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Going Global: Social Innovation

Social innovation is booming, but not many organisations take it seriously – yet. What's needed is a way to bring it all together.

by Geoff Mulgan

Waste is a pressing problem: the need to reduce it led to the formation of Freecycle

Waste is a pressing problem: the need to reduce it led to the formation of Freecycle. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

How should you go about finding new answers to the challenge of an aging population, unemployment, mental illness or cutting carbon emissions? Social innovation has started showing up everywhere, with EU programmes, networks, funds and even an office in the White House. But how should it best be done? Once you leave the rhetoric and the sometimes self-serving case studies behind, what actually works in achieving change?

All over the world, social innovation is tackling some of the most pressing problems facing society today – from fair trade, distance learning, hospices, urban farming and waste reduction to restorative justice and zero-carbon housing. But most of these are growing despite, not because of, help from governments. One example, which grew out of the need to reduce waste and free landfills, is Freecycle. Freecycle groups match people who have things they want to get rid of with people who can use them. It now has 5 million members in 85 communities worldwide. Another example of a creative use of the internet is Pledgebank, an online platform that helps people come together to take collective action. One person signs a pledge to do a certain thing if a number of other people agree to take the same action, for example, "I will start recycling if 100 people in my town do the same". The creator of the pledge then publicises their pledge and encourages people to sign up. Pledgebank is now global, with users in 60 countries. And there are many more examples from all over the world, ranging from Forum Theatre in Brazil, complaints choirs in Finland and Pratham's grassroots education in India to mobile banking in Africa, social currencies in Japan and innovation labs within the government in Denmark.

At one level, social innovation is an extraordinarily creative field – and one that is having a global impact. But it's also a field that is only just taking shape and moving beyond anecdotes. There are thousands of experts in business, medical and technological innovation, but only a few scattered organisations are beginning to take social innovation seriously. The Open Book of Social Innovation and its website will aim to bring together the hundreds of methods in use around the world, and provide an evolving resource for practitioners, with pointers to what works best, whether in finance, design or scaling up.

The Open Book of Social Innovation launches on 8 March and is available from the Young Foundation.

This piece originally appeared on The Guardian

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Well, it's my first time here an I'm jumping right in. The question "What really works in achieving change" is so important and I'd like to respond from a sector you might not expect - the entertainment industry. Perhaps it's not the answer you are searching for, but it's working for us. Here's the general idea:

I think social innovators spend a lot of time trying to motivate people to do the right thing by showing them how their actions are destroying our planet. It's effective and the advertising industry uses it all the time. It's basically a scare tactic (you're too fat, too old, buy our car, our cream, our hair color, etc...)

Unfortunately, people are are numbing out to the problems and scare-tactics (as well intentioned as they might be). People just can't take much more doom & gloom. There are only so many times you can be told you are doing everything wrong or that you should be doing it better before everyone just starts shutting down - no matter how innovative the solution might be.

So here's what we did (unwittingly at first): We created a film that caused people to fall so deeply in love with nature that they said they simply couldn't ever do anything to hurt it again. We connected them on a deeply emotional level to the very thing that gives them life in a way that made them feel great about themselves and our world. We didn't know we had done this at first, but these were the responses we got. People wrote in to say the film had given them a reason to live. Others were weeping.

We really had no idea that people would be moved so profoundly. We just wanted to make a film that honored and celebrated the natural world. So the 'aha' moment for me and something I hope is helpful in answering your question, is that people are deeply inspired in long-term ways when they feel good. FEEL good... about our world, about themselves, about the future....

Thanks for posting the question. I hope the social innovators of our world will incorporate more 'feel good' aspects into their efforts to affect change and I look forward to hearing other responses.

Posted by: Marlowe Brown on 3 Mar 10

I just wanted to say that the same day this post appeared, the online social network game EVOKE launched. "The goal of the game and the network is to help empower young people all over the world, and especially young people in Africa, to come up with creative solutions to our most urgent social problems."

Instead of just talking about issues and creating theoretical solutions, the game hopes to empower young people to constantly think of small, concrete tactics to tackle big problems. With thousands of users already accepted to the first 10-week course of play, EVOKE is a very interesting approach to building the power of social innovation.

Posted by: Jesse State on 4 Mar 10

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