Think of an innovator and what springs to mind? Probably a man. Probably someone young, working in a high-tech industry, maybe in a special place, a silicon valley or roundabout. Quite possibly wearing a hoodie.
You’re unlikely to be thinking of a mother. In popular imagination, mothers are nurturing, rather than dynamic, and motherhood is routine and dull, rather than focused, creative and cutting-edge.
For Mothers of Innovation, a Nesta-backed report published next month, I interviewed 28 outstanding mother-innovators from around the world, talking to women on every continent and in a wide variety of fields. The mothers in the report include social innovators working in health, education, food and care; business innovators working in tech and as entrepreneurs; and economic innovators seizing the possibilities of technology to change the way we work.
A good deal of innovation theory re-values what have traditionally been thought of as female attributes and skills: empathy, collaboration, relationships; listening, sharing, caring for others. These analyses are rarely explicitly feminist, but maybe they should be.
"Theories of innovation suggest networks, empathy and the ability to nurture human capital are crucial to turning good ideas into real change."
Many of the examples in the Mothers of Innovation report are of people and organisations leveraging the ways in which mothers have traditionally operated – so, for example, Mocep, the Mother Child Education Programme in Turkey, mobilises mothers doing something they have always done, given half a chance, namely get together to talk about their children. In the Mocep programme, mothers build on their shared experience and pool their expertise to become the first educators of their children. The project has achieved remarkable improvements in educational attainment among children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Mothers sharing their experiences is an activity that has traditionally been dismissed as nattering, gossiping over the garden fence, parish pump chatter. We live with assumptions that date back to Victorian economics – that what happens in the domestic sphere is economically unproductive and requires no particular expertise. Yet theories of innovation would seem to suggest that networks, empathy and the ability to nurture human capital are crucial to turning good ideas into real change.
Add to this the fact that many of the issues that are most pressing for governments around the world – education, health and care – are ones that mothers have to deal with on a day-to-day basis. With state services creaking under the strain of mass delivery systems, mothers are at the sharp edge of the need to find ways to educate children and pay for health and care; they are often best informed about what is missing and what would fix it.
"The conditions for mothers to thrive as innovators are growing all the time."
Not surprisingly then, businesses - from Kimberly Clark to Mumsnet - are increasingly keen to harness this expertise. The former gives grants to mother innovators who come up with products for maternity and childcare; the latter mobilises mothers in the development and positioning of brands and to influence policy. As the boundaries between consumption and production blur, mothers, as the key consumers for their families, are in a position of authority, influence and opportunity.
The needs of people in the 21st century - to be greener, healthier, better educated, to find ways of caring for each other, and create meaning beyond consumption, combined with the opportunities presented by networked technology, are leading us towards a different kind of economy. It is one that rewards capacities one might broadly think of as maternal; the qualities it places at a premium include empathy, collaboration and emotional intelligence.
Mothers are already innovating in many and various ways, as our report demonstrates – but the conditions for mothers to thrive as innovators are growing all the time. Things have never been more promising for mothers of innovation.
Mothers of Innovation is published on 19 June 2014