Experimental spaces for social innovation

17.12.2012 Blog

In 2012, the Rockefeller Foundation commissioned research looking at some of the methodologies that are leading to social innovations around the world, with a particular focus on Africa and Asia. Alongside methods such as innovation competitions and serious gaming, the What Works? project led by the Young Foundation identified the growth of labs, hubs and other spaces for social innovation as an emerging trend. To explore this topic further, last Friday Social Innovation Exchange (SIX) hosted a telepresence session for 48 participants across 11 cities to discuss their perspectives on experimental spaces for social innovation.

Participants were able to share a huge diversity of experiences and challenges during the two hour exchange. A few emerging themes and highlights included:

Challenges for organisations acting as incubators for multiple organisations

Eli Malinsky of Social Innovation Generation (SiG) in New York noted the difficulties inherent in supporting a breadth of organisations with very different missions. While developing a hub space for different types of organisations has advantages (there are lots of opportunities for cross-fertlisation, for example) it can be hard to create the differentiated types of support needed. Eli also suggested that the current focus on incubating social ventures in hubs and labs could mean we miss the importance of policy and research work for creating social change.

Matt Klein from the Blue Ridge Foundation, a social innovation incubator in New York, argued that a key tension for incubators is how to give room for experimentation while also focusing on impact. Without this focus, there is a danger that incubators support innovation for innovation’s sake, without actually making a difference to social issues. Anne Sørensen of Social+ Copenhagen also noted that labs and experimentation as an approach are less frequently used to address social issues involving marginalised groups such as the homeless or disabled. Whether certain social issues are more applicable to solutions developed by labs and incubators than others remains an open question. 

The size and nature of spaces for innovation

Yetunde Aina from the Jadeas Trust in Lagos emphasised the importance of physical rather than virtual spaces as places for social innovation. She noted that co-creation hubs in Lagos have been successful at bringing people together to address specific problems over limited time periods. Inderpaul Johar from the Hub Westminster shared that the Hub network is now focusing less on specific spaces and more on the ecosystem of a whole city. He also noted that if we are really interested in using hubs as cultural spaces, then our timelines for thinking about success need to be much longer. Cameron Charleboix from Canada Lands highlighted that those involved in hubs need to tap into work being done around innovation districts in various cities, and asked: how can social innovators connect to this activity? 

Combining bottom up approaches with more opportunities for learning from other hubs

Jessica Colaco from iHub Nairobi shared early findings from recent research she is leading looking at different innovation hubs across Africa. She found that the model for these hubs is very different in each case. A bottom up approach to developing a hub which responds to what the particular community needs is much more likely to be successful than trying to apply a standardised model. For example, iHub Nairobi came out of the experience of observing a burgeoning tech community already meeting around coffee shops in the city. That said, she noted that there are currently poor information flows between African and European hubs. For example, she is aware that there is much activity around Living Labs in Europe, but little knowledge sharing about what has worked well here.

The challenge of creating spaces for experimentation in the public sector

Andrea Coleman from the Office of Innovation at the New York Department of Education highlighted the difficulties of building spaces for innovation within bureaucratic systems. Although the accepted wisdom in the USA has been that public sector innovation involves getting government out of the way, she believes that seeding innovation within government systems themselves is essential. Matt Klein suggested that since it is hard for public sector organisations to fail, it might be most useful for governments to focus on the relationships they can develop with affiliate innovation organisations, that have more room for failure.

The importance of hubs as vehicles for participation and engagement

Will Norman from the Young Foundation shared examples from the What Works research of innovation hubs that were owned and driven by communities. RLABS, located in the Cape Flats, a deprived region of Cape Town, is a space people can come to develop solutions and experiment with new ideas within a community context. It has produced a number of innovative projects such as a mobile counselling project for those affected by HIV, developed by ‘unlikely innovators’ in the community. However, this kind of working can still be challenging in a developing world context. Lewis Temple from International Development Enterprises (iDE) noted that the paradigm of aid and ‘giveaways’ still dominates in the developing world, which can make it hard to invest time and money in human centred design approaches. 

The relationship between incubation and traditional research environments

Christian Busch from LSE's Innovation and Co-creation lab acknowledged knowledge dissemination and making academic research useful as a major challenge. For example, how can you turn academic knowledge of enterprise into practical steps that all social entrepreneurs (not just privileged Western ones) can access and use? Christian pointed to the potential of mobile technology for this kind of dissemination.

Overall, the two hour discussion gave a great snapshot of the diversity of activity going on worldwide around spaces for social innovation, as well as the potential for ongoing collaboration and shared learning. Many thanks to all the participants, SIX for hosting and in particular Louise Pulford for chairing the session.