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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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