Open to innovation

Last month at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, marketing Professor Kate White of the University of British Columbia shared some brilliant studies done in Calgary showing that “communication that cognitively makes sense to people makes it easier for them to understand how to recycle – and therefore more likely to do it.” For those fascinated by the potential of behavioural economics to support society make better decisions that are in the long term interest of all, it is well worth watching on YouTube.

For avid readers of the SSI Review and addicted viewers of Ted talks, such brilliant insights – ranging from the small scale practical to the transformational paradigm shifts – are it seems increasingly accessible and implementable in civil society. However, it would be interesting to know how open state policy makers are to Professor Kate White’s ideas, moreover does such a person with active solutions see the state as an ‘opportunity’ to mainstream the ideas from their research or as a ‘barrier’?

Let’s explore this further. The Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) is responsible for waste management and recycling in the state of California. CalRecycle’s vision is to inspire and challenge Californians to achieve the highest waste reduction, recycling and reuse goals in the nation. They have been doing lots of great stuff and the state has an impressive recycling rate of 65%. But they’re keen to do more. So, what mechanism could firstly incentivise Kate White herself to transfer the research into operation to help CalRecycle pursue its vision, and secondly why would the Director of Calrecycle take on the risk and hassle of outsourcing something they do (say their waste management & waste prevention poster designs) when their existing path is already yielding impressive results?

Well, some form of state ‘challenge’ could potentially provide the answer to both questions. CalRecycle saves waste management costs if waste is reduced – this is the main outcome the organisation wants to achieve. So Calcycle could ringfence 10% of its total budget as an incentive fund to people and organisations who can prove their intervention has reduced the amount of landfill waste produced in a given city or county. Now would Kate White, perhaps together with a team of entrepreneurs, now see a potential new business opportunity that could both make money and have a positive social impact? If the answer if yes, then such a mechanism which aligns state incentives with the development and application of social innovation outside of the state would have win-win benifits: both the state and society would be better off.

In the UK the coalition government has been pushing hard to open up more state service provision to non-state providers, however such moves have proved challenging for the incumbents to drive through as outlined beautifully this week in this FT analysis article. It appears the British, rather than focusing on ‘outcomes’, are path dependent on closed state monopolies simply because the stability of such institutions provides a psychological reassurance regardless of  whether it crowds-out social innovation and regardless of the inevitable ‘less for less’ path dependency such managed decline will result in. Far better for the state to embrace new demand-side reforms of their service provision so that supply-side provision is opened up to the mass of innovation and resource that currently exists, or could be activated, in society.


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