OUR THINKING: WHERE ARE WE HEADED? SOCIAL INNOVATION IN 2027

This article is authored by Kelly Ann Cunningham, based on her keynote presentation from the 2017 Design for Social Innovation Symposium in Ōtautahi. It was originally published on Medium

"How might we encounter each other in new ways, that fix each other less, demean each other less, and allow for new potential to emerge” Christian Penny


While good-intentioned, designers can be guilty of designing people in and out of opportunities for decision making. The very same criticisms we often have for others.

Sometimes we carry out deep formative research and generous prototyping, while leaving the ideation, detailed concept development, implementation and delivery to designers and other professionals. We do that, because that’s what we’re skilled at. Right?

Sure, designers and other professionals have immense value. However, there’s an opportunity for us to be really honest about what we’re trying to achieve in the work of ‘social’ innovation, which, in many ways is so very different to commercial innovation.

Design for social innovation is an act of service, not merely a service.

This article explores  eight observations on what appears to be emerging in the field of social innovation. What may be holding us back, propelling us forward, and where we might be headed with design, and co-design practice.

 

1. The fallacy of designing for everyone

In social innovation we’re looking to increase the agency of those systematically excluded from decision making and who have likely been socialised as passive recipients of policies, programmes and services. In social innovation, we’re looking to radically improve the lives of those who experience unacceptable levels of disparity — be it in health, social, economic or educational outcomes. In social innovation we’re designing for extremes, not everyone.

In extremes, we find magic. Positive deviance, people who have developed extraordinary thriving strategies, despite the adverse conditions of their lives. We all benefit when we improve the experiences of those who experience the most significant barriers to health, happiness, and lives full of opportunities to prosper.

Innovation challenges, funds and social labs are often set up with an expectation that those we’re trying to serve will come forward. Forgetting experiences of whakamā, feelings of inadequacy, fear, the impact of ‘passive recipient’ socialisation on one’s sense of self-efficacy.

‘Put it out there and they’ll come’ just doesn’t hold up if we’re looking to meaningfully engage those who experience the most disparity, the greatest disconnection. We simply hear from those already engaged. Putting ourselves out there requires bravery, and an intrinsic belief that we matter.

What’s needed? Initial work to build self efficacy, and prime for trust. Taking the basic community development principle of meeting people where they are. Sometimes, we’re not the best people to do that work. Therefore, instead of running an innovation challenge, or lab, we’re running a challenge to build people’s sense of self-efficacy, confidence, social connections — of which one output may be pitching an idea for an innovation challenge.

Different to commercial innovation, within a design for social innovation context we have the chance to begin building capacity, and setting the conditions for social change from the moment we begin. We cannot afford to wait until after insights have been found, ideas discovered, tested and refined. By that point, we’ve missed a significant opportunity to build capacity and ownership.

 

2. A growing focus on capability building

In 2027, we’ll focus as much on capability building, if not more, as we do on facilitating a design process.

While it’s not easy building capability or self-efficacy, as social innovators we must be in the business of capability building if we’re to be a practice that actively promotes empowerment, inclusion and community led action — as opposed to further exclusion.
 

3. Safe, learning, loved — predictions for co-design

A dear friend who is an early childhood educator shared the principles of their centre:

  • safe
  • learning
  • loved

Is co-design is dissimilar? At the heart of participatory design, is the opportunity for us to learn about ourselves, from others, and create new knowledge together.

As humans, we need to feel safe in order to use the creative centre of our brains. When we feel unsafe, our biology hijacks our ability to be creative. True for many people we’re designing with is a lowered ability to feel safe due to trauma, feeling a lack fairness, autonomy, an understanding of what is happening and why, and/or the pressure to perform. These things don’t go away when we take part in a co-design experience. If anything, they’re often amplified.

As designers, what do we really know about people keeping safe? What might we learn more about? How might disciplines such as neuroscience inform our design approach?

