Tag Archives: social innovation

Learning from experience – part one

In a comment on my previous blog on the pipeline of bad ideas in social enterprise, Nick Temple offers a partial defence of the actions of social entrepreneurship support organisations, noting that their work often involves supporting ‘biographical social entrepreneurs’ – people for whom a social entrepreneurship is a response to personal experience.

In another recent blog, Tackling Heropreneurship, Daniela Papi-Thornton of Skoll Centre, makes some points similar to mine but also bemoans the fact that she has: “watched more and more students focus their ventures on problems they haven’t lived, such as building an app for African farmers when the founding team has neither farmed nor been to Africa“.

They’re not wrong. There is no question that personal experience is important in social enterprise. The challenge is to understand how and why it’s important. The post is part of a series of (at least) two and the other one will be more positive!

How does it feel?

Nick makes the point that the fact that biographical social entrepreneurs have: ‘experienced the problem they are/were trying to solve… in theory at least, gives them some understanding of the problem’.

At a basic level, this is self-evidently correct.

If you are (or have previously been) long-term unemployed you know how it feels to be long-term unemployed – in the sense that you know what long-term unemployment feels like for you.

If you have a diagnosis of a mental health condition, you know what it’s like for you to live with that condition.

In both of these examples (and many others) people with experience are experts in their own experience but there are at least two fundamental questions that this experience  does not (in itself) answer:

  1. To what extent does someone’s specific personal experience enable them to usefully understand a wider social problem beyond that specific personal experience?
  2. In the event that the answer is ‘to a great extent’ – to what extent does that understanding enable them to use their understanding to solve a problem for enough paying customers (including grant funders and donors) to create a viable business?

In terms of question 1, there are many factors that determine whether someone’s experiences enable them to understand other people’s experiences and the practical challenges flowing from them.

One is where that specific experience sits within that individual’s wider life experience: Has the long-term unemployed person (Nigel/Nigella) ever had a job? Are they unable to get a job at all – or unable to get a job in their chosen profession? Do they have dependents?

Another is where Nigel/Nigella’s experience sits within a wider social and economic context: Is the problem that Nigel/Nigella is unable to get one of the jobs that are available in their local area? Or are there no jobs in the local area to apply for?

The point is not that one experience of any of the possible permutations is more valid or real than another but that the relevance of those experiences to the creation of a social enterprise to ‘solve the problem’ will vary greatly.

More bluntly (and this may seem obvious but experience from the world of social entrepreneurship support suggests it isn’t) the fact that Nigel/Nigella has failed to get a job over a long period of time – either at all, in a particular industry or based on a series of specific challenges – doesn’t (in itself) qualify them to help other people get jobs.

Nigel/Nigella’s experience of failing to get a job may give them a strong desire to start a social enterprises to tackle unemployment, along with some ideas about services that might be helpful. It doesn’t (in itself) mean that those services are likely to work.

In other cases, the specific nature of someone’s experience may mean they just don’t know how that experience feels for someone else.

This is my truth, don’t tell me yours

Once again this maybe be because of their personal situation. So while that fact that Oliver/Olivia’s diagnosis with a mental health condition was followed by immediate specialist treatment at a private hospital doesn’t make their experience of that condition any less real, it does limit their ability to immediately understand the situation of someone who is currently waiting 18 months for an NHS appointment to help them live with the same condition.

In other instances, one person’s experience may make them less rather more able to empathise with other people who experience a similar situation in a different way.

For example, Oliver/Olivia may have found that, for them, medication is not helpful but the combination of meditation and exercise enables them to manage their condition successfully.

That perspective is valid and relevant but, if setting up a social enterprise with a general aim of helping people live with their condition, it needs to be understood as an individual experience – which may or may not be other people’s experience too.

A big danger for ‘biographical entrepreneurs’ is that they risk not being able to distinguish between their individual personal experience and ‘THE TRUTH’ about a social problem – and their social enterprise ends up as a mission to impose their truth on other people (and prevents them for understanding whether/why other people might need/use a product or service they offer).

