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By Invitation
The Imperative of Social Innovation
PMI Risk management Professional
By Alexei Levene
Answers to many of our social problems lie in imaginative thinking and collective action. Alexei Levene, managing trustee, Innovation experience (iX), talks about what social groups and individuals can do without relying too much on the government

Wherever you travel in the world and speak with locals, you are likely to hear about similar social problems. You commonly hear complaints about rising energy and petrol costs, ineffective management of waste, an education system that is highly competitive and does not equip youth with the tools for success, lack of jobs, lack of civic consciousness, and so on. The list is long and the challenges often follow a similar pattern that you are familiar with.

Traditionally, many countries have looked to their politicians for solutions with the belief that societal development must be within the political sphere. In many cases, this is valid. Governments of countries such Answers to many of our social problems lie in imaginative thinking and collective action. Alexei Levene, managing trustee, Innovation experience (iX), talks about what social groups and individuals can do without relying too much on the government as Estonia, Singapore, Switzerland, and Ireland have been highly effective at creating conditions for societal, and to a degree, environmental benefit. What these nations share, aside from being compact, is that they understand that the best way to develop conditions for societal development is not to act as a sole agent but to rather engage entrepreneurs, create conditions for a thriving economy, and encourage individuals and communities to adopt progressive behaviors. The government in this scenario has a vision and creates conditions for engaging stakeholders in seeing this vision through. The vision articulates clear benefits to citizens and businesses. They also establish a clear linkage with factors such as the promotion of inward investment, premium tourism, and a higher quality of life.

But in the world today, should we rely on governments alone to solve our social challenges? Solving challenges suggests bringing us closer to an unnamed status quo, but what about pioneering new ideas that raise the bar even higher? Even moderately effective governments set out incremental goals that often lack real vision and represent more of an ad hoc solution. The UK, which has signed up to the Kyoto Protocol, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change that puts an obligation on industrialized countries to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases, has set so-called “ambitious” targets of increasing renewable energy usage by around 30 percent by 2020. Some say that this is too lofty a goal as wind and solar power are intermittent and unreliable, and they cost too much. The myths surrounding renewable energy are many and whilst there is some truth to these, we must separate fact from fiction. The U.S. Department of Energy reported in 2011 that the whole of USA could be powered by solar energy by using only 17 sq km of land in each state. A recent report by Boston Consulting placed solar PV as being on cost parity with black coal. This does not take into account the environmental cost of black coal.

So while politicians offer incremental solutions at best and inaction or poor decisions at worst, what is the role of social innovation in developing our planet and societies? Social innovation or new ideas that help and do not harm begins with an examination of the very essence of a social challenge. In the example of the UK energy strategy, a standard approach says to incrementally introduce renewable energy into the mix. This strategy retains certain entrenched assumptions and conveniently ignores some weighty considerations. Do we really need a grid? What if each building was a net producer of energy? Have we factored in the true cost of ownership? What about the merit order effect, transmission loss or the net carbon impact? What about efficiency of energy use? What if houses were able to automatically learn best practices from each other?

At our organization, Innovation eXperience, we are seeking to tackle these systemic challenges head-on through innovative, impactful, and fun interventions that can be scaled up. Take for example our solar reading lamp workshops, which we have been conducting in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. In these workshops, students learn the practical techniques of creating their own solar reading lamp from the circuit board up. Not only do the students gain practical knowledge but also if one lakh students turned off their fluorescent lights during study time, this would represent between 5MW and 8MW saving of energy. It is a deceptively simple solution to tackle energy issues, with empowered youth leading the charge.

We also draw on our team’s previous expertise in corporate strategy and innovation, and are rolling out 1 and 2 day creativity workshops for low income youth in Kerala, equipping them with exactly the same tools that Fortune 100 executives get trained in. Innovation is a buzzword these days. By being able to master the discipline of imagination, participants earn a huge edge in an employment market that values divergent thinking. At the same time, we have developed a one-year innovation curriculum that we are trying to roll out in Kerala. We would now like to roll it out nationally.

Social innovation is about a mindset that seeks to re-imagine and then implement new ideas. As a starting point, we need to ask what tools we have and need, both individually and collectively. Given that in most countries we are constantly being taught to conform -- if we don’t “do it right”, we fail our exams or lose our jobs – how do we then develop a mindset for invention? For would-be social innovators out there, here are some initial steps to consider:

Step 1 - Convert your mindset from one of risk management to one of adventure management

Most of us in the business, and especially in the project management world, are constantly being asked to think about the risk of a project or venture. “Risk” carries significant gravity and can often halt us before we have even begun. The greatest risk comes from living an unfulfilled life, so make a commitment to stop assessing risk and start thinking about adventure!

PMI Risk management Professional
A structure designed and created by Innovation eXperience (iX) using discarded plastic bottles.
Step 2 - Embrace failure; it’s the only way to learn

This is a well-established phrase but how many of us put it into practice? The truth is that if you are trying something genuinely new, you may not to get it right the first time. And it is by failing and learning that you are able to adapt and move on. Being afraid of failure and taking safe options are surefire guarantees to “me-too” solutions and a constant bewilderment at those who move past you.

Step 3 - Understand that the highest meaning in life comes from helping others

Sorry but it’s true. If you ever want proof of this, you needn’t look at religious texts or self-help books. Just try giving it a go!

Step 4 - The larger the committee, the more incremental the outcome

Visionary thinking and not consensus-based decisions by committees is the need of the hour. Such decisions tend to follow the rules of compromise and self-censure and do not lead to an innovative outcome. Innovation comes from passion, insight, playfulness, and emotion. You do not want a bureaucrat asking you: “But where has this been done before?” Drop the committee, form a committed group for social good, and make something happen while the bureaucrats are still debating about your proposal.

Step 5 - “Make a dent in the universe” Steve Jobs coined the phrase. Now go live it, you have less time than you may think!

(Mr. Alexei Levene is Managing Trustee of Innovation eXperience (iX), a social innovation non-profit venture based in Trivandrum, Kerala. iX focusses on new ideas, technologies, and solutions in areas such as clean energy, waste management, education, eco-tourism, and accessibility, and works closely with partners such as UST Global and CII Trivandrum. Read more about iX at www.kerala-ix.com)
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