July 16, 2009
I am at the SIX International Summer School on Social Innovation in Lisbon. It’s a fascinating experience, being in the midst of inspiring “doers” from across the world. The event started off with a field trip to visit and experience a social innovation project. I went to a centre that helps people with mental illness to find jobs, AEIPS. Not surprisingly, such a successful project was the fruit of entrepreneurship, run by the woman who founded the organisation some 22 years ago, Maria Teresa Duarte. What I really liked about their approach was to focus on what a person can do, not what they can’t do. So don’t focus on deficits, disorders and problems but on skills, abilities, dreams and aspirations. It reminded me of an excellent presentation that the Lisbon Council hosted earlier this year with Aart de Geus (presentation can be found on www.lisboncouncil.net under the Growth and Jobs section), the deputy secretary-general of the OECD who is in charge of a landmark project called “Making reform happen.” He also said that we need to focus on what people can do, not what they can’t do. This sentiment was reiterated later in the day when Geoff Mulgan, the director of the Young Foundation and the main driver behind the SIX Summer School, said we as a people have internalised why we have to avoid resource and ecological waste, but that a similar understanding was missing in other areas. According to Mulgan, we have to fight “social waste”, allowing people to live their dreams, realise their potential and enabling them to be active, empowered and informed members of their communities.
In general, there is a sense here that the crisis is on the one hand an incredible opportunity, catapulting social innovation to centre stage at a moment when demand is exploding due to rising unemployment, a rapidly ageing population and greater expectations from citizens in governments and social service providers. On the other hand, there is the risk that governments could become more risk-averse and cut back on experimental projects, especially if they are seen as “competing” with the public sector. In such an entrepreneurial and optimistic crowd as is present here, there is of course a strong feeling that this is more of an opportunity than a threat. And I agree. I actually believe that we are living through exciting times that will reign in paradigmatic change. What is coming to an end is what the distinguished social scientist Manuel Castels has just called (via video message) the “end of easy credit.” Too much of our previous growth was built on consumption, fuelled by easy credit and people living beyond their means. Whatever will replace it is going to have to be more sustainable, and we will have to pay more attention to the quality of the growth, and how things are produced, organised and consumed. Castels noted that we are missing new theories of how this new age will change our societies. Again I agree, I have been very surprised that there is not more commentary about the unprecedented growth in government that we are currently witnessing. For sure, this “big government” is nothing that politicians aspired to but is rather a necessity to fight the crisis and its social fall-out. And it’s not old-style socialism with government wanting to crowd out private initiatives and entrepreneurial spirit. To the contrary. I think that governments are sometimes almost helpless in the face of the tremendous challenges awaiting us. And there are few leaders like President Obama who can give citizens a feeling that there is a vision, a roadmap, a blueprint for a better, greener, and more just future.
With governments under such strain, with the pressure to deliver more at a moment when public finances are facing an unprecedented crunch, innovation will be key. And innovation in the public sector is not only necessary but also an exciting opportunity I realised while listening to Christian Bason of Mindlab, a Danish government agency set up to help three ministries to innovate and become more user-oriented. Christian is one of the few thought leaders who has not only new ideas about how government and citizens should interact in the 21st Century but also tremendous experience of working with civil servants to make change happen. He said that his work is driven by two principles: 1) the assumption that society and government is moving from expert-driven innovation models to co-creation, in which users help to bring about innovations. 2) an understanding that we are moving from a system in which government is the solution for everything to a system in which government co-produces solutions with citizens and social innovators.
I am so glad I can be part of this meeting of inspiring minds and empowering doers. One sometimes loses hope that change is possible when surrounded by seemingly unmovable bureaucracies, entrenched interests and a very powerful and well-organised status quo. I will return to Brussels reinvigorated, with new ideas, more optimistic and a strong conviction that positive change is coming our way.Author : Ann Mettler