While question 1 break down into lots of other (more complicated) questions, it’s ultimately the easier one to answer. You can use your personal experience as the impetus to develop a broader understanding of a social problem beyond your personal experience if you want to.

Sounds great, who’s paying?

What it comes to question 2, the answer is shorter but the problem is bigger.

In his latest book, The Frugal Innovator, Charles Leadbeater notes that: “An innovation is only successful if it can answer several questions and risks: will the technology and the product work?; will consumers want it?; can it be made reliably at scale and can a business make money from it? An innovation can fail at each of these stages.

Experience-based understanding of ‘the problem’ might in some circumstances enable a social entrepreneur to answer one or both Leadbetter’s first two questions but it’s highly unlikely to provide answers for the third and fourth ones.

Nigel/Nigella’s personal experience might provide the starting point for a great idea for a service that will help long term unemployed people get a job but it’s unlikely to be a significant factor in whether their social enterprise can generate income as a Work Programme sub-contractor.

Oliver/Olivia’s personal experience might enable them to come up with a great scheme that supports those who want to manage their mental health condition through meditation and exercise to do so, it won’t help them work out what combination of grant-funding, NHS contracts and self-funding payments is necessary to make the numbers add up.

The mistake that social entrepreneurship supporters have often made – either explicitly or through omission –  is to assume that personal experience of a social problem inherently represents meaningful research into the market conditions for solutions to that problem. It doesn’t.

None of this is intended to suggest that being a ‘biographical social entrepreneur’ is a bad thing but we need to think more carefully about what it takes to get from the impetus to solve a problem based on personal experience to a viable social enterprise.

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

I started a social enterprise to save the world but all I ended up with was a failing t-shirt business

Over the years I’ve attended quite a few events where people in the process of starting new social ventures* ‘pitch’ their idea to a panel and/or wider audience. And on several occasions I’ve been one of those people. Even when allowing for our individual pitching abilities, many of these ideas are transparently absurd (at least, to everybody else).

The stereotypical starting point (type one) for wannabe social entrepreneurs – even once they’ve had enough absurd ideas to be tagged as a ‘serial social entrepreneur’ – is that they have an idea that offers significant social impact but doesn’t work as a business.

They want to do x thing for x group of people, there’s at least a plausible suggestion that x group of people might want it and it might really be useful but x group of people have no money to pay for it. So the type one social entrepreneur faces the (often insurmountable) challenge of finding *some other way* of paying for it.

At the other end of the spectrum (type two), there are nice people who want to start a business doing something they’re good at and, because they’re nice people, they feel compelled to contort their business plan in a bizarre way to include what seems to outside observers to be an entirely unrelated social element.

Social sourdough

So fictional social venture ‘Pizza, Love and Understanding’ is a pizza parlour but it’s going to deliver real social change for ‘disadvantaged groups (specific group – tbc)’ by using the profits to pay for them (the ‘disadvantaged groups’) to take part in workshops which will generate art with a strong social message to be displayed on the wall of the pizza parlour.

And because it’s important that disadvantaged groups are recognised as real artists they will be paid for their art (possibly in pizza).

Type two is mostly ignored as there’s no point wasting energy being rude to well intentioned people who will (in most cases) soon recognise their mistake and get on with trying to run a pizza parlour. That’s a good result. Pizza parlours that sell good pizza and pay decent wages are a good thing.

Extreme basket weaving

There is a type three, though. People who, once again with the best of intentions, find themselves pursuing an idea for a social venture that combines the absence of a business model with a lack of clear potential for social impact.

Are you building an online one-stop-shop for young people who want to bring communities together through the medium of extreme basket weaving?

Is the business model ‘corporate sponsorship’?

If so, look away now.

Once again, while the real life equivalents of fictional social venture ‘ComYOUnityBasKITcase’ are far less actively stupid, the basic recipe is the same.

