I’m capturing notes at the MyPublicServices event from PatientOpinion.  Use the tag #MPS09 to follow conversations and highlights from others at the event. This session is: Ideas, people and cold hard cash: why the way we make stuff happen is broken and how to fix it, from Anna Maybank at Social Innovation Camp.

Social Innovation Camp: the story so far.  Started with an idea two years ago that the web is important because it helps people organize for themselves and impacts how we make things work; but in order to make that happen you have to bring people together who are interested in making it real.  We are all about moving ideas into something that might work and do so by running competitions and weekend-long prototyping events.  Think about 5 things: what’s the problem, what technology you’ll use, design sustainability, how will people come to use it and how will you distribute it.  Award a prize to those that show most potential.  Have run 3 competitions so far with over 300 ideas submitted.

Note: the “I” in the following is my capture of Anna speaking.

What We’ve Learnt

1. From cliques to talent scouts

A great idea is nothing unless you have people to get it off the ground, and those people may be anyone with certain attributes:

  • people who can bring an insight
  • practical optimists, can see things being different in the future (have to go find them)

We need to move away from “social entrepreneurs” and “socail innovation” towards “solve problems” and “make stuff” so that it’s more accessible.  It took us a while to learn this!  The first competition we had a slick website and everything else and had barely any submissions.  So, we went to talk people about it.  We brought people together around the same kind of idea and the buzz in the room was incredible, people realized they didn’t have to just complain about something but about making things the way you want.  So, we learned from that and now are conversation driven.  Our competitions are talent scouted: we go out and talk to as many people as possible, run workshops and trainings and get people to think about what they might solve and then submit.  I think we pay a lot of lip service to “user centered design” and so on, but sometimes we are talking about many different worlds colliding and a number of them are very problem focused and then solution focused groups.  So, when you have top-down definition of what you’re interested in and then bottom up creation it doesn’t work.  Create a “tentacle-based” approach.

2. From paperwork to relationships

That’s a lot of work. Is it worth it to go talk to all of those people and so on?  What we are doing when we talent scout isn’t just about creating a pool of projects but about starting relationships.  Normal application processes are very good for people who are good at writing or following a system.  But, are proposal based approaches good for finding people who are going to start new things?  Instead, you start to build relationships with individuals – find interesting people and working with them in incremental ways and build trust. And then find people to support and fund; particularly important when funding entirely new things.  It’s hard for those people to say what their impact will be when it’s something so new, so it’s hard as a support organization to believe in the project.  But, as a support organization that knows you are an interesting implementer of good stuff, it’s easier to make the decision to support them.  We do this through scouting and in the weekends as they are high pressure and fund and collaborative so you can really, really see how people work.  I think the world works like this anyway, we just don’t admit it.  What we should be doing is appreciating that and design systems that take into consideration the ways humans work.  This is how the investment world works: based on relationships and trust.

3. From advisors to connectors

What’s next?  What do you need other than money?  We asked our prototype projects what else they need. The answer was they need advice.  Organizations that are trying to support people to do new things know this.  What I’m suggesting is 2 things: first, giving all the advice yourself is not efficient or entirely valuable, so you should grow a community around the ideas where they connect; and second, the advice you need as a radically new group/project is very different as there aren’t models or examples, so the only way these projects will work is by changing behavior… How comfortable we are with meeting people offline we only know online, how we share personal data, etc.  These changes will have to happen in order for these projects to work.  Rather than having standard business advice but a place where they can experiment.  The way we move from advisors to connectors is that at the weekends where we get the great ideas, we go out and try to find people who can help them and bring them there.  Building an audience around the 6 ideas for the weekend.  If you come to a weekend, you come out with a training experience.

4. From grants to venturing

How do we change the different ways we distribute money?  Not about finding people to give it to or the decision process, but the different financial instruments we could use.  Early stage ideas need early stage risk capital and there’s a gap in providing that.  Something to show that a really good radical idea has a good chance.  We also have to find new sustainable ways to fund projects. Fundraise, grant, spend – it’s not efficient.  Finally, a lot of new ideas, the newness is the business model.  It needs a different way to be funded.  Need finance that’s responsive to business models that aren’t charities or companies.

What might that look like?

What if we ran a larger SICamp process that formed small teams around packaged ideas and take teams of 2-3 people and choose 10 groups and each a 15,000 stipend wherein they come and work in a shared space for 3 months.  Set targets and help to accelerate project development and build community.  At the end of the 3 months we have a demo day with possible funders and we we take a finders fee and also pay-back for the 15,000 starter grant.  Potentially creating a sustainable way of starting projects and recycling your capital.  It already exists in projects like Y Combinator.  We think it would be interesting to start a Y Combinator for social projects here in the UK.

I don’t think that’s the answer to everything.  You have to design your support process around the people you are working with.  What can we do with groups like Kiva?  What if we used that system to find projects to fund?  Or what about KickStarter’s model with pledging/small contributions/crowdsourcing?  What if we applied that to the NHS?  4ip is already doing some of this stuff, too, and it’s really interesting.

This talk was inspired by lots of conversations with people who are looking for support for an idea AND interesting people and organizations looking for projects to support.  There has to be an opportunity there!

Social Innovation Camp at MPS09
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