Some of our greatest hurdles in bringing decision makers, front-line workers, people and their whānau affected by a problem together productively — is time and interest. With time, we’re constrained by busy lives, jobs that are hard and expensive to step away from. With interest, we sometimes lack a genuine interest and curiosity for each others lives.

Bringing disparate groups together can feel hollow, and fail to generate the thick, and strong networks we need for social change to happen and be sustained.

How might we ensure that those we’re engaging with, are learning about themselves and each other?

How might you love your co-designers? How might they love each other, and the work they have to do together?

 

4. From designer-led, to peer-led

The goal of social innovation, co-design practice, cannot be great participation experiences. Rather, it must be genuinely recognising people as experts in their lives. What do we do with experts? We give them jobs and we pay them accordingly. For co-design to be really genuine, people need meaningful roles (where there is interest and willingness). Both in the creation of, and delivery of solutions. This might be drawing and building on methods such as peer-to-peer research, peer-to-peer delivery.

Social innovation teams in the future could look really different. We might focus less on hiring designers and design graduates, and more on finding people with natural mindsets of curiosity, empathy, a willingness to be in the grey, who have lived experience and are as diverse as the communities we’re looking to support. For social innovation to be of Aotearoa we must see more social innovation capacity among Māori, Iwi, and Pacific people.

Instead of designers and design researchers gathering insights, ideating, developing and testing prototypes, in 2027 we’ll see far more of this being designer supported, but peer led.

There are a range of social innovations incorporating a peer to peer approach in their design, and delivery. Peer to peer action is powerful and the solutions we’re seeing grown in response to child protection, ageing, caring, family violence — are all reflecting that. Some of these are Family by Family and Weavers from the Australian Centre for Social Innovation, The expert patients programme in the UK, and our very own SKIP Waitakere .

 

5. Better, together — systems empathy, and user empathy

Designers cannot go at it alone. Design expertise is needed alongside content knowledge (e.g. ageing, child protection, health, youth development) and experts through lived experience. We’re seeing powerful solutions be developed by teams who work in partnership between content, process (design), systems-change expertise, and lived experience.

In 2027, I doubt we’ll see any agencies, groups or gatherings of people comprised of designers only. Whoever they are, there will certainly be no one going at it alone.

Social change happens when we have empathy and understanding for the lives of people, the systems that contribute to those lives, and practically, how change happens in complex structures.

 

6. It’s not enough to ‘just bring the process’

It’s not enough to say “oh, we just bring the process”, complex challenges need and deserve more than that. Designers are being asked to leave spaces they where they can’t demonstrate deep understanding, and in doing so fail to build trust and credibility with key influencers.

We need user empathy and system empathy, as well as an understanding of how to work with key influencers, and create change within complex structures. Whether the complexity is real, or imagined, we must demonstrate knowledge and care of it to build trust.

Instead of moving from university, into design agencies we might see more designers spending time working in the sectors they’re attempting to influence, developing that empathy, understanding and trust. When we have that trust, we can be provocative in a way that is heard. Effective.

Sometimes we’re frustrated with managers, leaders and frontline workers for not wanting change as much as we do. We think disruption should be desired, while forgetting how deeply painful being disrupted is.

To develop trust people need to know we understand, and empathise with them, not only the people they’re attempting to serve.
 

7. Fighting the tyranny of scale

The challenge of scale is immense. As the Innovation Unit describe, the challenge of being ‘stuck onsite’ where we do a significant work to discover down the track that what has been developed cannot be scaled further. When we’re looking for radical change, when we need it, we need scale, not only the niche. 
 
We’re noticing two main contrasting approaches to scale:

  • start with scale
  • start small, prototype with scale in mind, then attempt scale.

Where we’re seeing success in scale largely but not exclusively, in the former. Starting with it. When we start with scale, we’re deliberate about building infrastructure and strong relationships. Communities of practice, champions, advocates, and sound business models.

Perhaps we’ll battle the tyranny of scale, through setting out to scale, every time. We might do this through still holding the local with tenderness, remembering we cannot simply transplant models that worked in one place, at a moment in time, with a range of unique and non-unique conditions.
 

