Five (more) priorities for the future of social innovation

Some of the world's leading thinkers and doers in social innovation will come together in Istanbul, Turkey today for the Social Innovation Exchange (SIX) Wayfinder, a two-day global social innovation event.

This gathering builds on the success of the 2017 Wayfinder held at Nesta in London, a landmark event that brought together social innovation community leaders to reflect on the last 10 years of progress in their field, and set the desired agenda for the next 10 years of collective action.

Last year, Nesta CEO Geoff Mulgan wrote about the progress he has seen for social innovation as a discipline and way of creating change, and set out his priorities for the sector over the next 10 years, which were:

  1. Tackle big challenges and at the right level of granularity
  2. Grow funding at serious scale  
  3. Link action to evidence of impact
  4. Connect into movements, activism and democracy
  5. Make the most of digital
  6. Shape the next generation internet
  7. Broader and deeper social innovation skills
  8. Better adoption (borrow or adapt)
  9. Mature policy debate
  10. Continuously reaching out

Building on Geoff's thinking, today I am adding five more priorities for the social innovation sector to focus on over the next 10 years.

1. Be explicitly values driven

Knowing why we are taking action is crucial. Without an articulation of core values and an agenda for change, it's hard for social innovation to succeed. Although methods are agnostic, people are not and being explicit with values is core to making change.

Understanding the core values associated with a given call to action is key, not just to be able to rally the troops in the short term but also to track change and measure impact, build coalitions and ensure the day-to-day activity is aligned.

Too often in social innovation circles we hear calls, for example, to reduce inequality, and this is based on an assumption that we all agree on why inequality exists and how to tackle it. Being clear about values upfront means robust discussion can take place between partners on how best to move forward and create lasting change.

2. Be mission driven and focused

Often in social innovation we identify a solution to a problem without clearly identifying what problem we are trying to solve or which opportunity we are trying to make the most of. This leads to mission creep, programme confusion and lack of alignment between partners. Without a clear mission (and values associated with that mission) it is very hard to track progress or measure impact.

Having a clear mission also provides the opportunity for other social innovators to join, either by being part of an action or adding a complementary action. Being mission-focused but open to the social innovation process can lead to richer engagement in solutions and more sustainable outcomes. Time bound, specific and explicit missions are best.

 3. Build (and rebuild) cross sector coalitions

Although is is often physically easier to organise and execute with two parties (government and civil society or civil society and social innovators), there is a general consensus that the most pressing problems in society need shared ownership and specific cross-sector action to ensure lasting change.

This is not tantamount to ‘shared ownership means no ownership’, but rather that each party understands the problem and the underlying values associated with tackling this, and are aligned in the mission to solve it. Each party can then make commitments to specific actions towards the shared mission. And when it seems like it's faltering, go back and rebuild the relationships based on shared values, the mission and commitment to each other to change. Buliding (and rebuilding) takes time, but this leads to better and more sustainable outcomes.

4. Build the competencies of social innovators

Not only do we need to broaden and deepen social innovation skills, we need to ensure that those who are engaged in social innovation have the core competencies needed to develop these innovations. Too often we assume that the people we are working with have the skills to shape change.

At Nesta we are working with civil servants to support them to develop their innovation skills; there are organisations that support intrapreneurs within corporations to innovate (more often than not this is not social innovation focused).

We need to train people to cope with uncertainty but also to act with generosity and abundance and to be strategic and systems focused in their thinking.

5. Be a student of power

Understanding where power resides in systems is fundamental. Too often we talk about ‘systems thinking’ without really identifying what we mean by this.

Generally it's about being joined up and seeing the whole of a system and its subsystems, being able to see relationships between things and ‘joining the dots’ where others can't. Systems thinking and practice not only needs to be embedded at an individual level but also at a programmatical and organisational level. Without understanding systems, and most importantly where power lies within those systems, it's hard to shift and change them.

Start by mapping your system - but don't stop there - knowing which way to engage each part and which lever to pull is vital for success.

What did I miss? What would your additions to this priority list be?

Comment below or follow me @kateannasutton


Kate Sutton

Kate Sutton

Kate Sutton

Head of Corporate Social Innovation

Kate was responsible for managing Nesta's Corporate Social Innovation and Inclusive Growth work

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