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!
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
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
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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