We need to leave postcode envy at the door if we are to get serious about social and government innovation. Here I explore two examples and one big insight from social innovators beyond the beaten track.
In a world where we are constantly searching for new ways to tackle our challenges, perhaps we need to look beyond the familiar for inspiration. Here, I set out some insights from intrepid social innovators I’ve come across through Rethinking Parks.
There’s a phenomenal amount of snobbery around where the best ideas comes from. In my native New Zealand, policy makers’ preferred inspiration point is the UK or Australia. In the UK, we get excited about ideas emerging from the United States or from our European neighbours. Everyone everywhere wants to replicate the magic business models of the most successful for-profits, whether it’s Samsung, Amazon, Apple or Unilever.
Perhaps it’s the influence of international league tables, or our magpie fascination with things from shiny, fancy places.
We need to leave postcode envy at the door if we are to get serious about social and government innovation. Of course we can learn from our American and Australian friends, but there’s a much wider world out there to open our minds to.
Some of the most inspirational and promising ideas for re-imagining our parks and public spaces emerge from places that decision makers rarely go. They are off the beaten track and beyond the silver-tongued dragons of the City of London, or wood panelled rooms of Westminster and Whitehall.
We ought to be putting a spotlight on ideas grown from less polished places, both closer to home and in the far flung reaches of the earth. Indeed, this is part of the power of challenge prizes, such as the Longitude Prize or open competition processes, such as the one we ran for Rethinking Parks; they assume great ideas came, and do come, from anywhere.
Here are just two examples we’ve come across:
Bringing back the black British bee in Burnley
Burnley in Lancashire is not often thought of as a hub for social innovation, but dedicated social enterprise and council staff are transforming their town into a beacon for the permaculture movement. Already people are adapting their travel patterns to view the town’s derelict building lots transformed by wild flowers.
The team, comprised of social enterprise Off Shoots and Burnley Borough Council, is now extending its vision into the formal parks environment, turning a proportion of formal flower beds and grass areas across the town’s park into wild flower meadows. This approach is becoming more well-known (and well liked) across the UK, but the team is extending this idea to help bring back the black British bee with specially-designed hives positioned strategically across their parks.
The approach also taps into the will of the community to offer something back through volunteering. Their efforts are increasing pride in the town; and pride is something grown within the community not jettisoned in from elsewhere.
Sitie, Vidigal, Rio
A sense of place, and pride in it, is also at the heart of a transformation social project in the heart of one of Rio’s most famous favelas. Until recently, children growing up in Vidigal, Rio, have had no open space. The muscles in their legs do not develop sufficiently due to the lack of flat space.
Piece by piece, over seven years the a team of determined locals transformed the neighbourhood’s tipping area (there was no rubbish collection) into a vibrant community park and garden that is now the hub of a much broader social innovation programme. Working together with the Harvard-educated team at Plus D Studios, the inter-connectivity of space, community and democracy are being rewired, with the ultimate aim of starting to change the systems that contribute to the wealth and wellbeing differentials that exist in Brazil.
The parks are used as a catalyst from which to create community spaces that include a library, a space to engage in debate and potentially participatory budgeting, as well as a code club and maker space for children.
So, what can we learn from these different approaches? Well, First of all we need to leave our pre-conceptions of where innovation comes from at the door. Secondly, the glue that brings these and other teams determined to bring new ideas to life together, is their constant dedication to the cause. It's more than true grit. I would call the passion and commitment I see from these teams something deeper again. I would call that special quality LOVE.
Love is a many splendid thing
Love and innovation are not often concepts we consider side by side. Yet, while we can learn many techniques and approaches to bring new ideas to life, the passion to do so is a hard quality to develop. The social innovators I’ve met that are pursuing ideas big and bigger ultimately do so because they passionately believe in and love what they're doing.
This less tangible quality that fuels the development of new ideas is rarely mentioned in Forbes. But then neither are ideas from the oft forgotten north or less explored south. Maybe they ought to be.