8. Conditions for social innovation to thrive

Simply. Good investment and bold leadership.

Bold leaders convince others that social innovation is worth investing in, a worthy and reliable investment.

Bold and skilled social innovation leaders support teams to be in ambiguity, while not being swallowed up by it. To act on emerging opportunities, while understanding that more projects doesn’t necessarily create more impact. To have safe, culturally competent and participatory practices, without dogma or jargon that leads to inflexibility and confusion.

Naturally. Obviously. We need good investment. What can make investing in social innovation hard isn’t always that we don’t have the cash, but that to get it we often have to stop spending elsewhere. We have to stop doing things that don’t work, in favour of those that do. Bold leadership enables this too.


What are you dreaming of and hoping for? What are your predictions for social innovation in 2027? We'd love to hear over on Facebook, or Twitter.

MINDSET: LEARNING BY DOING

Ako - mā tini mā mano ka rapa te whai - learning by doing is one of our five mindsets for social innovation. 


A preference for learning by doing is a key mindset for social innovation. A mindset is a way of being and thinking, rather than a tool or method. Mindsets prompt us to think about who we are and how we are while doing the ‘work’, in contrast to the methods we’re using to get us there.

At its core, learning by doing is a preference for action. A preference for doing, making learning, and experimenting - over talking and having meetings. Effective solutions evolve through iterative cycles of trying and reflecting. To do that, we favour prototyping as way to try, evaluate, and discard potential solutions, building on the ideas that work.

Prototyping is a rapid and often inexpensive way of making an idea, or aspect of an idea, tangible. The intention of prototyping is to ‘test’ a solution to see if it has merit within its intended context. Based on that learning, we make changes - adding, adapting, or removing elements as we learn what works. It combats the tendency to spend significant time talking about whether something will work, and instead focuses on safely trying it out with the people who will use, deliver and manage the proposed solution.

Prototyping shouldn’t be confused with piloting. Pilots typically require significant investment, can be difficult to iterate (change) while in progress, and are often based on many untested and unidentified assumptions. After an idea has been prototyped and tested, and appears promising, we can move into piloting with more certainty and less risk.
 

Why is this mindset needed for social innovation?
 

Within the health and social care sectors it’s common to attempt to solve a problem and explore solutions through many meetings, and sessions with a number of advisory groups, working groups and committees. Much of the time, the people experiencing the problem, and who would likely be the users of the solution, are not a part of, or productively part of, those conversations.

It’s also common for project teams to take an idea from conception straight to implementation. When we skip prototyping, we miss testing the assumptions built into the idea (for example, who the audience is, what their needs are, how the solution will be delivered etc.) In essence, we’re just guessing about how and whether it will work. In guessing, comes risk. Risk that we’ve failed to explore the unintended consequences, risks that the idea will not meet its business or social objectives, risk of wasting time and money. Through the prototyping process we reduce our unknowns by testing assumptions, replacing them with knowns.

Prototypes helps show us the future, and talk about the future. The future is incredibly hard to experience in the present (funny that). It’s hard for us to think and talk about the future, or the future we want, in the abstract. Prototypes play a valuable role in bringing to life future-focussed scenarios, services, products, policies and environments - yet to exist. They allow us to provoke thinking, dialogue and design of new realities.

Pop-up youth space in Kaitaia - created over several days in an abandoned shop with re-purposed and donated materials. 

Pop-up youth space in Kaitaia - created over several days in an abandoned shop with re-purposed and donated materials. 

What does learning by doing offer us?
 

  • New evidence. When a new solution is proposed, we commonly hear the critique “there is no evidence to support that”. Generally speaking, innovations have no evidence (yet). Evidence is only generated when a significant research can be undertaken, reviewed and published. Requiring new ideas to be evidence based seldom privileges the feelings, views and experiences of people who a solution is intending to support. Rather, it often privileges the views of professionals within a system who have had the opportunity to participate in formal research studies. Through learning by doing, we begin generating evidence that privileges voices less often heard or considered in traditional planning or governance processes.
     
