Frugal innovation sells

Courtney Martin’s latest post on the Stanford Social Innovation Review blog Instagram-Style Innovation in the Public Sector raises one of the most exciting questions for society and the social innovation sector has been grappling with over the past decade, and with increasing vigour since the fallout from the financial crash: “what would happen if we leveraged the ingenuity and resources in Silicon Valley for the improvement and renewal of the rest of the country—starting in D.C., where simple solutions seem all but impossible?”

Martin firstly quotes Annie Leonard, founder of The Story of Stuff (an online video information service), to explain why silicon valley companies such as Apple have had such a competitive advantage in attracting the most talented innovators: “while our “consumer muscles” have gotten a great workout over the last few decades, our “citizen muscles” have grown anemic. We’ve created gods out of entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, inspiring a fresh batch of the most innovative graduates each fall to aspire to go into the tech industry; all the while, the public and government sectors are starving for their ingenuity and energy.”

Martin goes on to point out that the social innovation sector has failed to sell itself and its rewards to compete with those portrayed by the techies in films such as the social market. Both social innovators in the state and society need to “tell a better story about the rewards of public service and its potential for innovation” and Martin is absolutely right to explain that there is a good story to sell: While helping a dysfunctional state run more smoothly or simply improving the quality of life of the average citizen might not be the kind of innovation that makes you filthy rich, it could make you a game changer, and at the very least, it will make you proud.

Maybe there is a potential lesson for current policy makers – and me! – here. Too often those rapidly-increasing-few of us banging the drum for the mainstreaming of social innovation within the state default to Schumpeter’s theory of innovation: ‘creative destruction’ – a ceaseless cycle of new ideas smashing through previous accepted norms (shibboleths). Energy, enthusiasm and resources all follow lots of new ideas in the hope that a handful will be successfully nurtured, piloted and then scaled up. Lets call this approach the ‘radicals agenda’ You’ll find a lot of radicals fostering excellent partnership working between state institutions and society organisations in order to overcome barriers and ensure their vision (a new idea) becomes a reality. You’ll find a lot of radicals in NYC!

But I’m not so sure if the radicals agenda really is the one to pursue to get the truly creative-minded and technically-gifted people that silicon valley attracts in their truck load. To me – and this is an open question – I suspect most radicals are those disillusioned with the injustices in their society, have an inherent desire to be either politically active or socially active in their community (which is a good thing!) or are just seeking to do social good. If this is the case, then – like the current problem with the political classes being disconnected from the rest of society – social innovation is at risk of being something that is  only for a certain type of person with certain values.

Maybe then state and academic institutions in California keen to promote social innovation to a wider audience should consider pushing an alternative to the east coast agenda. Perhaps we should be looking at the highly successful honey bee network in India whose focus is on ‘Frugal innovation’ – the design of simple solutions to society’s problems. Interestingly the network has a highly diverse membership (many of whom wouldn’t dream of calling themselves inventors, social entrepreneurs or radicals!) and is highly effective at building collaborations through the network (the sort of skills you see being employed in the open-source movement). While not flash, many of the frugal innovations coming out of the network are game changers – perhaps such an approach could connect more effectively with the next generation of creatives and techies that are destined for Apple?

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