Finding a Focus for Your Social Innovation Community - RSA

Finding a Focus for Your Social Innovation Community


  • Picture of Tuukka Toivonen PhD (Oxon). FRSA
    Tuukka Toivonen PhD (Oxon). FRSA
  • Communities
  • Social productivity
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"How does one find a persuasive, viable focus for a new social innovation community? How does one know that a new community is needed to begin with?"

If I were to hazard a guess, I’d say a typical reader of this article participates in at least two or three social innovation communities on a regular basis, in addition to the RSA itself. Almost as widespread as coworking spaces and online platforms – though less visible and not always clearly defined as such – the basic purpose of social innovation communities (SIC) is to bring change agents together and support their work to catalyse impact.

Indeed, SICs are springing up rapidly around the world everywhere from Canada to Chile and China. They adopt place-based (physical) as well as networked, mobile forms, or mix up the two. Some operate on a spontaneous, rough-and-ready basis (e.g. the global MakeSense hotspots) while others are capital-intensive and operate out of world class premises (e.g. the Conduit in Mayfair, London, on which more below). However, due to the availability of digital platforms and other online tools, getting a new SIC started has become relatively easy and in principle requires no such resources.

But how does one find a persuasive, viable focus for a new social innovation community? How does one know that a new community is needed to begin with? In this short piece, I want to remind readers that, while for pioneering SICs – such as the Impact Hubs – it was initially enough to simply ‘bring changemakers together’, new communities have to work a lot harder to refine their purpose and link it firmly to the needs of well-defined groups.

Consider the case of Enspiral, a dynamic social innovation community that started in New Zealand and has subsequently become global. Enspiral desrcibes itself as a ‘virtual and physical network of companies and professionals brought together by a set of shared values and a passion for positive social impact’. It is known for its experimentation with new organisational models co-developed by diverse innovators, entrepreneurs and ‘hackers’. Enspiral has also helped many of its members – through catalytic connections, opportunities and resources –  launch their own businesses. It recently received an RSA Future Work Award in recognition of the innovative governance models and digital tools it has spawned, including the collective decision-making tool Loomio and budgeting programme Co-Budget.

While Enspiral has always sought to get more people to ‘work on stuff that matters’, it took a while for the organisation to evolve into a self-governing community that also helps other communities to effectively govern themselves. In fact, the origins of Enspiral lie at the intersection of the Occupy movement, software development and the ideals of non-hierarchical organisation. At an early stage, the decision was made to combine decentralised decision-making with the pursuit of social business – something extremely rare in the late 2000s. While there has been an emphasis on informality, organic collaboration and shared culture, it is notable how Enspiral has gradually evolved tangible tools that respond to specific needs within its own organisation and that are now being shared with other SICs to help this field scale up globally.

The more recent case of the Social Innovation Association (designed in 2018, launched in early 2019) presents another interesting example of an SIC finding its focus. Intended as a co-inspirational network driven by local ambassadors, the core idea for the association emerged when Dariusz Sikora, the co-founder of the Social Innovation Academy based in Luxembourg, started receiving queries from social innovation enthusiasts around the world who wanted to contribute to the work of the Academy. Dariusz sensed a hunger among these innovators for both recognition and contribution that the Academy could not meet by itself. He and close colleagues thus decided that setting up a new association - a more inclusive, responsive community structure - would be the way to address these unmet needs among social innovators in Europe and globally.

Compared to Enspiral, the Social Innovation Association has been developed rapidly by a central team (rather than in a decentralised fashion), but it shares Enspiral’s attentiveness to member needs and takes a responsive approach to plugging gaps in the social innovation field. The Association is unique in seeking to help relatively isolated social innovators (outside the bubble of cosmopolitan hubs of social innovation, in locations where few people are aware of this field) become recognised as leaders, experts and enthusiasts. It also seeks to aid the development of vital social innovation competencies, along with facilitating greater connectivity between peers.

The Conduit - a brand new members’ club in Mayfair, London that boasts top chefs, hydroponic walls and a basement speak-easy – might seem to belong to an entirely different universe as an impact organisation. Co-founded by Paul Van Zyl (a leading human rights lawyer who served as Executive Secretary for South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission), Rowan Finnegan (founder of Regenerative Investment) and Soho House,Nick Hamilton (managing partner at Laurasia Capital Management), the Conduit nevertheless counts as a social innovation community in that it brings together diverse members to co-initiate impact projects around seven core themes (which include Climate Change and Sustainability, Education and Skills, and Justice and Equality).

Just like Enspiral and the Social Innovation Association, the Conduit was also sparked by a founder’s discovery of an unmet need among its key reference groups. An avid participant in influential global conferences from the World Economic Forum to the Skoll World Forum, van Zyl detected ‘a tremendous feeling of regret’ among purpose-driven attendees whenever such events ended and the participants dissipated to their respective far-flung locations around the world. He realised this group of global leaders had a need for a more permanent home and that is onerole that the Conduit is meant to play. Founded in August 2018, Conduit is tasked with engaging such global movers and shakers, along with a range of innovative changemakers, stakeholders and investors from different walks of life, through its ambitious, carefully crafted programming.

There may be limits to placing multi-million-pound ventures such as the Conduit in the same overarching category with leaner initiatives such as the Social Innovation Association and Enspiral. In addition to vast differences in resourcing, the ideological underpinnings of these organisations stand in some contrast to one another. However, seen from another angle, it is striking how founders from diverse backgrounds, addressing the needs of changemakers in different locations and social positions, all end up setting up social impact communities that share key organisational attributes and stated purposes. To advance their efforts, founders begin by identifying a focus and mission that goes well beyond simply ‘bringing people together’ – they discover and develop a distinctive niche that they are best suited to address. Although engaged (necessarily) in a process of continued evolution, the crucial process of discovery and iteration that led to the birth of the three SICs outlined above is something that those seeking to orchestrate new communities of social innovators would do well to take note of.

Tuukka Toivonen PhD (Oxon.) FRSA is the founder of Creative Friction Ltd and an organisational creativity scholar at University College London and GLOCOM, International University of Japan. He is a Social Innovation Association (SIA) board member. You can contact Dr Toivonen at [email protected]

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