Social Innovation  Looking back, looking forward
The MACS team who completed the latest Social Innovation Skills programme and secured support for a dog walking initiative to give young people work experience and skills development

Social Innovation Looking back, looking forward

19 November 2018

Paul Braithwaite, the Trust's Programme Leader reflects on five years' work on our Social Innovation theme.


It’s been a real privilege to lead the Trust’s social innovation work over the past five years. At times I’ve felt like a child in a sweet shop – loads of different choices, a decent chunk of money to spend, and hugely supportive colleagues and Directors to boot. But it’s been challenging too, and it certainly didn’t start that way.

Reading the job description back in summer 2013 I initially felt I had no idea what social innovation even meant. Fortunately others – great organisations like the Young Foundation and Nesta - were at hand to give definition to this at-first-glance elusive concept. I soon realised that I had been involved in social innovation for several years already without ever having once used the term! I think many people in the Northern Ireland VCSE sector are in the exact same position.

This reality gives rise to what has probably been the main challenge of the Trust’s social innovation work – whilst there are no shortage of enthusiasts, many find the terminology elitist and inaccessible or feel they’ve been working innovatively and impactfully for years without any need to describe it in such terms. So is social innovation simply the emperor’s new clothes? As the Trust winds down it’s a good time to attempt an answer. We think not, but we’ll let you be the judge.

To help we asked Helen McLaughlin and Pamela Montgomery to undertake an independent assessment of the achievements and lessons learnt from our flagship Social Innovation NI initiative since its inception in 2016 to date. You can download their report here.

We set ourselves the task of making social innovation as practical and as useful as possible for people and organisations in the VCSE sector. Whilst undoubtedly many of the ingredients for social innovation have always been present in the sector, each era brings new approaches and opportunities that are worth exploring. And of course the sector must continually evolve to grapple with a changing context and many chronic, unsolved social challenges.

After much discussion and engagement with sector representatives we focused our support on two key opportunities:

  1. Embracing digital technology to drive greater impact for citizens and service users

Through 3 cycles of our Techies in Residence programme with our partner Innovate NI, we’ve supported 19 organisations to develop a prototype digital product in collaboration with a technology partner. From Greater Shantallow Area Partnership’s digital heritage trail to Versus Arthritis’ mobile game to help young people with arthritis track and manage their condition, to Focus on Family’s digital story trail for children, we’ve helped organisations enhance their impact and also realise the wider potential of digital technology in their organisations.

  1. Adopting ‘design thinking’ approaches as a more creative, user-centred and effective alternative to traditional project design methodologies

Through 2 cycles of our Social Innovation Skills programme with our partner WorkWest, we’ve supported another 19 organisations to take a fresh look at a complex social challenge – to engage deeply with the people affected, to generate as many ideas as they can and to identify the best solution by literally getting their hands dirty with building a physical prototype. From MACS’ redesigned therapeutic residential care facility for young people, to Garvagh Development Trust’s ‘green care’ social prescribing model, to Start360’s alternative campaign on alcohol mis-use, we’ve supported some potentially transformative new ideas and helped organisations refresh and re-energise their internal culture.

Of these 38 organisations supported, 22 also received an award from our Social Innovation Seed Fund to further develop, sustain and scale-up their ideas. The true impact of many of these will, we believe, become increasingly apparent in the years to come.

As well as these two key programmes we’ve tried to build awareness and capacity in the broader sector through a programme of 19 social innovation workshops delivered by our partner NICVA, as well as two international social innovation festivals – the Unusual Suspects in 2016 and FuSIonFest in 2017. Together these directly engaged over 600 people.

At a strategic level, Helen and Pamela’s independent assessment highlighted the following achievements:

  • We now have a bank of local case studies that provide an answer to the question ‘what is social innovation?’
  • A group of committed partners and a model in Social Innovation NI of how to encourage and facilitate innovation in the VCSE sector that can be developed and taken forward
  • Some unique programmes that demonstrate the value of beneficiary involvement, cross-sectoral collaboration and help organisations at the earliest stage of their innovation journey
  • Significant influence on policy-makers and funders – what it means to make ‘risky’ investments and how government might better support social innovation in future

However the report also makes clear that Social Innovation NI has only reached the tip of the iceberg in terms of its wider goal of cultural change around how we design and deliver solutions to social challenges. So as we look to the future beyond the end of the Trust’s mandate in December 2018, our top priority has been to secure the future of this work.

Thankfully one of the Trust’s founding bid partners – the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland – has shown itself more than ready to take on this leadership role. Working together we’ve already secured another cycle of Techies in Residence with support from Comic Relief (open for applications until 7th December) and we’re confident more positive news will follow in the coming months.

To conclude – social innovation will probably always split the room. In the wrong hands it can be elitist, exclusive or even a thinly veiled cover for the rationalisation of the VCSE sector. In the right hands however, and with the right supports in place, it can help the VCSE sector reassert its rightful place – at the leading edge of the movement for social change.


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