How can social innovators shape the future of work? - RSA

How can social innovators shape the future of work?


  • Social innovation
  • Work and employment

Together with the Autodesk Foundation, we embarked on a period of research to understand what good work innovations have emerged in recent years. Our aim was to build an online directory to help raise awareness of these organisations and support policy making and social investment.

We found close to 200 innovations, which span three broad themes: lifelong learning, economic security and worker voice. Across all themes we were particularly interested in innovations that address diversity and inclusion, opening up good work to people on the margins of the economy, regardless of age, gender, race or mental or physical health conditions.

  • Skills, training and lifelong learning: programmes which equip people with the skills they need to weather oncoming technological trends or help them transition into the jobs of the future.   
  • Economic security: initiatives that help workers, particularly those in the gig economy and other new forms of employment, to grow and stabilise their incomes, or offer important protections such as sick pay.
  • Worker voice and power: new kinds of trade unions, co-operatives, or organisational forms which give people greater influence over their working conditions.

Within each theme we aimed to cluster innovations into broad ‘intervention sets’ that use similar approaches to address similar problems. Our hope is that this starts to provide a common language that policy makers and social investors can use to spot opportunities for new ways to support workers. And by showcasing emerging best practice we want to encourage people to consider kick starting similar initiatives in their own communities.

Explore the online directory and interactive map

A systems thinking perspective

Our report shows how entrepreneurs and grassroots innovators are making a meaningful contribution to addressing future of work challenges. But we are also careful to avoid ‘solutionism’ and overstate the potential of these organisations or ignore the difficulties of rapidly scaling new ideas. For many of these innovations will also need to shape – and be shaped by – the regulatory and institutional landscape of different countries before they can have a lasting impact on people’s working lives.

This idea is captured well by social innovators Mona Mourshed and Maryana Iskander’s suggestion that “having the impact of a unicorn means embedding practices and interventions that non-profits like ours have proven will work better into complex, hard-to-change government systems.” As well as providing an overview of our innovation mapping research, the report highlights areas for partnerships between these actors.

For example, public employment services could partner with innovators to pilot a range of new digital transition services. While governments could work with innovators to scale access to portable benefits through institutional and regulatory change. In some instances, this will require considerable effort from innovators who must essentially ‘hack the system’ to scale their impact, by forging strategic partnerships with public sector organisations or other institutions who may be able to help them reach new users, or trying to influence policy or regulatory change, so that their solution can become more widely adopted. In other cases, institutions may be more forthcoming. This is the case for initiatives such as challenge prizes, regulatory sandboxes, accelerators and other scale up programmes.

Building a future of work field

As part of our research, we convened a series of workshops and interviews to understand how the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted social innovators. Some have launched new products and services or engaged in new advocacy efforts. For those starting out, the pandemic has created opportunities and get funding for projects that respond directly to the crisis. For example, we heard about how a London based delivery platform cooperative had started doing food bank deliveries.

However, many organisations that have had to pause or dial back activity, are concerned about survival and have had to furlough staff. Meanwhile, the funding landscape has reportedly dried up, despite the pandemic helping to raise the profile of future of work issues. As one innovator put it “it’s frustrating because the pandemic highlighted why what we were doing was so important, but everyone’s conservatism has increased”.

This report follows the launch of the RSA’s good work guild, a new endeavour to bring together a global community of practice to amplify good work principles. Over the next year we will bring together social innovators alongside institutional actors, such as policy makers and investors, to explore opportunities for learning, shared sense-making, collective action and advocacy. Our aim is not only to create a knowledge commons for members to share and swap best practice. We also hope to create a better interface between innovators and institutional actors and nurture potential partnerships between them.

In this report we also wanted to consider what other actors can do to help deepen and scale the impact of innovators. We put forward a series of calls to action around field building for the future of work. This is about creating the enabling conditions into which innovations can grow and thrive.

Calls to action: access to finance

  • Impact investors should collaborate to develop challenge prizes and accelerators that support the development of new innovations in the future of work across Europe, particularly where our innovation mapping suggests there are gaps in intervention sets and demand for new kinds of support.
  • Impact investors should collaborate to develop scale up funding mechanisms that are dedicated to field building and supporting partnerships between social innovations and institutions such as trade unions or public employment agencies. 
  • Social innovators should collaborate on monitoring and evaluation to create a shared narrative around future of work challenges and their collective impact.

Calls to action: Policy regulation and procurement

  • Social innovators should work together to anticipate potential shifts in the policy and regulatory landscape of the countries they operate in and identify energy for change and opportunities for advocacy.
  • Governments and regulators should run regulatory sandboxes to stimulate the development of new future of work innovations across Europe.
  • Governments should reduce procurement barriers and avoid spending public funds duplicating innovations that already exist, instead focus on creating an enabling environment for innovators and prioritising support and investment to scale their impact.

Calls to action: open data and open sourcing

  • Governments should play an active role in nurturing a WorkerTech ecosystem which encompasses data trusts, particularly for workers in the gig economy.
  • Social innovators should share learnings and open source tools as a route to scaling their impact.

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