Three Pro Tips for Creating Conditions for Social Innovation
"Social innovation" is super hot right now. In fact, it's downright smoking.
It seems that everywhere you turn there are people, organizations, and industries exploring the meaning of this new field. Social innovation, we're convinced, is critical to addressing the cultural, environmental, and economic challenges of our time.
But where does social innovation come from? And, more productively, can we make social innovation happen?
Our own organization, the Centre for Social Innovation, has been wrestling with these questions since 2004. And, while I'd love nothing more than to reveal a formula for producing innovation, the simple truth is that no such formula exists. You can't make innovation happen.
But that doesn't mean that we must sit back and wait for a bolt out of the blue. Though we can't deliberately produce innovation, we can create environments for social innovation to thrive. We can create the conditions for social innovation emergence.
Here are three ways to create the conditions for social innovation. While these insights arise from our experience running a coworking space and incubator, they apply equally to building a new office and team, gathering a group for a sustained conversation or convening a conference.
1. Create Your Space
Your first responsibility is to create a space that's conducive to creativity and breakthrough thinking. Our experience tells us that the best spaces blend function and whimsy. Function, because appropriate spaces must contain the tools and resources necessary to perform functional activities. Whimsy, because there must be some features that disrupt people's pre-conceived assumptions and behaviours. Yes, this could mean pinball machines, pool tables and lego blocks—but it also means novel material choices and surprising space configurations. The key is to prevent people from slipping into predictable patterns of activity. And while you're at it, make sure that the features of the space are modular. Leave room for participants to reconfigure the elements to support their evolving needs.
2. Cultivate Your Culture
Far too many people fail to recognize that culture can—and should—be consciously cultivated. You must embrace your responsibility to establish a social and psychological environment as well as a physical one. This starts with bringing "the right" people together; your first responsibility is a curatorial one. But putting them together is not enough. You must work to establish a sense of trust, comfort and camaraderie. This requires deft facilitation and careful animation. It also requires a balance between your own point of view and the perspectives of participants. Leave room for their voices in shaping the culture but don't relinquish your responsibility—it's your role to establish a direction and orient the participants toward it.
3. Introduce Multiple Interventions
The past few years have seen a surge in the creation of new 'interventions'—camps, competitions, incubators and user-driven methodologies all intended to accelerate the innovation process. These developments have been powerful and essential. But no mistake about it: No single intervention is going to work with all audiences or issues. And no single intervention will work with all people in a given audience or at a given time. Here's where you need to be patient. Innovation doesn't happen by simply bringing people through an articulated process. It happens in the between moments - in the nooks and crannies of our environments. Your role is to provide a multiplicity of interventions—a variety of 'ladders' that participants can climb at just the right moment. Abandon any sense that there is one route to innovation. Instead, adopt an entire ecosystem of approaches that allow participants to try, abandon, be inspired and pivot from. From there, who knows what will emerge.
Do you have examples of great spaces, cultures or interventions that lead to innovation? Share your ideas below.
Eli Malinsky is Executive Director of the new Centre for Social Innovation in New York City.
Image courtesy of the Centre for Social Innovation.