  • Less waste. There are many products, services, programmes and policies being explored today. While this is exciting, it often leads to significant waste when things don’t work as they were intended to, or at all. The waste doesn’t just happen through financial resources, but also through people’s time, energy, optimism, and our finite environmental resources. If we learn things don’t work early on, we can abandon them early. This creates far less waste than abandoning a full scale pilot, expensive campaign, and/or national roll-out.
     
  • An end to circular conversations. Many of us relate to feeling frustrated sitting through meetings where an aspect of implementation is argued backward and forward. These conversations can be radically shortened (or made extinct all together) when we commit to learning by doing by getting out of the meeting room and into the real world. This requires us to commit to making decisions like - “I’m not sure how that would work, let’s get out and try it, the results will speak for themselves.” In this way of working, we value results from real testing, over opinions and guesses. Talking and reflecting between colleagues is important, but cannot be the only way of making decisions.
     
  • Creating buy-in. Different to many traditional styles of consultation, through creating and testing prototypes, people who will benefit from a solution are engaged as critiquers and makers. Instead of involving people when we’ve decided what we’re going to do, we involve them along the way as key decision makers. Through the prototyping process, we aim to demonstrate back to people how their feedback has been used, creating deeper connections and ownership of the idea or ideas we’re exploring.
     
  • Better decisions. Through prototyping, we test our assumptions. We test assumptions because we want to make better decisions, most likely to have a positive impact on people’s lives. Relying on the ideas and speculation of individuals within an organisations simply doesn’t help us discover powerful ideas reliably or inclusively. If we’re learning by doing, having all the right answers isn’t the objective. We don’t need to assume what to do next as the results of learning by doing will always point us there.


What does it ask of us?


Learning by doing has a close relationship to our mindset being comfortable with failure, as well as our curiosity mindset. If we’ve made something tangible, and are ready to test it, learning by doing asks that we:

  1. Test without attachment, and with an awareness of confirmation bias

  2. Engage our of our senses to learn

  3. Take pause from doing, creating space for honest reflection    

  4. Be willing to adapt or discard ideas that don’t have merit in their intended context

  5. Repeat this recipe, until we’ve tested all our assumptions.   
     

Learning by doing asks that we have the courage to embrace possible failure, step-outside our offices, as well as encouraging others to break free from traditional decision making and governance styles. Ideas that work for people in their contexts, can only be developed, refined and successful if they’re tested with those very same people.

At its core, learning by doing is a preference for action. It is a preference for doing, making learning, and experimenting, over talking. Social innovation and design evolve best through iterative cycles of doing and reflecting.

MINDSET: FAILURE

This article is co-authored by Kelly Ann Cunningham, and innovate change alumni Emma Blomkamp. It is the fourth in a series of articles about our mindsets for social innovation.

 

Being comfortable with failure is a key mindset for social innovation. A mindset is a way of being and thinking, rather than a tool or method. Given the scale and complexity of today’s social challenges, we need different ways of thinking and doing. The personal and professional stigma attached to failure continues to be a significant barrier to innovation.

For many of us ‘failure’ evokes a sinking, somewhat nauseous feeling in the pit of our stomach. For others, failure is simply an unbearable and nightmare-ish feeling, to be avoided at all costs. Let’s be honest, failure is never comfortable and pretending it can be seems a little naive. As social innovators, becoming more comfortable in the discomfort of failure is useful and necessary.

When we talk about being comfortable with failure, we don’t mean deliberately setting out to fail, or repeating past mistakes over and over again. We’re certainly not talking about life-threatening, careless mistakes that cause needless harm to vulnerable people, or slip-ups easily avoided with deeper thought and better planning.

Instead, we’re interested in the failures that can come from trying something new or different; failures that push the boundaries of existing attitudes, assumptions, or common practice. If we want to achieve different outcomes, we have to accept that some of our ideas for getting there won’t work. If we want to attempt transformative change, we have to mentally prepare ourselves for some spectacular failures. Facing the possibility of failure is about being honest, realistic and daring.

