Nesta’s DIY toolkit offers a set of practical social innovation tools for busy development practitioners to find new ideas and improve results. Against the backdrop of unprecedented levels of complexity and urgency, another toolkit might seem a rather insignificant affair. Yet from a broader perspective, this initiative may grow into an important ‘boundary spanner’ en route to new coalitions, spaces and processes of learning and experimentation to shape the future.
Our writing of this blog on the DIY toolkit competed with our reading of Russel Shorto’s Amsterdam. Shorto’s analysis of the turbulent late 16th/17th Century is instructive for change agents struggling to transform contemporary societies. Early 17th Century Europe was in a state of chaos. Citizens, merchants and politicians alike were gasping to make sense of fast changing times. There was no theory of change, just a multitude of experiments driven by a spirit of questioning and renewal in all domains of life.
We live in times of similar turbulence. Widespread sentiments of multiple crises live side by side with excitement about unprecedented opportunity.
What then, is the task for the fast emerging field of social innovation?
Roberto Unger recently suggested two perspectives. The minimalist perspective posits social innovation as an effort to humanise the current global trajectory, without questioning the politics and dynamics of its fundamental course. In a recent Hivos think piece, Alan Fowler goes one step further by suggesting that in minimalist mode, the current hype around social innovation amounts to little more than a false promise. The maximalist view posits social innovation as a transformative movement and a catalyst for new experiments across multiple domains and sectors of social life.
We can apply these perspectives to the DIY-toolkit.
From a minimalist perspective, it’s a sympathetic effort from the social innovation community to come to the rescue of their beleaguered peers in international development, as the sector has been under attack for lack of impact and for increasingly being out of touch with the pulse of time.
Some of the tools, including techniques in prototyping, idea-generation and business model design, are indeed new and can be put to productive use easily. Feedback could be to ditch a tool here and tweak a framework there, in search of a better version 2.0. From this perspective however, it may be seen as yet another toolkit.
From a maximalist perspective, a different argument emerges.
What if we could see this toolkit as a small, but important step in an emerging coalition on equal terms between progressive forces in different sectors to thicken our approaches for transformative action.
The development sector has a rich track record of dangerous thinking, improvisation and international collective action on offer. A new generation of programmes such as grand challenges like Making All Voices Count, has long left the north-south divide behind. They don’t offer readymade solutions, but processes to explore, experiment, fail, connect and learn across sectors.
At Hivos we have been exploring the cross-fertilisation of tools and methods to equip such programmes. For example, we’ve experimented with design thinking for highly politicised problems. We’ve crafted events with the likes of SIX that bring together practitioners of development and social innovation across north and south e.g. on social change labs. Last year, we teamed up with Kennisland for a joint social safari in which partners from across the globe worked in international teams to take a fresh look at pressing social challenges in Amsterdam.
For us, this is only the beginning. At the intersection of international development and social innovation we find a vast reservoir of ideas, partners and methods that we can combine into new initiatives. We’ve also found tried and tested development methodologies missing from the social innovation world. Gender analysis is one obvious blind-post that we’ve come across. Organisations such as Just Associates and CREA have a lot to contribute here. What about the many tried and tested tools for Participatory Rural Appraisal and power analysis. At a more macro level, the development sector for example harbors a rich body of knowledge on social movements, and civil society building.
Over decades, development practitioners have learned many hard lessons on the complexity of such processes and the skills needed to make outside interventions work. These lessons may help the social innovation field to keep a maximalist perspective on the task at hand.
Let’s use this toolkit as a start of an exchange of tools and methodologies to broaden the scope for new coalitions and experiments for transformative change.
 For a recent overview on the rich potential of Amsterdam as a hotbed of social innovation see this recent report by Kennisland: http://www.kennisland.nl/filter/publicaties/accelerating-amsterdams-assets