How can we set-up innovation projects to learn about and address societal challenges?
This is the question that a new publication called Deepening, Broadening and Scaling Up: A Framework for Steering Transition Experiments tries to answer. The two authors, from the Knowledge Centre for Sustainable System Innovations and Transitions (KCT) in the Netherlands, start with the same premise we do: social innovation should enable social change. But, they’ve got a different frame: sustainable development versus the good life. So while their projects are also organised around big social transitions–like energy and ageing–they focus on how systems can respond to needs, rather than on how to enable people to live the kinds of lives they value.
They offer an example from the Dutch Transition Program in Care. In their words, “The starting point of this experiment is the societal challenge of youth with complex social problems that cannot be solved by existing care institutions. The learning goals of this experiment were phrased in terms of desired changes in structure (e.g. changing power structures between professionals and youth), culture (e.g. changing organizational culture and meeting youth culture) and practices (e.g. an integrated and outreaching approach).”
We’d advocate setting a different project brief: one that defines success in terms of young peoples’ behavior and outcomes, not institutional behavior and outcomes. Changing structures, cultures and practices is vitally important. But it’s a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. Improving how institutions work rather than transforming who and what institutions work for has been the modus operandi of most prior public service reform. And it’s never been terribly successful. The New Public Management movement of the 1980s changed structures, culture and practice, only to find these things came at a hefty cost: on-the-ground outcomes.
What makes KCT’s work very different is the emphasis on real-time learning and active experimentation. They nicely reclaim the concept of ‘experimentation’ from the natural sciences, where the word evokes images of white lab coats and sterile environments. They use another neat science analogy–evolution–to argue the importance of variation and selection. In other words, the only way we’ll adapt to new transitions is by trying out enough different stuff to select what works. I think they are right. Of course it raises a few other big questions: Who decides what works? Based on what criteria? One of the reasons social transitions are so complex is the range of people with a stake in the problem. In our experience, a good social innovation experiment will focus on the people who have a real stake in the solution, and build backwards from there.