We acknowledge that when we set out to create something new, failure may be hiding around the corner, to collide with some, or all, of our solutions or ideas that don’t work in the real world. Instead of playing it safe to avoid failure, we choose to embrace the possibility the idea might fail and move on with trying. We choose to calmy hold onto two possible realities at any one moment: it may, or may not work.
 

Accepting failure doesn’t mean abandoning success. Getting comfortable with failure doesn’t mean having a readymade excuse for everything we mess up. Reflecting on failure need not mean wallowing in self-doubt, eternally labelling ourselves ‘a failure’; pessimism; or criticism. Rather, embracing failure allows us to pause, notice, reflect and learn, and then continue striving for better outcomes.
 

The failure of an idea need not diminish our self-worth. Becoming comfortable with the possible failure of ideas and solutions requires us to detach ourselves; our ego; emotions; and sense of personal worth from our ideas. It requires us to re-define “I failed”, to “the idea/concept/model failed”. While we may have helped to bring an idea to life, when ideas greet the world they take on a life of their own.

Sometimes we realise a whole project, service or model is based on a flawed assumption. Other times, we apply an idea that worked many times before, but this time it doesn’t. Instead of viewing these things as personal or professional failings, we see them as part of the social innovation process, necessary in getting closer to a solution that improves people’s well-being.  
 

Dispelling the illusion of eureka moments. We’re often told that success and brilliant ideas come to talented, creative people who work hard. We’re told legends of lone geniuses happening across brilliant ideas through a combination of alchemy, born-talent, and creativity (often happening in garages, apparently). These illusions seldom true, and unhelpful to perpetuate. Instead, we need to realise that many ‘lightbulb moments’ arrive after many failed experiments.   
 

Holding on lightly, not tightly. Many of us have been encouraged to stand up for and hold dearly to our own ideas, and fight for what we believe in. Holding tightly to our ideas doesn’t serve us well in social innovation. By contrast, we need to hold our ideas lightly, allowing them to see and know the world we intend them to live in, while also allowing them to evolve, change, iterate and maybe even get dropped. If we are not willing to do this, we often end up implementing solutions that fail due to a lack of testing. Ironic, isn’t it, that we hold them tightly to avoid failure, and they still meet failure despite our best efforts?
 

Small, not epic failings. Not all failure is created equal, different failings have different implications, and different risks. A failed workshop activity has significantly less impact than a failed national initiative. Part of the social innovation process is prototyping early and often prior to implementation. These vital low-cost experiments allow us to test whether something will work. Naturally, throwing out a paper prototype is much easier than discarding a workforce, purpose-built facility, or retracting a bold public promise. The idea of testing early, and often, allows us to remove our assumptions, and take small considered risks before we begin implementation. Small, safer failings.
 

Good intentions aren’t enough. While we can say ‘we should all be comfortable with failing’, the reality is many of us aren’t supported, encouraged, or even allowed to fail. It’s important teams and organisations embrace the possibility of failure as a core part of the social innovation process. If we’re not allowed to fail, we’re often forced to implement things not fit for purpose, that don’t quite work, and eventually wind up wasting hundred, thousands, or millions of dollars. Further, a culture where failure isn’t allowed leads to hiding the truth, anxiety, and missed learning for everyone.   

Vulnerability, resilience and persistence. People with these qualities are able to fail and try again. They don’t avoid failure, hide it, or pretend it never happened. Instead, they sit in the discomfort until they see what went wrong, why it didn’t work as planned, and what they could do differently next time. Then they get up and try again. They’re willing to invite others into the process to assess the failure, and to recognise we all need each other far more than we’re willing to admit.
 

So, how do I get comfortable with failure?

It can take time to build failure muscles and the resilience to feel comfortable in the inevitable discomfort of failure. Not everyone is ready to talk openly about their own failings, or is skilled enough to stand back and do an honest appraisal. Many workplaces and sectors don’t have a culture that facilitates honest reflection without limiting one's career prospects in the process.

