Social Innovator

“You must give birth to your images.
They are the future waiting to be born.
Fear not the strangeness you feel.
The future must enter you long before it happens,
Just wait for the birth, for the hour of the new clarity.”
Rainer Maria Rilke

It may well have been the influence of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) that excited my interest in social movements and social action. It was Quakerism that drew my parents together despite their very different backgrounds and that took them first to India in 1945 (with the Friends Relief Service) and then to Yugoslavia in 1953 (invited to lead an international peace-building conference).

What is a ‘social innovator’?

For me a social innovator is someone who is discontent with the status quo and uses their capacity for innovation and their sense of frustration or outrage to create something new. Not that anything is ever entirely new, nor is anyone a social innovator in isolation – all innovation (whether social or any other) stands on the shoulders of others and requires like-minded people with whom to dialogue, build and deliver.

There are three questions that consistently run through the social experiments I have been involved with. Is it possible to:

  1. Create projects and scenarios that are appropriate to what is really needed? Can one’s imagination rise above the conventional ways of living and working to co-create new ways that are more satisfying and bigger in their capacity to be inclusive?
  2. Construct truly inter-dependent models where individuality can flourish without being entirely self-centred and where one’s sense of relatedness is experienced as strength not weakness?
  3. Build life-styles and working arrangements that – whilst they may transmute into new forms and evolve in unexpected ways – have strong enough foundations to be sustainable without over-reliance on one or two charismatic personalities?

I am interested in new kinds of organisational model – ones that are based on a commitment to a more sustainable, inclusive and integrated approach to living and working. Typical ‘business’, with its primary focus on financial gain, and typical ‘charity’, with its tendency to breed dependence, seemed to me in their entirely different ways to be one-sided and unsatisfying. But both also had elements that were appealing – business by creating goods, services, innovation and growth and charitable ventures in their focus on people’s wellbeing, personal development and environmental stewardship.

These are forms of ‘social enterprise’ that (in my view) draw together the best of the business and the best of charitable approaches.

The housing project is one such innovation, the Partnership Brokers Association is another and Trigonos is a third.

The key to successful social enterprise, in my experience, depends on practical experiment and demonstration rather than on theoretical models and talking. Both these projects are on-going, quiet experiments that have had unexpectedly far-reaching influence and impact.