Place Based Social Innovation

On Wednesday 4th May 2011 @Coprodnet asked: What would a place-based social innovation infrastructure (people-relationships, places, processes tech) look like? For what they are worth these are my thoughts…..

I have been known to bang on and on about an article written in 2006 by John field who was Deputy Principal of the University of Stirling at the time where he worked as Director of the Division of Academic Innovation and Continuing Education. The piece in Observatory Pascal was entitled “Social Networks, Innovation and Learning: Can Policies for Social Capital Promote both Economic Dynamism and Social Justice?” It had a profound impact on my thinking that has lasted until today. Field describes a situation in which learning communities develop social capital and communities with social capital are innovative communities.

In traditional terms we could describe a community of place where people have shared values and an interest in the wider community. In 2006 I was working on a rural community broadband project and part of that was community learning. I presented a paper on it at a conference in 2006 which can still be found here: which has the inglorious title of “Testbed Learning Communities in Craven Arms. Building confidence through meeting locally expressed demand by aggregating need and sourcing local supply. A pre-requisite to digital literacy.”  The key argument of the piece was that bringing together people with shared needs and then sourcing local solutions made it possible to solve a problem, in this case the need for learning.

The other thing that is needed is a gathering place. A venue where people come together naturally and the majority will identify as being an accepted point of contact. Some communities will have more than one but in our experience it was often a community centre but sometimes a pub or a post office or a village shop, sometimes it was a church or a church hall the common feature was the broad acceptance by the community that this was a place where they were comfortable and where activity could take place.

The question of what brought people together and sourced supply to meet demand was an interesting one and we did work on the role of community brokers. These were trusted agents and not always the people that you would expect. Often they had no official role and frequently functioned outside of the official lines of supply, occasionally they functioned despite them. These were people who knew people, who had a friend of a friend; very often they had knowledge that was just one step ahead of the person seeking a solution. The key thing was that they could identify the source of answers or bring people together to affect a solution; they also had access to the gathering places.

With these elements it became possible to see Social Capital in action, bridging relationships and bringing people together with a common purpose. While this is a somewhat stylized view of community action, missing out the in-between steps which involved identifying the problem or need, the gossip leading to the conversation which leads to the introduction and then the negotiation, essentially these are the parts for place based social innovation. It would be wrong to underestimate the complexity of innovation processes. The classic identify, analyse, generate, test, implement and review cycle misses the mark and Leydesdorff’s triple helix model which includes geography, politics the economy and the knowledge infrastructure is probably closer to the reality.

Regarding technology this has to be pervasive: it has to be continuous, high speed and mobile. The Knight Foundation has produced some interesting work on the information needs of communities. McKinsey & Company has published interesting ideas on how informatics can engage citizens and nonprofits in problem solving . Most persuasive is the work of Institute for the Future on “The future of cities, information and inclusion” Where high level mapping impacts downwards to a realm where personal sensing informs decision making. The key messages here are that the “tech” should empower by giving people the information to solve problems from their perspective. Place based social innovation is done “by” the people “with” the people not “to” the people or “for” them.

So we end up with a list of sorts for what place based social innovation looks like:

  • Shared Values – knowledge
  • A gathering place – shared space
  • Community Brokers – shared information
  • Social Capital – shared capacity
  • A realistic expectation of innovation as a process
  • Pervasive, accessible, mobile infrastructure
  • A desire to empower – shared politics

The Clue Train Manifesto says “Human communities are based on discourse – on human speech about human concerns” That is as good a starting point as any.


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