A tight-knit Fail Club can be a great way to develop the resilience and reflective capabilities we need to fail well, in a safe space. Emma Blomkamp, who worked as a part of the innovate change team for three years, was part of a fail club. Her learning, together the wisdom of her club colleagues, were super valuable for our failure muscle development. We value carving out time as a team to reflect on failure.

Naturally, we don’t set out to fail, or intentionally set ourselves up for failure. Instead, we acknowledge failure may be hiding out around the corner. We don’t run away from it, or play it safe to avoid failure. Instead, we choose to embrace the possibility of failure and move on. Onwards and upwards, ever learning.

 

OUR THINKING: FOUR YEARS, FOUR INSIGHTS

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We've done, seen and learned a lot in the past four years, innovate change founder, Simon Harger-Forde, reflects on some key insights he's learned along the way.

innovate change launched at the beginning of 2012, and last week we marked four years by hosting a range of events including birthday parties in Wellington and Auckland.  We brought Carolyn Curtis, Chief Executive of The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI) over to help us celebrate and have some important conversations about child protection, youth development, whānau well-being and positive ageing. TACSI have been enabling and living social innovation for the past seven years and we’re really pleased to be building a closer partnership. 

Jumping back to 2012; after 15 years in health and social care, I decided to take the plunge and establish innovate change. This decision was based on my experience that social innovation was the most powerful way to generate new solutions and scale existing ways of working that led to real and lasting change for people.

We’ve done, seen and learned a lot in four years.  Here’s some of our observations. 

1.  My, how you’ve grown!

When we started, most of my conversations started with what social innovation was. This has certainly changed. The language of co-design, design for innovation, and social innovation has become much more common in the health and social care sectors. With that language evolution has come more initiatives, networks and organisations – something of a social innovation ecosystem is forming. We have networks of social entrepreneurs developing too; Government’s Auckland Co-Design Lab; the Design for Social Innovation network; district health board innovation units like Ko Awatea and the Design for Health and Wellbeing Lab; local government social innovation projects and units; social innovation policy and funding projects within the Ministry of Social Development, The Treasury, and other government agencies. The Ākina Foundation has become the clear leader in social enterprise development; the Inspiring Stories Trust is leading initiatives to enable youth social entrepreneurship; and a number of universities are considering post-graduate learning and research programmes in social innovation.  

All of this in just four years. We’re learning that for social innovation to thrive we need multiple players. We need people to use and do social innovation; teach, support and educate about social innovation; create interest and passion with young people; create organisational forms that enable innovation (like social enterprises); and connect people interested in innovation. We feel immensely proud to be a part of this exciting and evolving movement, and humbled that so many of the organisations above were able to make time to help us celebrate our milestone. Thank you (admittedly it might have been the lure of cake). 


2. Now you’re cookin’ 

Some organisations have come a long way in developing an environment where social innovation can thrive. We’ve noticed certain ‘ingredients’ or conditions over the last four years that are more likely to make an organisation ‘innovation-ready’ – here’s three:

Time – As important as egg whites in a pav. The majority of the issues we’ve worked on over the past four years reflect the fundamental challenges faced by the organisations we work with. These issues are complex, and so when the people responsible for the issue, including senior people, are engaged in the challenge, we always see better results. Commencing a social innovation process is not like contracting out a project or review. We need to work closely alongside the people working on an issue, and the people affected by it. It may be more time intensive, but that time spent always pays off. 

Be open to things being different – Someone was the first person to put carrots in a cake. Organisations that can detach from the way a service, programme or policy operates are more likely to innovate. Not being able to let go of the status quo acts as a barrier to hearing users. Organisations where social innovation thrives appear to have a heightened interest in creating more value for the people intended to benefit from a service, programme or policy. There are sometimes good reasons for things to stay the same, but embarking on a social innovation process will likely lead to things being different – so it’s vital change is seen as a viable option. At our Child Protection Roundtable on 4 April in Wellington, Kirsten Smith, Manager at Evolve told a story about a young woman who was not listened to when she said she did not want to be supported by her family. Professionals thought it was best she stayed close to her family. Kirsten provoked; “Sometimes we need to be prepared to let go of the way we think things should be.”

