Social Innovation Exchange at NESTA

Conferences that challenge and refine your principles and purpose are rare. The SIX (Social Innovation Exchange) conference at NESTA’s shiny new space was humbling. The scale of challenges some of the speakers were grappling with were intractable, inspiring, intimidating. SIX have put together some posters summarising the discussions, insights and resolutions of purpose over the few days.

“Always, always ask: How does what we do get us to where we need to get to?”
- Tarik Yousef, Brookings Doha Centre

A common theme was resisting the gravity of despair while confronting the realities of the world. Again, the scope of challenge that individuals and organisations represented meant that considerations deemed simply too large to think about for many projects I have worked on in the past, were directly influencing and influenced by the efforts of the people in the room.

Tarik Yousef of the Brookings Doha Centre spoke of how his work had shifted from tackling youth employment in the middle east to de-radicalisation and conflict in the wake of the Arab Spring. He did not shy away from the ‘fault lines’ he saw as failed states, civic strife, inequality, racism and entire regions falling into despair.

His talk offered advice on focusing efforts on providing platforms for communities to own and grow sustainable change, and getting funding down to micro-ventures, who have the most impact. Both of these priorities have been at the core of ShareLab (Arizona) and EveryoneIn (Oregon), two projects I have been proud to be a part of. His notes on the ‘Poverty Premium’ rang true with my colleague Aviv Katz’s research some years ago on ‘just coping’ families accessing financial resources and loans, that ‘money costs more when you have less of it’.

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“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
- Ndidi Nwuneli, LEAP Africa

Ndidi’s reference of a traditional expression spoke to her work in the field of social enterprises, and their strength in being well networked. But she and others at the conference also spoke of socio-economic inequality as the key battleground of our time, and the room full of inspiring individuals did not fail to deliver on inspiring examples of ‘going together’.

Ibon Zugasti of Mondragon described the purpose and principles of the world’s biggest co-operative. With 75000 employees and 50 years’ history, he believes they have developed a model for future-proofing cities in the face of the rapidly changing nature of work and the wholesale automation of millions of jobs. Key to this is knowledge management and establishing the parameters of sustainable business operations with social considerations and objectives, like not automating everyone out of existence and ringing the bell for new economic models that can cope with fast technological shifts.

One of the most inspiring case studies about progressing together came from Carolyn Curtis of TACSI. The inequality of skyrocketing property values for the ‘haves’ and the homelessness and inaccessibility of housing for the ‘have nots’ and perpetual renters have given rise to a new program. A coalition of socially-minded landlords is taking it upon themselves to shift away from the pure profit to be had from property owning, renting and flipping. Some of that growth is set aside to provide truly affordable homes.

How could similar coalitions in cities such as Sydney, Vancouver, San Francisco, London and New York be incentivised to adopt such systems wothout the need for a battle for policy? In our era of high / late capitalism when labour no longer makes capital, but capital itself does for the investor class who can afford shares and multiple properties, how can we shift policy and incentive to avoid a neo-feudalism?

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Other Highlights

Alice Evans of Lankelly-Chase Foundation describing their broader program of work including the Innovation Unit’s Hard Edges program, and – to gasps around the room – of their principles of measuring and investing by feel and logic and common sense as much as what current models and metrics may tell them or contradict.

Uffe Elbaek’s transition from Kaospilot to founding the Alternative Party and becoming a member of parliament in Denmark. And also being the only politician in office I’ve ever heard saying “You need humour because Politics. Is. Fucked. Up.” Check out his Alternative website for actions and ideas that operate within and outside current political frameworks.

Mark Moore of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government asking ‘Who is going to pay for the social change?’ He described how we spend too much focus on the supply side – identifying lists of problems to solve, groups with needs – but not near enough on the demand side – who will be motivated to pay for that change?

The individual? – Likely poor and oppressed.
The third sector? – Likely too tight on funds to innovate.
The government? – Will they prioritise it?
The private sector? – Why should they care?

Charlie Leadbeater’s summary postulated that social innovation in these times when our values are threatened is in fact a conservation movement. And to that end, how could conservative voices be harnessed as the most potent ones of our cause? He cited Angela Merkel’s new position as the beacon of hope for the free world, and Pope Francis as an outspoken critic of capitalism.