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Irresistibly biased Reflections on the Unusual Suspects Festival

<p>What&rsquo;s the state of play in the fast paced world of social innovation? The claims are high. The stakes may be even higher. The <a href="https://vimeo.com/108213201">Unusual Suspects festival</a> in the UK, seemed a good place to find out. The theme: collaboration. A dazzling line up: Dozens of initiatives on display around London, backed up by discussions and debates on topics such as the future of public services, arts for change, the game changing potential of social entrepreneurship and ingredients for fertile innovation ecosystems.</p><p>Social innovation has an irresistible global appeal. Who would not be persuaded by the idea that we need to mobilize our skills, energy and creativity to solve tough problems? Students are increasingly pursuing social innovation or social entrepreneurship as a career path. The UK government is championing social innovation as a key strategy towards their &lsquo;Big Society&rsquo;. Initiatives like <a href="http://www.sharedlivesplus.org.uk/">Shared Lives Plus</a> (healthcare), <a href="https://www.codeclub.org.uk/">Code Club</a> (education) and the return of community organizing at <a href="http://locality.org.uk/projects/community-organisers/">Locality</a> were among the most shining examples of what this could look like in practice. Thanks to the solid work of the <a href="http://www.socialinnovationexchange.org/home">Social Innovation Exchange,</a> the impact of such projects travels to places as far as South Korea and Argentina, where innovators are working on similar grand challenges.</p><p>But perhaps the buzz and enthusiasm distract from a number of biases that also merit our attention, such as the ones below.</p><h2>The collaboration bias</h2><p>According to systems-management Guru Peter Senge, &lsquo;Collaboration&rsquo; is the human face of systems change. Obviously, addressing our most pressing global challenges demands collective action on an unprecedented scale across all sectors domains of social life. Yes, we need more of it. But let&rsquo;s not forget that &lsquo;ecosystems for systemic change&rsquo; cannot thrive without contestation. This includes &lsquo;having a good fight before getting to yes&rsquo; as Souza Briggs reminds us in <a href="https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/democracy-problem-solving">&lsquo;democracy as problem solving&rsquo;</a>. But it also includes space for <a href="http://www.ids.ac.uk/files/dmfile/Wp423.pdf">&lsquo;unruly politics&rsquo;</a>, and the open discussion and rejection of existing ideas as a source of creative tension and renewal. It&rsquo;s highly problematic to hear Brooks Newmark, Britains minister for civil society say that &lsquo;social organizations should be not waste their time with campaigning but help out that&rsquo;s what we pay them for&rsquo;. No questions please about slashing healthcare and education spending. Please do pay your taxes so that we can to bail out banks, but don&rsquo;t expect the state to bail out ordinary people. For this is the people-helping-people age. So here&rsquo;s some money for you to innovate to help deal with the fall out.</p><p>And so the social innovation community gets busy devising ingenious volunteering schemes in hospitals and facilitating communities to re-organize their depleted assets. The good news is that each of these initiatives harbours potential to &lsquo;change the game whilst playing it&rsquo;, but it will only happen if critiquing the game becomes part of the play.</p><h2>The &lsquo;bigger is better&rsquo; bias</h2><p>&lsquo;Social innovators are playing too small&rsquo; provokes Charlie Leadbeater, a global though leader on systems innovation when discussing the new <a href="http://www.nesta.org.uk/publications/making-it-big-strategies-scaling-so... it big&rsquo; report</a> that NESTA has brought out. The report proposes helpful thinking steps about scaling strategies, but omits to acknowledge that bigger is not always better. On the contrary, the desire to &lsquo;make things big&rsquo; is what caused a large part of our toughest problems to emerge in the first place. If there is one thing to learn from (eco)systems thinking is that the smallest of gestures can make the biggest difference and vice versa.</p><p>The problem with the scaling debate is that it&rsquo;s far too much influenced by management science and its knowledge of market development and organisational theory. But developments in the social realm rarely conform to such dynamics. Nor do they conform to the timeframes and &lsquo;value for money&rsquo; metrics of success that funders and policy makers tend to apply. From social movement theory for example we know how the real impact of social initiatives is how they change <a href="https://www.opendemocracy.net/transformation/mark-engler-paul-engler/how... climate of ideas</a> or expand the range of policy alternatives. The timeframes of civic initiatives tends to be generational, not annual. An example: in Graz, where I Live, I have discovered a very lively ecosystem of activists and social entrepreneurs that are moving and shaking public life with anything from co-working to street festivals and alternative currency. One commonality is that most of these activists went to same alternative secondary school. It was set up in the 70s by parents that wanted to change the system by building something better. By any social innovation standards that are in vogue today, they failed. Their little school is still struggling for survival and the education system that they set out to shake up is as stuck as it was 40 years ago. And yet, haphazardly perhaps, they produced a generation of change makers that is now at the forefront of innovations in many domains of social life.</p><h2>The problem solving bias</h2><p>What these activists also have in common is that they don&rsquo;t worry excessively about problem solving, another social innovation bias that plays out unproductively in two ways. First there is the <a href="http://www.publicbooks.org/interviews/the-folly-of-technological-solutio... of solutionism</a>, a term coined by Yevgeni Morosov to describe a global obsession with &lsquo;fixing our world&rsquo;, preferably with technological solutions our band aids whilst ignoring deeper underlying dynamics. Second, if you think about it, problem solving only taps into a small part of the reservoir of human creativity and civic energy. Or as Buckminster Fuller would say: people should be architects of their future, not slaves.</p><p>One really hopes that the people behind <a href="http://humanservices.alberta.ca/social-innovation-fund.html">Alberta&rsq... Social Innovation Endowment</a> are considering these things. Their partnership with the <a href="https://uwaterloo.ca/waterloo-institute-for-social-innovation-and-resili... Innovation Generation</a> at the University of Waterloo is cause for hope. A Billion dollar endowment is no small change in the quest to transform Alberta&rsquo;s image from <a href="http://www.desmogblog.com/top-10-facts-canada-alberta-oil-sands-informat... tar sand pit</a> towards a laboratory of hope for what a local living economy could look like. But if that&rsquo;s a genuine ambition then a substantial part of the cash should be invested in the deeper structures that give life and oxygen to a society: An education system that promotes life-long learning, space for arts &amp; culture (not as problem solving strategies but for their own sake), deepening democracy, gender equality and so on.</p><h2>It&rsquo;s the p-word, stupid</h2><p>The upshot of these biases is a denial of politics. Why are we in this global mess? It&rsquo;s far too easy to dismiss such questions with grand narratives of crises that affect us all. As my colleague Marlieke Kieboom remarks in <a href="https://www.kl.nl/publicaties/lab-matters-challenging-the-practice-of-so... paper</a> about social laboratories: There are no broken systems. It&rsquo;s just that systems work out better for some than for others. So who decides the wicked problem of the hour is? What&rsquo;s hidden by what supposedly needs to be solved? Who&rsquo;s benefiting? Who&rsquo;s losing out? What would it take to change the dynamics of power from the few to the many? What is required to overthrow what Unger called <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zBfPa_FiExI">&lsquo;a dictatorship of no alternatives&rsquo;</a>? It&rsquo;s none too soon for this thriving community to throw away the rose tinted glasses. The politics of social innovation, not a bad title for the next Social Innovation Festival.</p>

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