On Design Public and the Creation of an Innovation Society

Despite the beauty of my surrounds (I’m on holiday in my leafy hometown of Pasadena, California) I am very disappointed I can’t be at Design Public next weekend. I recently moved to India from London, where I worked for the Young Foundation, a center for social innovation. As such, I am still very much in a learning period, and Design Public would have been an excellent chance to learn about cutting-edge innovation in India.

But I’m also disappointed to miss it because events like Design Public give us three related gifts in one: connections – the chance to meet some of India’s top innovators and thinkers; inspiration – the opportunity to tap into that buzzy, eager, revved-up feeling you get when you’ve heard a day’s full of inspirational ideas; and community.

For those of us working in the innovation space, that last one – a community of resilient, persistent optimists; people who believe that human ingenuity, appropriately channeled, can solve human problems – might be most important. I believe that fostering an innovation community through Design Public and other forums might be key to sustaining an innovation culture.

The audience for this article will likely take as read that innovation is a good thing and that we should find better ways of supporting it. What is at issue, then, is how to go about doing that. Corporates already do this effectively – where innovation can drive long-term viability, corporates will systematically invest. It famously took British inventor James Dyson 5127 tries and fifteen years to develop his revolutionary vacuum cleaner. Failure – repeated, personal, and occasionally brutal – is the handmaid of the successful innovations that change the world, and corporations (at least the forward-thinking ones) know this, and accept R&D as a vital cost of doing business.

What is trickier is how to support innovation in sectors where financial gain is not a key factor – primarily in the public sector and in the social sector – and where risk aversion is an ingrained part of the culture. As they like to say in Britain, “No one got fired for hiring IBM.” It is rare to find a donor or government department – whether in India or elsewhere – innovation-minded enough to invest in more than three tries, let alone three hundred, to develop a better model for schooling, a market for clean water, or a new conception of the university.

But I know from my own experience of running a start-up social venture that failure is a vital part of the learning process (our first prototypes were astonishingly off the mark!) and also that you often can’t accurately predict either the timetable or the results for your experiments.

So how can governmental and non-governmental actors embrace innovation – which necessarily requires an embrace of failure – when, traditionally, their incentives mitigate against experimentation?

It’s here that I think the innovation community has a key role to play for three reasons:

• First, an innovation community can embrace a culture of experimentation, openly sharing the results of early prototypes and, of course, both successes and challenges (one example of this is Aubrey Fox’s failure-embracing book and seminars on criminal justice reform in the US; his model of justice innovation has now spread from the US to Britain). Celebrating this learning process is vital to ensuring that governments and social sector organisations and funders see it as normal and even admirable; that is, trying to alleviate some of their fears about risk.

• Second, an innovation community can uncover and codify the best methods, systems and processes for innovation. The Rockefeller Foundation has made this codification a key priority – Rockefeller CEO Judith Rodin says “it’s not just a product, it’s a process”. For example, What Works? is a blog linked to a major research project they are supporting that collects ideas about the ‘how’ of innovation. A set of tried-and-tested tools and approaches to innovation will jump-start the innovation process and help to ensure innovation managers are tapping into established best practice. This kind of knowledge will support governments and social sector organisations to embark on innovation processes with the assurance they are adopting robust, well-researched best practice, as well as lending credibility to innovation itself as a process worth investing in.

• Third, and finally, an innovation community can help with dissemination. This includes both the spread of models that work but also the teaching and embedding of how to go about the business of innovation. The new Global Innovation Academy and CKS’s Certificate of Innovation Management are two new examples of “schools for innovators” where professionals across sectors can learn how to put innovative projects into action. Just imagine how different our public policy might be if every civil servant participated in service design or crowdsourcing workshops as a part of their professional training!

Social innovation is an emergent way of thinking, not just in India but globally. It is almost certainly now a sector (the excellent Social Innovation eXchange network is a global community that I would encourage you to join). But it is still a far way from being understood by most people – people at cocktail parties and factories, not just McKinsey or Stanford. But by engaging with communities of other innovators through events like Design Public, we can develop the culture, tools and dissemination channels that will help us bring a innovation to the mainstream of our policymaking and social sectors.

*Mary Abdo will unfortunately not be joining us at Design Public this time around, but we look forward to engaging with her anyway, online and otherwise. See other guest blogs here.

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