Imminent disruption

Reporting on the recent Skoll World Forum for Pioneers Post, David Bank of Impact IQ reflects on the participants’ intoxication with idea of disruptiveness.

‘Disruption’ was the theme of the event and, Bank tells us, it provoked statements ranging from Forum founder, former eBay boss, Jeff Skoll’s relatively understated: “Let’s disrupt our way to a different world” to former Eurythmics star Annie Lennox’s more ambitious “I want to disrupt the entire media“.

As Bank explains, social entrepreneurs “adopted disruption from the world of technology…” with the idea being  “that new technologies that at first seemed clunky or even useless could nibble at the fringes of established markets with performance that was good enough for marginal customer groups” and that “as performance improved and prices dropped, even core customers would defect to the new approach.”

While Jeff Skoll may know a thing or two about this kind of disruption – I’d guess eBay has had a pretty disruptive impact on the established market for car boot sales – it’s not immediately obvious how the statements being made at the Forum relate directly to the original idea.

The examples Bank gives, of mobilising civil groups to protect civilians from armed conflict, and building local opposition to genital mutilation are both positive activities but they’re about changing people’s beliefs (and the actions associated with them) not about products and services.

One way of viewing this leap of thinking is that because disruption sounds new and exciting, it’s been co-opted as a term for challenging established ideas and practices. Another way of viewing it is as a sign that many attendees of Skoll World Forum believe that the only way (or the best way) to tackle social problems is to regard them as if they were established products whose dominance needs to be challenged.

Based on this approach, Diana, Princess of Wales’ practice of hugging people with Aids could be viewed as a disruptive innovation that challenged the established market in fear and hatred towards those living with the disease.

Meanwhile back in ‘the market’, some of the current generation of disruptive entrepreneurs are taking the concept to a natural, if not very positive, conclusion. Paul Carr’s blog post for the Silicon Valley website, Pando Daily, looks at those for whom disruption means “let us do whatever we want, otherwise we’ll bully you on the Internet until you do.

He describes a technology conference where the stage: “… was filled with brash, Millennial entrepreneurs vowing to “Disrupt” real-world laws and regulations in the same way that me stealing your dog is Disrupting the idea of pet ownership. On more than one occasion a judge would ask an entrepreneur ‘Is this legal?’ to which the reply would inevitably come: ‘Not yet.’ The audience would laugh and applaud. What chutzpah! So Disruptive!”

A version of disruptive approach has always been a key part of the model of social entrepreneurship promoted by organisations such as Ashoka. In his seminal book, How to change the world – social entrepreneurs and the power of new ideas, which explains social entrepreneurship through the stories of Ashoka fellows, David Bornstein quotes (favourably) the thoughts of management and leadership expert, James O’Toole, on adverse reactions to change: “O’Toole examines a number of cases in which a potentially beneficial institutional change was resisted and find that resistance occurs when a group perceives that a change in question will challenge its ‘power, prestige, position and satisfaction with who they are, what they believe, and what they cherish’. He asserts: ‘The major factor in our resistance to change is the desire not to have the will of others forced on us.’

The examples in Bornstein’s book are examples of good challenges to bad practice. They include a man who brought electricity to rural areas of Brazil by offering an innovative, cost-effective alternative to the practices of the state-run monopoly provider and a lady who challenged the Hungarian attitudes to disabled people by setting up a centre that offered supported work and independent living at a time when many state-run institutions still believed it was acceptable to put disabled people in cages.

But there’s a need to distinguish between a positive social change that necessitates some disruption and disruption for disruption’s sake. The desire to challenge people’s ‘power, prestige, position and satisfaction with who they are, what they believe, and what they cherish’ is, when viewed as an end in itself, a characteristic of both school bullies and some of the worst stand-up comedians on the Edinburgh Fringe.

The suggestion isn’t the disruptive social entrepreneurs are schools or bad stand-up comedians but that disruption, if it’s a useful concept at at all, is a tool. And it’s a tool that needs to be used with great sensitivity if it’s to be effective in situations where there are several legitimate, competing views on what constitutes positive social change.

The Disruptive Social Care podcast, hosted by Shirley Ayres and Stuart Arnott, features interviews with people who are using technology to deliver innovation in health and social care in the UK. Many of the ideas discussed on the podcast are about using technology to change the way that established public services operate to enable people who use services to live more fulfilling lives, less dependent on direct interventions of health and social care professionals.

Many of us may regard the goals of this kind of disruption as positive ones but we’d also recognise that the people being disrupted as a result of this kind of change aren’t inefficient competitors in open markets or (in most cases) state bureaucrats delivering an incontestably appalling service – they’re hard-working caring professionals who want to do the best they can for people they care for. And many of the people they care for value and depend on the services they receive in their current, undisrupted state.

Given both the economic climate and our changing needs, these factors don’t constitute an argument against disruption in UK public services but they highlight the need for the people doing the disrupting (or trying to) to think very carefully about how they go about it. Positive disruption in these setting will usually involve both people who use services and (some) professionals actively buying into to changes in the way they do things.

While a criticism of traditional public services is often that they have a top down approach and do things to people rather than with them, that’s an equally valid criticism of some of the self-styled innovation specialists operating in the UK social sectors. If social entrepreneurs are going to disrupt their way to a better world, as opposed to what that’s simply ‘different’, they need to find ways build support for and deliver positive social change, not for disruption itself.




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4 responses to “Imminent disruption

  1. I’m for disrruption and it was on the Skoll Social Edge forum that we first began to share what we were doing to “leverage liberation technologies”

    Fron 2004, being very much part of an Orange revolution alongside local civic activists we had the primary focus of disrupting a corrupt institutionalised care system.

    Part of the change process is to stand up to corruption, to propagage good


  2. Alisdair Cameron

    Reblogged this on Launchpad: By and for mental health service users and commented:
    Very good piece by David, highlighting the perils of disruption for disruption’s sake. And rightly putting the boot into vogueish bandwagon-jumping bullshitters.


    • Alisdair, It’s a pantomime that’s been going on as long as I can recall going back to discussions with academics at Skoll. The world devides into those who take action and share their apporach openly and those in perpetual cycle of academic confererences discussion mission metrics and models. They always conclude that we need a new something because that’s the way to take ownership of other’s work without taking the risk of actually doing something. It’s reflected in a blog yesterday by David Wilcox on a whirlwind tour of the circuit. They keep doing it because its a profit centre in its own right.


  3. What’s concerning me most right now, is the disruption of social enterprise by corporate initiatives, which skirt around the really difficult issues in the interest of profiting by being seen as doing good.

    A classic example is the concept of Creating Shared Value which has even penetrated some areas of of social enterprise. I’m not the only one to observe that it’s scant on ethics and human rights. It is after all from Harvard, the spiritual home of laissez-faire ideology.

    Bearing down on us now are the like of Nike and Google, with a big push for branding, which is being promoted on the Social Busines group I created, among others These are businesses who’ve already demonstrated that they don’t want others at the table. .


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