Social Innovation evangelists in development organisations face many paradoxes. Here are three that I find particularly intriguing.
Friends or foes?
Intuitively, social innovation and development would seem a natural fit. Social innovation tools can help expand the palette available to the development practitioner, while development practice can help contextualise and ‘stress test’ in particularly challenging and diverse environments concepts and methodologies that often originated in mature Western democracies. In reality, the two tracks have, until recently, run in parallel and often social innovation tools are dismissed as ‘old wine in a new bottle’.
Performance before competence
As I have written in the past, social innovation is first and foremost a practice. You can have endless debates in abstract as to whether ‘user centred design’ is really the same as good old participatory development (I witnessed a few!) or come up with endless theoretical reasons why rapid prototyping cannot possibly apply to policy work.
Doing an actual project to test out the assumptions and see what yields better results is where actual organisational competence on innovation is built. Just as in the case of institution building, there is no shortcut to ‘the struggle’. And yet, how many have bumped against the old ‘competence before performance’ bias and have been asked to develop/roll out ‘an innovation curriculum’ or theoretical ‘innovation competencies’ before staff are empowered to pilot new initiatives in their organisations?
The chef and the recipe maker
Scarred by many botched attempts at codifying their knowledge, development workers have a healthy scepticism of toolkits that are often too detached from their daily reality. More importantly, to use the metaphor popularised by Dave Snowden, most development workers know that their daily work is much closer to that of a chef that tries to make the most of the ingredients he/she has at his/her disposal (depending on the context) than that of a recipe maker that meticulously follows step by step a given, ‘linear’ formula.
And yet, perhaps because of the mystique associated with the word ‘innovation’, I’ve seen even the most hard-nosed critics of codification ask for a simplified ‘recipe’ to promote innovation in their teams or projects.
I was pleased to see that the Nesta/Rockefeller DIY toolkit tackles these paradoxes upfront (full disclosure: I was involved in the road testing of beta versions of the toolkit).
It bridges the gap between the social innovation and development discourses by emphasising evidence of impact of a particular approach as opposed to the novelty factor. It acknowledges the messy, non-linear nature of development work and presents itself as a menu of options to choose from – as opposed to a rigid sequence of steps (the innovation ‘magic formula’). Eating its own dog food – as it were – the toolkit follows design principles and is structured around scenarios derived from development practice as opposed to a theoretical innovation ‘competence framework’.
It is also possible to identify future directions for enhancement of the toolkit:
Ultimately, however, it will be the body of practice generated that will determine whether the toolkit will achieve its desired impact. Faced with the ‘aid trilemma’ of complexity, scale and measurability there’s no shortage of challenges for development workers to test their social innovation tools on.
Development chefs… time to roll up the sleeves!