Tag Archives: NESTA

Is the impact of social innovations measurable?


Last week I was in London for the first jury meeting of the European Social Innovation Competition. We were guests of NESTA; its CEO Geoff Mulgan presided over it. Geoff is, in my humble opinion, one of the most interesting policy makers in Europe: even if we don’t always agree, when he speaks I pay attention. On this occasion, I was stricken by his insistence on the importance on measuring the impact of social innovation initiatives. Rigour and quantitative measurement, he finds, are essential to get rid of the hype and the faking that have deposited on the concept of social innovation over the last few years (his defining phrase: social innovation is “a bulls#!t attractor”).

I agree on the rigour part. On quantitative measurement I have doubts. Social innovators – the real-deal, disruptive ones – want deep change in society, so it does not make sense to assess what they do in terms of the very society they are trying to change, Take, for example, Bitcoin (Wikipedia) – an electronic for of cash designed so as to work in purely peer-to-peer fashion, with no central entity that can manipulate its value. It uses unbreakable cryptography to prevent people from spending their Bitcoins more than once, and it allows (unbreakably) anonymous transactions. I know personally people that advocate for it passionately: they are idealistic, generous folks, moved by the idea that bank-created “fiat money” is inherently flawed. There is only a small problem: unbreakable crypto and anonymous transactions are likely to lead to 100% safe fiscal evasion. Its detractors claim that Bitcoin has the potential to strike at the very heart of states, destroying their ability of imposing taxes. When you run this argument to Bitcoin supporters, many shrug it off: states, they say, are only good insofar as they solve problems for people. If their existence becomes a roadblock to problem solving, well – it might be time to look for something that works better.

Let me attempt to reformulate that. It’s not that these people are diehard revolutionaries. It is that, for the innovator, the status quo has zero value, less than zero in some cases. He or she assesses the impact of what s/he is trying to do in terms of the world that will contain the innovation at hand. Professional evaluators, working for government or private foundations, run their own assessment in terms of the world we have now, and ask the proposed innovation to improve it without changing it too much (they themselves are ruling class in the existing world, and it makes sense for them to treasure it). They are like Henry Ford’s clients that, in his own words, “would have asked for faster horses” because, simply, they could not possibly see clearly the car civilization without giving up important parts of their identity. Or like the Archbishop of Mainz, Gutenberg’s ultimate sponsor (through the “angel investor” Johann Fust), that supported the development of the printing press in the hope of producing an impact (cheap, fast indulgence certificates and bibles) that ended up, ex post, being insignificant; whereas its true impact (democratization of reading and writing, diffusion of heterodox religious material and ultimate victory for Luther’s reformation) would have made him recoil in horror. We consider the printing press a great step forward in the history of humanity, but this is because we are the children of the civilization that the printing press has spawned. We won that particular battle, so we get to write its history – if only because the losers have gone extinct.

Am I exaggerating? I don’t think so. Much of social innovation is out to redesign welfare. Welfare is a very important part of European identity: free and compulsory education, health care, provisions for the socially excluded. This stuff is, therefore, politically explosive. Try telling an Italian or a Swede “hey, looks like mass university is not working. Let’s scrap it and replace it with a system of Massive Open Online Courses”: what you’ll get, more often than not, is not a serene discussion, but an entrenched defense of the values allegedly underpinning the existing system (like “open and fair access to education for all”). Good luck arguing that the system is not particularly good at realizing those values, and that it makes sense to explore alternative routes: you are likely to be treated with suspicion and irritation (“There must be something fishy. Just in case, hands off our mass university”). So, the evaluator of social innovation projects finds herself in an uncomfortable position: if a project is low impact, there is no point in supporting it. But if it is high impact, supporting it could be very dangerous for the society in which the evaluation happens.

How to solve the dilemma? A technical solution could be to separate completely the function of promoting social innovation from that of evaluating it. In this scenario, you’d get a small scene of government agencies and private foundations tasked with maximizing the creative potential of social innovation, with a “take no prisoners” attitude and a complete disregard for existing societal equilibria; and a watchdog filtering out projects that threaten to be too costly in terms of foregone stability. But such a system is likely to be politically untenable – and then forecasting disruptive effects is at a minimum very hard, and could well be impossible even in theory because of positive feedback dynamics. While we wait for a better idea, I am afraid we will have to live with policies for social innovation that promote vanilla ideas and cater to the usual suspects, who stand guard to the existing order.