Identify and test assumptions Any issue or possible solution is full of assumptions. Assumptions can be useful, but it’s important to understand when we are basing decisions on assumptions. We have worked with organisations who identify and test assumptions really well and we think it’s as essential to innovation as coconut is to lamingtons. 
 

3.  Social innovation isn’t risky (no, really)

Social innovation has a bit of a reputation for being risky. I get where this comes from, and in fact, until recently when I had the chance to really dive into this with Carolyn Curtis and others at one of our birthday events, I agreed with it. It can feel risky to proceed when we don’t know what the outcome of a process will be; to change the way services work; to engage with people when we don’t have a solution ready to consult on. I’ve spent quite a lot of time over the last four years talking with organisations about the need to take these types of risks if we are to innovate. What I have recently come to see more clearly is that while social innovation is an inherently radical practice, it’s not an inherently risky one. This is because it enables risk in safe ways, and so mitigates real risk, and this is one of the reasons it’s as powerful as it is. By real risk I mean the converse of social innovation - not engaging communities; being fixed on specific outputs; and not changing services, programmes and policy to better meet the needs of people.
 

4.  Social innovation is more than post-its

The growth of social innovation in Aotearoa has led to design and innovation methods being used more widely. That’s good right? Well, not always. Leaders in health and social care are being asked to participate in, sponsor, and fund social innovation processes more now than ever before. Some are having experiences dominated by coloured post-its and fun idea generation workshops – and they’re, quite rightly, becoming critical that it’s too simplistic for the complex issues they are responsible for.

We need to be careful not to sell social innovation short by suggesting it’s simply workshops and post-its. These methods do have real value, and we take facilitation and workshop design very seriously. But it’s the process that takes place before and after those sessions that allows those tools to be effective and it’s important we don’t lose sight of that.

Issues like bullying, parenting, positive ageing, youth health, self-management of diabetes, and ever-increasing emergency department demand cannot be solved by a few workshops, and it’s up to us and other social innovation practitioners to ensure social innovation fulfils its potential to have a real positive impact on the lives of people.

Simon Harger-Forde, Director at innovate change

April 2016

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MINDSET: CURIOSITY

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'Whaowhia te kete mātauranga, curiosity' is one of our five mindsets for social innovation. 


Image source

We think curiosity - the fierce, unwavering desire to know more - is an important part of social innovation. It is a mindset - a way of being and thinking - rather than a tool or method. It’s the opposite of normality, status-quo, dogma, or a fixed belief that what we know to be true is unwavering and unchanged. It can sometimes feel different to expertise, where we depend on our existing expert knowledge and skills instead of questioning, wondering and asking more.

To be clear, we’re not talking about the kind of curiosity that sees what would happen if we put a knife in the power socket, stared relentlessly at the sun, or attempted to fly off a cliff on an old beach umbrella. That type of curiosity most definitely killed the cat. And killing the cat is not the goal of social innovation.

It is common for us to use our knowledge and experience to avoid curiosity - ‘I know about this issue and these people, I’ve done this work for years’. However, in order to change the policies, programmes and services we design and deliver, we need to stay ever curious, challenge our current knowledge and thinking, and assume we always need to ask more questions. In this way, we stay curious about the world, the views and need of others, and about ourselves; and we remain willing to open our ears, minds and hearts in an effort to always learn more. Creativity and innovation, vital to social innovation, are born out of curiosity.
 

What does curiosity ask of us?
 

Curiosity asks us to be willing to:  

  1. Be changed

  2. Be here now

  3. Question and listen intently

  4. See and hear it it all

  5. Slow cook in uncertainty

  6. Dig deeper

  7. Redefine our understanding of ‘expert’.
     

1. Be changed

Normality and the status quo are the arch-enemies of social innovation. If we’re to harness curiosity, we have to be open to being changed by what we see, hear, feel and experience - our values, assumptions, beliefs, attitudes or views. Curiosity cannot work if we’re closed, dogmatic or holding tightly to the need to know.

