Unusual Suspects Festival
Last week I was lucky enough to attend some of the events of the ‘Unusual Suspects’ festival in London, which was co-hosted by Social Innovation Exchange, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and Collaborate. The festival spanned over four days and focussed on the combination of social innovation and collaboration, highlighting ‘unlikely connections for social change’. In keeping with this spirit, the festival featured 28 different events, run by 35 different partner organisations and involving some 1500 attendees.
I was able to attend three different events, which spoke to the wide breadth of subjects covered by the festival and covered collaboration between citizens, the third sector, and the public sector. The first was a launch event at Nesta to mark the publication of their report, ‘Making Sense of the UK Collaborative Economy’. This was a perfect event to introduce the festival, as the collaborative economy is a fitting example of the combination of social innovation and collaboration. According to the Nesta definition, it is an umbrella term to refer to the many groups today which use internet technologies to connect distributed groups of people, in order to make better use of goods, skills and other useful things.
Kathleen Stokes from Nesta presented the headline findings of their research, which included the key statistic that 25% of UK adults had used internet technologies to share assets/resources over the last year. Although this is a significant number, Kathleen noted the sector is still nascent, with 64% of organisations surveyed founded since 2010. Despite this, they invariably claim ambitious goals in terms of their planned impact on society. Organisations represented during the event’s discussion included a home swapping website (LoveHomeSwap), a service which allows people to freely connect and share with their neighbours online (Streetbank), and a website which allows people to park in other people’s driveways (JustPark). Just from these few examples, one can see how collaborative economy organisations are seeking to free up excess capacity within the economy while making it easier for people to make new social connections and generate extra income.
Discussion focussed on the ways in which UK regulation has not yet caught up with the sector, particularly around tax and insurance, and the more significant questions raised regarding when a private person becomes a business in the eyes of the law. From the perspective of social innovation, the collaborative economy raises questions too about the extent to which value accrues to society rather than individuals. While Streetbank provides a free service and explicitly aims to foster new social connections, this is not the case for LoveHomeSwap or JustPark, which operate more similarly to a business and allow users to make money from renting out their homes or driveways. Nevertheless, in the case of JustPark, society also benefits from the reduction in traffic fumes generated when a driver does not have to search for a space. I also wondered whether on a systemic level the collaborative economy might in time trigger a shift of power away from businesses and instead to individuals, which could have all sorts of social consequences.
Going back to the Unusual Suspects theme of collaboration, one striking aspect of the discussion at Nesta was the broad agreement that the sector tends to be self-regulating and that disputes between buyers and sellers are rare. Websites frequently feature a rating system so that users can openly report back on their experience, and as this is public it means that there is an incentive for everybody to keep to the rules and play fair. I found this to be an interesting point to reflect back on during the second festival event that I attended, ‘How do we collaborate to create an ecosystem that supports innovation?’ This was hosted by Social Impact Generation Canada in advance of the launch of their report on this subject, and featured a panel discussion involving many experts in social innovation within social enterprise and the third sector. The panel universally agreed that collaboration was both crucial to successful social innovation yet also difficult to successfully pull off. In particular, it was noted that funding is often structured so as to discourage collaboration and conversely to encourage third sector organisations to compete for the resources that are available. Moreover, the time is often not available for different sectors to interact in meaningful ways, and even when collaboration is written into a project, sufficient time is still rarely allowed for partners to get to know each other and have full and frank discussions when differences arise.
Reflecting on the earlier Collaborative Economy event, I wondered whether there might be scope to change the way that collaboration within the third sector occurs so that there is more potential for feedback, and a moderated space to discuss difficulties. However, it is clear that collaborating to deliver a social project is entirely different from two people who collaborate to share a parking space. And yet, what is exciting about the collaborative economy is the change that may accrue on a systemic level when individuals get together to free up excess capacity within the economy. While third sector organisations often bemoan a lack of funding and resource within the sector to create systemic change, the collaborative economy is able to tap into latent capacity – in the form of parking spaces and home swaps, but also in the form of time, passion and commitment.
The final event I went to was hosted by the Urbact programme, the European exchange and learning programme promoting sustainable urban development. In particular, the event was focussed on Urbact networks which involve food, such as the ‘diet for a clean planet’ network and another covering ‘sustainable food in urban communities’. As part of these projects, cities are connected so that they can learn from each other’s best practice and ensure access to high quality, locally produced and sustainable food for their citizens. Several cities presented on the work that they are already doing in this area, ranging from re-thinking school meals to encouraging local farmers’ markets, and constantly sharing their experiences with other cities in the network. This event looking at the role of the public sector was a great event to finish on, following on from the first two events which had considered the role that citizens and the third sector could play in collaborating to produce social innovation. While third sector organisations often work to solve similar challenges, cities are distinct in that they are seeking to solve similar challenges but necessarily in very different contexts to each other, and for this reason they seem ideal candidates for collaboration rather than competition. It is important that governmental funding structures recognise the importance of investing in policies and structures (like the Urbact network) which can facilitate this.
To conclude, the Unusual Suspects festival certainly provided me with plenty of food for thought, and I found that there were more connections between the three events I attended than might have been expected. Due to demographic and lifestyle changes, understanding urban environments is becoming increasingly important in solving social challenges, and cities with their dense populations are particularly suited to the work of organisations operating within the collaborative economy. I am looking forward to the publication of Social Impact Generation Canada’s report on building an ecosystem that supports social innovation, as it is clear that there is plenty of work for all of us to do together to create a society where the third sector, individuals and the state are able to foster and support innovation when it arises.