Not Ordinary

How do us ordinary men and women lead LARGER lives?

That’s how Roberto Mangabeira Unger summed up the goal of social innovation. At the Social Frontiers Conference. The first global gathering of social innovation researchers. Organized by Nesta, GCU, Tepsie, DESIS, Rockfeller Foundation, and SIX. “Emphasize the goal, rather than its methods,” Unger urged us. And adopt a maximalist stance – advancing the goal in all parts of society. Not just civil society. His rousing finale? “Ordinary men and women are not as ordinary as they seem.”

Jeltje, age 84, came to mind. I’d met her some 19 hours earlier. In the most ordinary of contexts. A nursing home.

“I refuse to just the pass time,” Jeltje confessed. That’s meant refusing to accept the limitations of having one leg, and sitting in a wheelchair. So she makes her own breakfast – on a hotplate. She knits her own clothes. She speaks up. But staying in control hasn’t been easy. Particularly when living in an environment predicated on dependencies. Like having to call a staff member to take you to toilet in the middle of the night. Change your sheets. Do your grocery shopping.

So many of the staff – more than half, Jeltje estimated, just go through the motions. Only a handful of staff really feel their way. Taking initiative, rather than waiting to be asked. Acknowledging the tough stuff, rather than just exchanging niceties. Sharing their own frustrations, rather than just hearing hers. These are the staff with larger lives. Philosophers turned aged care workers. Photographers moonlighting as receptionists. Jeltje described these staff as professionals. Because they invested their whole selves in the work. And it wasn’t so much work. As a deeply personal pursuit.

Jeltje’s version of professional was a pretty stark contrast to the professionalized services I’d observed a few days back. In a mid-sized city about an hour’s drive from Amsterdam. Where city hall, the job center, and the community center operated – from 9 to 5 – with a friendly efficiency. There were touchscreen information booths, walls of brochures, brightly colored furniture, well-designed signage, smiling staff. To be a professional was to follow the script. Nothing less. Nothing more.

The script featured all the innovation buzz words. Staff said things like, “We start with strengths, rather than with problems.” “We use an empowerment approach.” “We draw on clients’ natural networks.” In practice, this looked like staff, sitting behind their computers, asking clients questions like: “What do you like doing?” “What do people say you’re good at? “Do you have any friends or family members you could call on?” When clients didn’t have an answer, staff suggested they take a week to think more. Or they signposted them to another program. The boundary between staff and client wasn’t up for negotiation: Staff were the ones who asked the questions. Clients were the ones who responded. The output of the meeting? Another meeting.

If we were to start with the practice – rather than with the words used to describe the practice – would we call these services strengths-based? empowering?

If we emphasized goal achievement – rather than method – would we say these services enable people to lead larger lives? or just lead an ordinary existence?

These are (some) of the questions I want research into ‘social innovation’ to answer.

Monica Edwards-Schachter and Svenja Tams’ research on Europe’s 120 Living Labs (LL) begins to do that. The authors find that for all the co-creation rhetoric, only 25% of Living Labs are user-driven. And that’s based on secondary data collection, interview, and focus group transcripts – rather than on direct observation of practice. The authors go on to conclude that: “We agree… that in current LLs users are seen more as sources of (predefined) technology use and passive subjects of study. For them ‘knowledge co-creation’ is an ambition rather a realized approach (p.10).”

Most of us surely struggle with the ambition-reality gap. For all of my co-design rhetoric, far too often I’ve treated people – like Jeltje – as inputs into a creative process. Whilst we – the design team – have continued to hold much of the power. Over the structure of the ethnographic process. Over how to interpret what we’re seeing. Over which ideas to prototype, and which prototypes to take forward. We set-up InWithForward to take a more critical stance.

So when I look around the room at gatherings of researchers and practitioners, I wonder whether we’ve just re-distributed power and authority from the technical experts to the process experts. Our authority comes from our command of creative methods. That we codify with our own exclusive, albeit imprecise, language (e.g user-driven, co-design). And with a set of props (e.g scientific papers) and routines (e.g front-of-room panel presentations).

Were we really re-distributing power and authority to users, my hunch is our language, our props, and our routines would look strikingly different.

Most fundamentally, we’d have to understand who the users really are. So many of the assumptions underpinning ‘social innovation’ are predicated on the value of collaboration, participation, collective intelligence, the wisdom of the crowd. Without any real critique of who makes up the crowd. Who is doing the collaborating. Who is actually participating. Whose collective intelligence we are supposedly tapping into. Were we to really open-up, we’d have to leave our co-working spaces, our online platforms, our familiar confines. Where we interact with others quite a bit like us. Who are generally attracted to our messages. We’d have to actively seek out the disinterested, the disengaged, the disagreeable. And somehow create a joint value exchange. Where everyday tacit knowledge and emotional intelligence had as much legitimacy as the codifiable stuff.

Practically, that might look like convening the next social innovation research conference in the dinning hall of Jeltje’s nursing home. Jeltje wouldn’t just be a user. She’d be a researcher. Innovators wouldn’t just be process experts, or heroic entrepreneurs. They’d be Jeltje’s daughter & son-in-law. Or Jeltje’s deaf neighbor, Jan, who doesn’t like groups and doesn’t see the need for any change. Our role as ‘professionals’ might be to create the enabling conditions. To bring together ‘users’ at all the different levels – the individual, the family, the organization, the wider system. To blur boundaries between users and innovators, practitioners and researchers. And to use research in a reflexive capacity. As actionable feedback. For the people doing the real change work.

It would probably be messy, unpredictable, frustrating, emotional, and not at all professionalized. But it certainly wouldn’t be ordinary.