there are performed on children in the whole of England.  The institution boasts 1,000 beds, compared to an average of 160 in its US equivalents, as well as survival rates nearly 25% better.  We need to be very careful about identifying ‘economies of scale’ in public services – too often in the past they have been illusions.  But where benefits of scale really do exist, their implications can be very challenging, even for our largest, most prestigious teaching hospitals.

February 16, 2011 at 7:29 pm 1 comment

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