Ingredient one – something you (at best) know how to do well or (at worst) have recently heard of

Ingredient two – a positive but non-specific and essentially unrelated social aim

Ingredient three – a broad category of funder/customer that you think has lots of money to spend on good things

Method – Attend pitching event. Get a grant from Unltd. Don’t sell anything. Attend conference to complain that funders/investors/customers never fund/invest in/buy innovative ideas. Repeat for 1 to 5 years.

I can’t say for sure whether type three social venture ideas are becoming more prevalent but there is certainly a strong, well established pipeline and it’s not clear that social entrepreneurship support organisations have a humane strategy for putting them (the ideas, not the people who have them) out of their misery.

Youth hostelling with Chris Eubank

As Alan Partridge memorably demonstrated, some of the worst ideas (many of which the advent of digital TV has since brought to fruition) are motivated by the toxic mix of panic and desperation. But, while parody TV hosts need to have terrible ideas, aspiring social entrepreneurs don’t.

There is another route. That is to start by putting some time and effort into researching the social change you want to make. It’s not necessary for all social entrepreneurs to single-handedly solve a problem for the whole world in the Ashoka style but it is necessary to solve a problem at some level for someone.

The best way to do that is to work out what the problem is. What annoys me most about the prevalence of stupid ideas for social ventures is that it’s not as if we have a shortage of problems for clever, socially-focused people to take a look at.

How do we look after people who are living longer but need additional help to have a good quality of live in old age?

How do we support people with severe and enduring mental health problems when institutional treatment is both unaffordable and undesirable?

How do we connect with the young people who would really like to weave baskets in an extreme way to help their communities, and give them the online tools they need to do it?

Creating a successful business to address a social need is really difficult but working out where to start is not as difficult as some of the organisations theoretically supporting social entrepreneurship and social innovation in the UK currently make it look.

Ephemeral tosh

If you want to start venture (and you live in a major metropolitan) it’s virtually impossible to avoid support designed to develop your basic business skills – and plenty of support for (often, small and unproven) social ventures to ‘scale-up’.

There’s very little work being done to help social entrepreneurs actually become skilled and knowledgable in the things they’re trying to do – or to put people who are skilled and knowledgable together with people who’d just like to do something good to see if they could do something together.

In that context, it’s not surprising we end up with so much ephemeral tosh and so few successful social ventures addressing real social need.

Keep it stupid

None of this means it’s desirable to discourage people from pursuing really stupid ideas for social ventures.

Lots of great (or, at least, quite good) ideas emerge from the dregs of really stupid ones. Pizza, Love and Understanding’s incongruously worthy arts workshops might ultimately be the starting point for the creation of an arts organisation that does create some great art and/or some positive social change while not needing to be connected to a pizza parlour.

And the social entrepreneur who created ComYOUnityBasKITcase might come out the other side with the hard-earned practical experience they need to do much something more useful next time.

It’s not social entrepreneurs and our stupid ideas that’s the problem, it’s the dearth of support and funding to help us develop the knowledge, and find the time and space to move beyond them.

 

*In this context, a ‘social venture’ could be a charity, social enterprise or other any organisation/activity initiated with the aim of make the world a better place (at least partly) by selling stuff

15 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Do all public services have to be delivered by professionals?

One of the most prominent 20th century proponents of ‘deprofessionalisation’ was the Austrian-born priest and philosopher, Ivan Illich. Illich railed against what he viewed as the ‘monopoly’ control of education and healthcare by teachers and doctors…” – my latest blog on public services and social innovation for Pioneers Post.

 

4 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Who pays when the state can’t?

We don’t need public services and welfare spending primarily because commercial markets are a bad way of meeting social need but because they’re a bad way of determining what ‘social need’ means… ” – the latest in my series of Pioneers Post blogs on public service reform and social innovation.

4 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Snapshots of the innovation landscape

There haven’t been many times in recent years when I’ve been reading a report on social innovation or social enterprise and I’ve found myself thinking:  ‘the author of this section has missed Social Impact Bonds and they’re genuinely relevant to this discussion’.