When we are willing to be disturbed by newness rather than clinging to our certainty, when we are willing to truly listen to someone who sees the world differently, then wonderful things happen. We learn that we don’t have to agree with each other in order to explore together.
Margaret Wheatley, Willing to be Disturbed

 

2. Be here now

Curiosity recognises we live in a world that is constantly changing. An exciting and novel product or service yesterday may be a basic expectation today and altogether irrelevant tomorrow. Being here now requires us to suspend what we’ve learned and understand in order to entertain the possibility those things aren’t true anymore. Curiosity relieves the burden of the past and gifts us fresh senses.
 

3. Question and listen intently   

The easiest way to work with our curiosity is to continuously practice asking open questions and listening deeply to the responses. We love this explanation of asking open, deep questions. We used the following curiosity questions to explore home and wellbeing during our event that explored this mindset: 

"If 'home' was a cake, what would the ingredients be?" 
"Where does 'home' exist for you? One place ? Multiple?" 
"If you could have any animal's 'home', which would you have? Why?" 

"What does 'wellbeing' look like for you?"

"If an alien judged your 'wellbeing' what would they think?" 
"What common 'wellbeing' practices do you think are rubbish? Why?" 


To really listen, curiosity requires us to remain an empty vessel: removing assumptions and preconceptions that prevent us from learning more.

Curiosity is damn courageous. It requires that we ask hard questions, listen to difficult answers, and risk looking stupid or losing friends by asking questions that need to be asked. Questions that we we are often afraid of asking.

If we don’t listen, things can stay as they are and we won’t have to expend any energy. But most of us do see things in our life or in the world that we would like to be different. If that’s true, we have to listen more, not less.
Margaret Wheatley, Willing to be Disturbed


4. See and hear it it all

When designing policies, services or products we often seek feedback after we’ve already made one or many decision(s). This limits what we’re able to see as we naturally ignore feedback that doesn’t fit with the plan or hypothesis we’ve already developed. We must be willing to start with curiosity instead of certainty and see what we don’t like, what doesn’t immediately appear to make sense or what we’d hoped not to see.

What are you not seeing? What are you unwilling to see?
 

5. Slow cook in uncertainty

Curiosity often requires us to stay in the ‘not knowing place’, waiting patiently for something to become clearer as we gather more and more insight from people and the world around us. Richness emerges as we slow cook in not knowing, resisting jumping to conclusions prematurely.

Curiosity and our mindset Being in the Grey go hand in hand.
 

6.  Dig deeper

With the prevalence of buzzwords in our customer feedback culture like ‘user friendly’, ‘efficient’, ‘culturally relevant’ or ‘personal’ we can become deaf, we’ve heard it all before, right?

I’m curious, but I don’t know yet what I’m curious about. My own expectations are muted, blunted, and distributed.
Steve Portigal, Interviewing Users

Disregarding something because we feel we’ve heard it before is a surefire way to suppress our curiosity. We have to dig deeper than that, to be curious about what something like ‘personal’ really means to someone. It can mean wildly different and often surprising things to people if we take the time to dig deep by asking “why?”  
 

7. Redefine our understanding of ‘expert’

Finally, curiosity asks that we redefine our understanding of what ‘expert’ means for us or our expectations of others. In an increasingly complex world, we cannot and should not expect ourselves or others to have all the answers. People and culture are constantly in flux. What if we celebrated and encourage experts who bring curiosity, in all its forms, to their practice?

Masters are not experts because they take a subject to its conceptual end. They’re masters because they realize that there isn’t one. - Sarah Lewis, Embrace the Near Win

Are you willing to look at the world and your work with fresh eyes? What might you see if you gave up the need to be ‘right’ or the ‘expert’?

 

Summary

Above all, curiosity asks us to stay curious. Curious about the world, about others and their views, and about ourselves. It asks we enter into a love affair with it and stay interested - resisting the temptation to run off with the status quo, normality, or ‘the way things have always been’.