Social Innovation

Social Innovation in a Hyperconnected World

Perth, 26 September 2011
for Social Innovation in Western Australia (SiiWA)
20 minutes

Although the title of tonight’s conversation is “social innovation”, you’d realise that throughout tonight, I’m using the word innovation and social innovation interchangably because I think its time to put human hearts into innovation. Innovation should be, I believe, around adding social values – otherwise, innovation for innovation sake is anything but self-indulgence.

Hyperconnectivity is a word often used to describe the wild extent of connections between human-to-human, human-to-machines and machines-to-machines as a result of the advancement in technologies and new media.

One of the outcomes of this is the way we consume information. We are now becoming more exposed to information, thus we are no longer trapped in ignorance. More excitingly, this also increase our ability to spread information, hence an increase in production of information. These aren’t just pure information for spreading information sake, but we are turning information into understanding resulting in knowing how to act on the problems, issues and gaps that our society or systems are facing.

The other outcome is an emergent effect and the increasing probability of this serendipitous innovation at the convergences of people, resources and great ideas. We all know this, when you put the right players, in the right field, with the right conditions and the right strategy, magic happens.

Although we’re recognising this (very slowly), there still need a lot of fine-tuning and understanding how we can best accelerate and best harness this rapid innovation.

A good example is StartUp Weekend a global movement where you bring together all the different geeks, give them a playground, lock them up for 54 hours and give them mentors and attractive prizes and at the end of the 54 hours, they pitch the product or their magic. One of the success stories out of that is Memolane.com – which if you haven’t checked it out, go do it – which was pitched at Hamburg StartUp Weekend. Since the weekend, the Founder has quit his job, formed his team officially, set up an office in San Francisco and raised $2 million from venture capital fund, not in that order. Although there have been a number of other success stories, comparing it to the number of StartUp Weekend events and ideas that have been pitched, it is relatively low – and I believe that’s because we haven’t found the right environment for these innovation to grow and prosper, not because these aren’t good ideas.

Why is this the case and what are the opportunities for us? I’ve summarized a few points and these are far from complete.

1. Understanding the process
A lot of us focus too much on the ideation/creation/invention stage and we spend too much resource, in my opinion, investing into this stage. The big gains, really, come from the execution/implementation, adoption and dissemination phase and I think this is the part where we need to put some serious investment and effort into.

The development of technology and hyperconnectivity also means that the product development cycle is significantly shortened. Customer engagement or development is now also becoming an essential part of our ventures and the hyperconnection allows quick feedback, customer involvement in in he adaptation, refinement and evolution of the initial idea at a much greater and easier pace. This means no good ideas will ever be good enough unless you execute and constantly reiterate.

2. Understanding the cause and framing our language
Although Australians are faring well, I think that we’re also close to a tipping point of social problems – an increasing ageing population, chronic diseases, unstable financial system and recession and an energy crisis not too far away and climate change.

The way we frame and look at these challenges also have a profound impact on the innovation process. I believe when we approach problems, we need to also start viewing it from bottom-up rather than just top-down (improving systems, processes and approaches) based to meet the needs of those at the bottom lines. I could be wrong but I think there is a synergy between a bottom-up and top-down approaches.

Although we’re at a tipping point of social problems, we’re also at a tipping point of economic shifts – the rich are coming out asking to be taxed more and the superannuation fund in Australia is more than $1.3 trillion and there are a lot of conversations around how to make these savings more useful – they have never wanted to invest any of these money into the social sector because of the word “social” (and the absence of economic return) but there is also conversation around “impact investment” which is more around socio-economic returns. It’s an awesome synergy between the top-down to bottom-up and an interesting space to watch out for.

3. Connecting the disconnected and making the right connections
Beyond connecting the right people, we need to connect those who are disconnected and personally, its the different sectors, and organisations and individuals – there is still an “us vs them” mentality whether in our everyday practices or language – many still have not fully recognise how interconnected we really are.

One of the learning from the SoCap Conference in California last month is the need for a common language between the three different sectors – how do we bring them together and put the human heart into all our work. At Hub Melbourne, our biggest value proposition and one that we are starting to review, improve and understand is the diversity of our members – of the different sectors, disciplines and interests. The other one is our connection to the 28 different hubs around the world and the connections within those hubs.

The implication of these diverse connections is the trans-disciplinary, cross-sectoral, inter-generational influence of the emergent ventures that is born out of connections. This offers an opportunity for the propagation of innovation through unchartered domains.

If all the different sectors start to speak one common language, which I think is possible given the infrastructure we already have, social inclusion is very possible and the acceleration of innovation at that point will be unimaginable.

I think the question and challenge for all of us is to constantly challenge the norm and push for a common language. And the questions to answer are what are the physical and virtual infrastructure and environment that nurtures and push these innovation forward but more importantly, how can we propagate these behavioural changes. Getting the right players and putting the right resources in at the right time is a tricky process but one that we need to understand better.

4. Understanding behavioural change
I think we need to put behavioural change into the equation of all innovations – whether this is consciously or subconsciously. The hyperconnectedness that we’re experiencing offers an unfounded opportunity to propogate behavioural change that either build better futures or create opportunities for us to build better futures.

We need to understand what are the motivations, ability and trigger to create these behavioural change – whether its physical behaviour or our perceptions – in order for us to amplify and accelerate change. We’re all inherently selfish, vain and love attention so don’t underestimate the power of nudges and peer influence in a hyperconnected, very visible world.

5. Investing into a pipeline of innovation
Lastly, although this is linked to point number one, I broke this up because I know you’ve forgotten what point number one was already, let alone 2, 3 and 4 so if you don’t remember anything, remember this.

I think we need to increase our investment into creating a pipeline in supporting innovations through the process rather than just at the ideation and creation phase – ensuring that mentors, capital and other support mechanisms can work around supporting ideas as they scale

By understanding the processes and right conditions needed to allow for these innovations to prosper and succeed, we have a better chance at solving more social problems.

I hope that gives you something to think about. If you have been tuning out the past 15 minutes because you were too busy tweeting and facebooking in your own little hyperconnected worlds, what I hope you take away is that we need to start putting the human hearts into innovation (or in other words, social innovation as innovation) – in order for us to solve some of these 21st century social problems and issues, we need to see innovation as beyond technological innovation.

Many people argue that we need build a Silicon Valley in Australia, or Australia can be the next Silicon Valley but my argument is that we don’t need a Silicon Valley and we cannot be a Silicon Valley – we don’t have enough critical mass (24 million vs 300 million), we have a completely different geography, we have people of very, very diverse backgrounds and we have a very different economy. However, that is an opportunity in itself because I think what’s going to set us apart is our ability to drive, accelerate and amplify innovation through unchartered domains.

Our unique link to Asia in terms of geography, resources, relationship and economy provides us with a different market. Our small population means that our convergences are insane and our connections is pretty much 2-3 degrees. If we get it right, our diversity and insane hyperconnectivity is going to allow us to build and create innovations never thought about before. Our small population means that the chances of serendipitous innovations are more likely and our very diverse crowd means that the propogation of these innovations is unimaginable – beyond all sectors, ethnicities, language, generations, disciplines and so on. Our link to Asia also means that we have a large enough market, to attract capital to the innovations that we simply cannot find a big enough market for here in Australia.

We know that magic happens at these convergences, we now need to recognize our strengths and use those to amplify our magic.