If European social innovation research collaboration, Tepsie‘s report Building the Social Innovation Ecosystem in Europe achieved nothing else, that would be quite a feat. Fortunately, given that there’s 105 pages of it, it does achieve some other things, too.

While the one they’ve gone for is snappier, a more accurate title for the report would ‘Describing the possible component parts of a Social Innovation Ecosystem in Europe should one come to exist’. The bulk of the report is made up of snapshots of the landscape of interventions emerging to support social innovation in different parts of the world, written by social innovation academics from around Europe.

Where’s the innovation?

Keen to avoid a social innovation definition debate, the authors make clear that they’re: “particularly interested in socially innovative organisations that emerge from civil society and the third sector, including social enterprises, co-operatives and mutuals.”

The problem with the choice to focus on socially innovative organisations rather than socially innovative activity (wherever located)  is that while some subsections – such as the one on ‘prizes for social innovation’ – are about support for innovative activity which may ultimately lead to the creation of organisations, most of the subsections focus on resources, organisations and networks that support new or growing social sector/civil society organisations in a general sense.

In many subsections, the specific relationship between this support and those organisations actually having and successfully executing any new ideas or models is either not explained at all or explained through gratuitous speculation such as this on crowdfunding: “A fourth advantage particularly for social innovators is that it pays for them to be really innovative: Whereas they often do not fit into more traditional funding schemes just because they are ‘too innovative’, they are likely to attract crowdfunding more easily by being innovative, if they succeed in making innovation comprehensible and convincing to ‘the crowd’

The report divides the ‘Social Innovation Ecosystem’ into three main sections:

  • Enhancing the supply of innovative goods and services
  • Enhancing the demand for innovative goods and services
  • Intermediaries: transferring knowledge about social innovation

There’s over 60 pages on ‘Enhancing the Supply’, divided between different types of: ‘Financial Support’, ‘Non Financial Resources’ and initiatives developing ‘Skills for Innovation’, 15 pages on the different ways of ‘Enhancing demand for innovative goods and services’ and 12 pages on ‘Intermediaries’, looking at networks and evidence.

The subsections are written by different researchers from Tepsie’s partner institutions and, perhaps unsurprisingly, they’re a real mixed bag. The intended model (demonstrated by the good ones) is: explain what the activity is (for example, ‘crowdfunding’), explain what it’s got to do with socially innovative organisations, give some examples of some current approaches including interviews with people involved and provide ‘reflections’ on what this means for the social innovation eco-system.

Ventures needs grants because ventures need grants

It’s a model that works particularly badly for the subsections on Financial Support. Gunnar Glänzel of University of Heidelberg  is the co-author of a very good paper I’ve read on social investment in Germany but he gets lost somewhere between writing superfluous beginners guides and complicated specialist analysis of topics that (on this evidence) he’s not really a specialist in. As a result, the first three sub-sections here on ‘Grants for early stage development’, ‘Crowdfunding’ (see above) and ‘Loans’ are stews of confusion peppered with blindingly obvious filler.

For example: “The rationale behind early-stage grants is that social innovators who are about to set up ventures are in need of relatively small amounts of money at low or no cost” and “As long as an idea remains just an idea, it continues to have two major drawbacks: First, it does not make any difference in the world; and second, it does not generate any job opportunities for anyone.

Particularly baffling is the subsection on loans which is apparently aimed at someone who needs to read a 500-word description of what a loan is beginning: “A loan is a form of funding where a lender provides money (the principal) to a borrower on pre-defined terms concerning the repayment of these funds” but can understand the idea of ‘mezzanine’ capital with no explanation at all.

As if this lurch from spoon-feeding to jargonitis wasn’t enough, the mezzanine is reached in an interview with Charity Bank.  Charity Bank are really good but they’re virtually the only organisation offering loans to UK social organisations who don’t claim to be particularly interested in social innovation. Sure enough, Glänzel also interviews Triodos before noting: “It needs to be pointed out that both examples refer to banks that make loans to organisations that should not be seen as social innovators.

