Now is the Time for Social Innovation
The Trust's Paul Braithwaite believes new ways of working need to be identified for the Northern Ireland VCSE sector to remain impactful.

Now is the Time for Social Innovation

31 March 2014

Paul Braithwaite, who heads up Building Change Trust’s work on Social Innovation, explains why there has never been a better time for the Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise Sector (VCSE) to focus on the future.

Can you briefly explain what social innovation refers to?

Social innovation simply refers to the identification and application of new solutions to existing social problems. In one sense social innovation has been around for a long time, but the terminology is new. One of the key elements of this is moving away from a ‘silo mentality’ whereby the three main sectors (public, private, VCSE) work separately. Each does indeed have distinctive characteristics and strengths, but also limitations, so pooling expertise and resources is one key way of fostering innovation.

Why do you think now is the right time for the local VCSE sector to embrace these solutions?

The community and voluntary sector, and society in general, are facing some significant challenges in the coming years. On the one hand an ageing population, climate change, long-term unemployment, sectarian division and rising health and wealth inequalities pose significant long-term challenges, whilst on the other hand less funding will be available in the medium-term for public services, including those provided by the VCSE sector. Consequently new ways of working must be identified.

How do you think the internet can be used for social good?

Technological change has historically always been one of the main drivers of innovation. The internet’s capacity to reach millions of people at the touch of a button, to save huge sums of money by performing tasks digitally that were previously done manually and to connect diverse people, knowledge and expertise from across the globe are all unprecedented. Applying these attributes to social problems clearly has enormous potential but too often the people with the technical expertise and the people working on social problems are disconnected.

Which local organisations are leading the way in social innovation?

In the UK as a whole, the Young Foundation and Nesta are the leading thinkers and instigators of social innovation, as well as the Nominet Trust, who focus on digital social innovation. There are thousands of practitioner organisations too. FabLabs, community-based restorative justice, the Gaeltacht Quarter and the NOW project are just a few local examples highlighted in our 2012 research.

What are the main factors holding our local VCSE sector back from embracing these changes?

There tends to be a pre-occupation on organisational survival in the current funding environment. The sector also shares a fear of risk-taking and this isn’t helped by a lack of understanding of social innovation as a concept. The jargon and technical language can often be a major barrier to change.

Is there a risk that this sector could struggle in the future if organisations don’t look into these changes now?

Yes. Changes to funding amounts and mechanisms are unlikely to be reversed in the medium-term. Any sector or organisation needs to innovate and change the way it works periodically in order to remain at the cutting edge. The VCSE sector is no different.

What should be the first move of any organisation interested in embracing social innovation?

We would encourage these organisations to familiarise themselves with the terminology and some real-life examples of social innovation in practice. It is important to identify a social problem within the organisation’s domain where current systems are proving ineffective and reach out to individuals from any sector that have expertise on building suitable solutions. Set aside enough time to think ‘outside the box’ and look for small-scale funding for prototyping and piloting new ideas.

Northern Ireland has developed a strong reputation for success in the digital and IT sector. Do you think the VCSE sector can benefit from this experience and knowledge?

Yes, currently the VCSE sector’s main use of digital technology and the internet tends to be for communicating with supporters, fundraising and marketing. The tech sector can help VCSE organisations break out of these limitations and consider how digital technology can be applied to their core work in resolving social problems.

What action do you have planned for the coming months to raise awareness of social innovation?

The Trust is committed to social innovation as a key theme for the next five years. As well as supporting specific examples of social innovation, we will seek to influence the emergence of a broad ‘ecosystem’ of individuals and organisations from all sectors committed to embedding social innovation approaches within Northern Ireland.

Concrete actions the Trust will be supporting over the coming year include:

  • Re-launching the Social Innovation Camp project which aims to generate digital solutions to specific social problems
  • Commissioning of at least one Challenge Prize, whereby VCSE sector organisations in collaboration with others will be able to propose innovative solutions to a specific social problem
  • A ‘Geeks-in-Residence’ programme for placing tech experts on  secondment within the VCSE sector for the purposes of generating innovation. 

For more information and to keep up to date with our work in this area, follow @ChangeTrust on Twitter.

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