Bring on the radicals

“You are a radical!” In my brooding teenage years, my father would mean this as a criticism. In the world we grew up in, being average was a good thing: the backbone of society was the middle class: ethnic majority, a high school diploma or a run-of-the-mill college degree, a steady job, a mortgaged apartment, 2.3 children and a trade union membership card. That’s where you wanted to be: in with the sensible people, under the protection umbrella of NATO and the European welfare state.

The dream of stability and social inclusion of a large chunk of the population (if certainly not all of it) was good while it lasted. But it seems like the hegemony of moderate thinking came with one very big string attached: the collective inability to recognize the rise of global problems (rampant inequalities, climate change, the feral rich, the surveillance society) and deal with it effectively, thinking out of the box. It is not so much a matter of knowledge (though of course we do need more, better knowledge); for at least some of those problems the science is there, as Stewart Brand pointed out (see also the video above). The cognitive capacity of the median elector, not so much.

So what do we do? In terms of response speed and value for money, far and away the best option is to call in the radical thinkers, and give them much more latitude and resources. We have some unused capacity there: as Vinay Gupta recently pointed out, many of the really important problems and most of the candidate solutions to attack them are being investigated by many interesting people. Almost all of them are poor, because their projects lie outside the fundable sphere (by this Vinay means that they are practically unthinkable by the sensible, dominant middle class decision makers in academia, business and government). That capacity could be used to shape an almost evolutionary policy response: give these people the space to prototype their ideas, deploying a lot of them in a controlled testing environment, each with limited funding. Try everything: geoengineering, space colonization, energy-sufficient communities, reputation as currency, you name it. Then drop what does not work, and follow up on what does. Iterate. Nassim Taleb would call this angling for positive Black Swans: each of these ideas has a small probability of bringing about enormous, off-the-scale benefits, so they should all be made small investment in, not cutting ourselves out from those benefits.

Given all that, we should all hail NESTA’s recent call for the radicals that could potentially transform British society. It is the first time I see the R-word used with a positive meaning in a public policy context. And it is no surprise it’s NESTA (the British National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts), whose CEO Geoff Mulgan is one of the most interesting policy makers that I know of. The call is not very operational: there are no significant resources, or explicit plans to give the radicals some true leverage. But it is a start. I forecast a wave of increasingly radical thinking in public policy, as scientists and policy wonks hang out more together, and some of the hybris of the former rub off onto the latter. Let’s hope it’s not too late.

Policy hackers: three movers and shakers of governance

Last week I had the good fortune of meeting three public servants of three different countries, each with a very high intellectual profile. Each of them is a point of reference in his or her field.

On Wednesday I was with Geoff Mulgan, British, founder of Demos, CEO at the Young Foundation, appointed to lead NESTA. He comes from a communication background. In the UK he is a star, having served in top posts under the Blair administration; and it seems he is about to becom one in Europe, too, because his voice is heard with attention in Bruxelles on the issue of social innovation, just as the EU is making investment decisions in this field. He is committed to designing Prime Minister Cameron’s Big Society – a controversial, yet carefully studied model. That’s not surprising, because it is the only one that promises a solution for defending the European welfare state in a globalized, finance-dominated world..

That same evening I had dinner with Fabrizio Barca, Italian, director general of the Ministry of the Economy and advisor to the European Commission for the reform of regional policy. He comes from an economics background. He got to be in government coming from Banca d’Italia, together with Carlo Azeglio Ciampi (Ciampi is possibly the best statesman in the history of Italy after unity: a partisan turned central banker turned Prime Minister and then Minister of Treasury, who then went on to be one of the most popular Presidents ever). Ciampi and Barca shared an exceptional experience of institution building, recruiting a group of technicians with international experience to work on the issue of development of lagging Mezzogiorno. The result was the National Strategic Framework, the smartest, noblest policy document I have ever read. Fabrizio has an incredibly wide strategic outlook in which he subsumes everything from scientific papers to policy documents and his own conversations with civil society leaders, and is ultrafast (he answers his mail in minutes, and his colleagues say it is almost impossible to stay ahead of him). He is a leading authority on the issue of economic development.

I spent Thursday with Beth Noveck, American, founder of Peer to Patent, former deputy CTO at the White House, about to start a new appointment with the British government on OpenGov. She comes from a law background. Of the three, Beth is the one I feel I know best (we have been in conversation for a year, and she helped me with my book), and the one I am closest to in terms of interests. We both care about the collaborations between citizens and public authorities, and she is a world class expert in this field. Unlike the other two, she is above all an academic.

My take home from meeting these people is the usual one, always worth repeating: I have still much, much, much to learn. And learn I will.