Fortunately, other sections are much better. The subsection on ‘Mentors and Coaching’ by Jeremy Millard of The Danish Technological Institute includes an interview with Servane Mouazan of Ogunte and is a really good summary of what the point of those activities is – something which many social enterprise support agencies that refer social entrepreneurs to coaches and mentors could do with explaining better. It’s less good as explaining why socially innovative organisations need different mentoring or coaching to anyone else but there may not be a reason.

Does anyone actually want to buy this stuff?

While it’s worth dipping into the ‘Supply’ section to read about the different types of support available to socially innovative organisations around the world, the most interesting thinking in the report is in the demand section.

To begin with, it’s great that the section exists at all. It’s no great revelation that there’s loads of support for people looking to bringing socially innovative organisations ‘to market’ but there’s currently very limited understanding of what or where the markets for their social innovations are.

Millard’s subsection on Campaigning and Advocacy looks at the role of socially innovative organisation in simultaneously campaigning for and delivering social change. In the case of the first example, The Ghana Friendship Groups, the organisation literally does both things itself, pushing the Ghanaian authorities to provide children with the formal education they’re legally entitled to by delivering preparatory courses for children so they’re ready to enter the education system and training local ‘barefoot’ teachers, while simultaneously campaigning for politicians to fulfill they’re responsibilities and securing outside funding from Danish aid agencies.  The other example is used is Social Enterprise UK and their work on boosting the market for social enterprise (which is apparently assumed to lead to a bigger market for social innovation) both through public campaigns and with engaging with politicians on initiatives such as the Social Value Act.

This subsection loses its way in the ‘reflections’ which ends up as a discussion of the pros and cons of campaigning rather than reflections on the interaction between campaigning and social innovation. For some social organisations campaigning may be the best way of creating a market for an innovation which they themselves can deliver. Hearing loss charity, the RNID’s work both demanding that the NHS provide digital hearing aids then working with them to make it happen is a good example.

The Young Foundation’s Rachel Schon does an extraordinarily good job of providing a high level overview of the fiendishly complicated topic of the place of social innovation in ‘Commissioning and Procurement’ explaining the problems of big contracts suited to big providers, risk aversion and excessive monitoring of processes rather than outcomes.

Impossible to tackle in the three pages of the subsection but important to the paper overall is the question whether governments actually want to buy social innovation and, if so, how they go about doing so.

(Possibly the only situation ever where) Social Impact Bonds get less coverage than they deserve 

Unfortunately, the snapshots of the landscape format, while probably the most logical one for a report by multiple contributors based in various different countries, is a particularly bad one for considering how different organisations and initiatives function within an ecosystem.

The relationship between the different components of ‘An Ecosystem For Innovative Social Purpose Organisations’ is outlined in a diagram on page 11 but never explicitly mentioned again after that. As a result, the ‘supply’ section creates the impression of a ‘Social Innovation Ecosystem’ as a building constructed entirely from scaffolding that socially innovative organisations may or may not choose to visit to get what they need to succeed.

Some critics of social enterprise support and government funding for it might feel that impression is accurate but, either way, this non-engagement means failing to examine approaches that either consciously link together different forms of support or promote social innovation on both the supply and demand side.

To take two UK examples, not because I think they’re likely to be the most important ones in the world but because they’re the ones I know about: the UK’s social investment ‘pipeline’ and Social Impact Bonds.

For the last two years, the UK government has – it believes – been promoting social innovation through a social investment pipeline that begins with a socially innovative idea being supported by an accelerator funded through the Social Incubator Fund, moves on to ‘investment readiness support’ through Big Potential or the Investment and Contract Readiness Fund, and ultimately ends up with innovation social ventures received massive investments from Big Society Capital-backed social investment funds to scale up their services and sell them to public sector commissioners.

