John Thackara | Essays

The Innovator Next Door

William Gibson’s take on the subject of innovation has become a classic aphorism: “The future is already here — it’s just unevenly distributed.” Another way of putting the same idea might be “World-changing innovations are already here — it’s just that some of them are too close for us to see.” If you want to find solutions that make a difference, the best place to look may be the community center down the street.

When companies and even countries build centers of innovation, they make two mistakes. The first is defining innovation narrowly, as technology. Technical advantages are costly to achieve — and often short lived because everyone else is looking in the same place. The second mistake is trying to impose a solution on a community or organization. Telling people what to do or exhorting them to be good seldom works, especially in the field of sustainable design. Creating vast, top-down global replacements for our malfunctioning industrial systems won’t work. Instead, we must “grow” their replacements from a multitude of small and widely distributed experiments.

When I speak of experiments, I do not mean research in a laboratory or any other kind of closed-off institution. I mean experiments that are widely distributed in the real world and involve attempts to carry on daily life activities in a lighter, more sustainable way, with the participation of and co-ownership by citizens. Unless experiments are rooted in reality, we won’t benefit from the feedback and rapid learning critical in any process of perpetually iterative innovation. Citizens and communities must be the solution’s coauthors — otherwise it won’t be a solution.

Our time’s most important form of bottom-up social innovation is the local and complementary currencies in forms such as microcredit, interest-free banking, and other community-oriented monetary systems. One kind of arrangement along these lines, a Local Exchange Trading System (or LETS), exists in many parts of the world. LETS programs are designed to encourage demand for local goods and services, to support local traders and to keep money circulating in the local economy. This approach helps not only to build resilience to the rising cost of energy, transport and food but also to cut carbon dioxide emissions. There may or may not be a printed currency; all that’s really needed is a system for valuing goods and services. Instead of engaging directly in barter, participants can sell something or perform a service to earn credits they can spend on other things. The models vary from community to community but are based on the same fundamental principles: social solidarity, reciprocation and the exchange of time and skills as well as of goods and services.

This was the approach that my organization, Doors of Perception, took in creating the economic-development program Designs of the Time (Dott), in northeast England for two government agencies, The Design Council and One North East. In this program, we did not talk endlessly about an abstract green future; we looked, instead, for practical solutions in the form of site-specific projects. In each of them, citizens from the community helped to redesign a practical aspect of their daily lives.

One such project involved developing a system that would allow people to share rides to and from a small institution, Scremerston First School, in Northumberland. I fully expected that the design firm we engaged would bring me a solution involving satellite navigation, the Internet, and late-model mobile phones. After all, this was a service innovation project and innovation is about the use of technology to meet new needs, right?

Wrong. When the team leader reported back, after many weeks of work, he brought with him a bunch of photographs stuck onto boards. The photographs featured a bedraggled group of adults huddled in the rain outside a school gate, a lone woman walking along a windy road and a tatty notice board covered with scraps of paper.

I must have looked crestfallen, but the team leader cheerfully told me how delighted he was with the progress made in understanding the complex travel difficulties parents, teachers and children encountered when they tried to get from A to B. This one small school, it emerged, was the hub of an extremely complex mobility ecology.

Although the school community was committed to setting up a ride-sharing scheme, parents were alarmed by the idea of their children getting lifts to school with strangers. Ride sharing could work only if all the people involved knew and trusted each other. The preexisting social glue among the parents helped to answer questions about safety and security — questions that would have been hard or impractical to answer with legal or technological approaches. Because the school-based scheme relied on existing social trust, it will scale up slowly. Other schemes — for example among college students — are already spreading rapidly.

The community became the coproducer of a resource-efficient public service based on the use of assets that for the most part were preexisting. This practical solution resulted from social innovation rather than the use or imposition of new technologies. Connecting people to new people and helping them learn from the experience of others, we learned, is a more powerful way to think about innovation.

Local conditions, local trading patterns, local networks, local skills and local cultures remain critical for the success of most of the economic activity in the world. A key feature of sustainability, too, is the efficient use of local resources. In the radically lighter economy whose green shoots are now poking above ground, we will share all resources, such as energy, matter, physical materials, time, skills, software, space and food. To do so, we will use social systems — and sometimes networked communications.

I was asked to explain where the world’s primary centers of innovation will be. My answer is simple: down your street and down everyone’s street.

This essay was originally publishd in the McKinsey Quarterly, February 26, 2009.

Posted in: Business, Social Good

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