This pipeline may not work (or even meaningfully exists in a practical sense) but it’s a good example of several parts of s social innovation ecosystem that have (in theory) been designed to fit together and deliver some end products – and it would be useful to consider whether it’s a good idea and whether there’s comparable stuff going on elsewhere on Europe (or elsewhere in the world).

The hyperbolic promotion of Social Impact Bonds (SIBs) in the UK has been so successful  that, despite the fact that the first SIB only published its first (half-decent but hardly breathtaking) results last week, they’re already being promoted as a key solution to the challenges facing whole countries.

It makes sense for serious social innovation researchers to be sceptical about the marauding progress of the SIBs bandwagon but that doesn’t negate the relevance of what they’re attempting to do. SIBs are:

(a) a form of theoretically commercial finance specifically designed to fund social innovation

(b) a model of funding with a built-in relationship between financial return and social outcomes

(c) a model of funding social innovation that’s received a phenomenal level of government support

Even more critically, though, they attempt to tackle the conundrum that governments are the most likely customers for many new approaches to doing social good but governments can’t risk spending (large amounts of) money on services that haven’t yet been proven to work.

Who pays and why?

Ultimately, socially innovative organisations don’t (or shouldn’t) exist primarily in a social innovation ecosystem. The ecosystems socially innovative organisations need to find their places within are their local communities, or the national or international communities of interest that want to see a solution to particular social problem.

The effectiveness of the growing range of supply side support for socially innovative organisations is based entirely on whether there’s ultimately anyone who wants to pay for what’s supplied. Ironically, given that grant-funded activity is often seen as an outdated alternative to socially enterprising approaches, Julia Unwin’s The Grantmaking Tango is one of the few UK publications I’m aware of that looks at a market for social goods provided by social organisations (grant-funding)  and considers how that market affects the business models of the social organisations that deliver those social goods.

It would be really useful for UK or European researchers to do something similar, the Social Innovation Shuffle (?), that looks at the different markets for social innovative end products -governments in particular but also grant-funders, private sector businesses and individual consumers- and how a social innovation ecosystem could most usefully interact with them. This report makes a good start by telling us more about what’s currently out there.

8 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Going large

You don’t need to go beyond the executive summary of Making It BigNesta‘s new report on ‘Strategies for Social Social Innovations’ to see just how confused the UK’s leading thinkers are about the subject.

In sentence two we’re told ‘Many social innovations have become part our daily lives – think pre-school education, first aid, e-petitions‘ while in sentence three we’re told that ‘In the developing world, organisations like BRAC and Pratham are approaching transformative scale, starting to solve the social problems they set out to tackle.

From this we can deduce that social innovation could be a new branch of an existing sector, an essential basic service or a new method of communicating your views to people in power. On the other hand, it could be a large NGO that provides huge range of different services designed to help poor people.

It may be that it’s not useful to define ‘social innovation’ beyond the suggestion that it’s something with a social aim that seems to work but what about ‘scale’? According to Making it Big: ‘Social innovations can be said to have scaled when their impact grows to meet the level of need‘.

On that basis, pre-school education and first aid are a long way off reaching (worldwide) scale while many would argue that e-petitions reached scale some time before the first one was set up (apologies to radical hippies and Shoreditch libertarians who oppose both pre-school education and first aid but love e-petitions).

No more heroes

Making It Big isn’t a bad report – it’s a good report that reflects a confused situation. As Nesta boss Geoff Mulgan reflected at the recent launch event, 10 years ago the dominant view in (newly emerging) social innovation policy circles was that the UK would see an explosion of Ashoka-model, Richard Branson-style heroic social entrepreneurs.

(He didn’t add that) a few years before that Charles Leadbeater’s The Rise of the Social Entrepreneur had seemed to herald the approach of a disparate army of new social leaders who, between them, would replace outdated public services aided only by five disgruntled local people, a 30 minute crash course on how to do proper business from a kid on KPMG’s graduate scheme and their terrifyingly passionate personality.

It wasn’t a good idea but it was an intellectually coherent one. Unsurprisingly, it hasn’t worked. No heroic social entrepreneurs at all have solved a global social problem (or even replaced a relatively small existing public service) by scaling up themselves and doing their passion. The heroic social entrepreneur model has now become so discredited that at this year’s Skoll World Forum many of the world’s leading heroic social entrepreneurs were refusing to associate themselves with (the heroic image of) themselves.

In the UK, it just quietly didn’t happen. So Making it Big successfully reflects a landscape where we know being a great person and really meaning it is not enough. It does a good job of outlining different potential routes to scale: influence and advise, build a delivery network, form strategic partnerships and grow an organisation to deliver.

Do more vs. doing more good

It’s useful to look at scaling social innovation from two angles simultaneously. One is operational scale. Are you doing the thing you do either in the most efficient way you can or delivering it at the most efficient volume possible? Any of the available routes might be the best one to reach that point.

Have you reached the point where you’re doing something to the greatest possible extent that your skills, the resources available to you allow and the markets – in the broadest sense of the term – you operate within allow you to and are you able to keep on doing it?

Then the social impact question might – at that optimum operational level – does the social bit still work. Do the social returns diminish, why and by how much? Does the service that worked brilliantly for people in Norfolk, work just as well for people in Wales – and does it still work as well for people in Norfolk now you’re trying to deliver it in Wales, too?

Unfortunately, the trade-off between operational and social will probably involve taking a position on some difficult questions. Do you want to make your social good available to the biggest possible number of people or the people who need it most? Clearly, both but what if you have to make a choice?

What if the best way to make your social innovation simple enough for millions of people to use is to make it in a way that means particular groups of people can’t use it? What if ensuring your social innovation fits the market for helping for a particular group of people means you have to design it in a way that means it will never have a wider application?

It’s too much to demand that social innovations need to have entirely solved social problems to have been regarded as having scaled but how do we work out which scale model we should be aiming for if we want to achieve the best possible of operational effectiveness and social impact.

Markets don’t care about your social innovation

What remains under-addressed – both in Making it Big and in current UK social innovation debates in general – is the trade off between (scaling) social innovation as a technical process and social change as a battle for resources.

In Section 4, we’re told by Ted talk hero, Simon Sinek, that “people don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it” and therefore you need a ‘clear vision’ to scale up. The may be a great piece of advice in some contexts but it’s problematic in many of the social sectors.

In the social sectors people often buy what you do – in terms of giving up their time to engage with it – because they’re desperate, lonely, bored, or a combination of all three. That’s also true in purely commercial sectors but, in social sectors, the fact that your service is being used is (hopefully) not enough.

In conventional economic terms, many of the people who most need many social innovations don’t buy anything because they don’t have the power to do so. On the other hand, the people who do have the power – the people who might actually pay for the scaling of your innovation – buy whatever the hell they want irrespective of what you do or why you do it.

Breaking into many major social markets isn’t really about you and your social innovation at all. Do you have a scalable model for helping people back to work in the UK? Would unemployed people like to use it? Frankly, who cares? The Department of Work and Pensions aren’t going to pay for it through their lowest common denominator Work Programme scheme.

Unfortunately, there’s not much room in the think pods at Nesta for discussions that acknowledge the fact that some people have more power than other people, and research that considers how that affects both the kind of social innovations that emerge, and the projects, products and businesses that succeed.

Without that, some good stuff will happen but the broad state of confusion the social innovation world will continue.

5 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

How do we build markets when customers don’t pay?

Despite its popularity with politicians (or perhaps partly because of it) public service marketization is rarely discussed in a practical useful way…. ” – the first in a new monthly series of blogs I’m writing for Pioneers Post on social innovation and public service reform. Next two are on: ‘Who pays when the state can’t?’ and ‘Do all public services have to be delivered by professionals?’

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized