Innovation Ecosystems : Learning through networks of creativity
On 28 Jan, a group of Alumni from Future Vision and 2025 were hosted by our BT colleagues at their iconic central London Tower. Many of the group had also recently visited their Martlesham innovation facility, Adastral Park, to learn about how a wide range of new ideas and products were being stimulated by the connectivity between the larger corporate and many smaller start-up companies. We were entertained and stimulated by a glimpse into the future of work offered by BT’s Head of Customer Insight and Futures, Dr Nicola Millard, who provided both optimistic thoughts and a few shivers as we realised how Alexa and other AIs may be coming to dominate our lives! We then went on to consider how the idea of ‘innovation ecosystems’, popular in the digital and other research-oriented industries, might be applied in a cross-sectoral way to address some of our most wicked social issues.
So, what is an ‘innovation ecosystem’?
Well, put simply, it is a guiding metaphor which reminds us that most new ideas arise out of the connections between people and organisations rather than within individual clever heads. An ‘ecosystemic’ way of thinking focuses more on relationships than on entities, on processes for learning rather than procedures to create stability and on the free flow of novelty, rather than the artificial boundaries of turf or ownership. It recognises that different players have legitimately different roles (are different ‘species’ if you like) and that tying down those roles and the relationships (by service agreements or contracts, say) too tightly gets in the way of creativity.
Those of our alumni who have taken part in our programmes or in place-based projects and activities will recognise some of the concepts that underpin this type of ‘ecosystem’ thinking:
- The value of complex and vibrant networks where activities are distributed across a diverse group of players with sufficient but not-too-much connectivity between them
- The role of design-thinking approaches in loosening our problem definitions, stimulating our creativity and helping to iterate and experiment with a myriad of small solutions
- The importance of asset-based thinking and the need to include citizens, social entrepreneurs, businesses and pressure-groups in our conversations to help us shift perspective on the wicked issues we are trying to work on
- The use of reframing as a key tool for changing the whole way we see the situations in front of us and alerting us to the previously unconscious biases and assumptions we have been holding
- The necessity of shifting from a programmatic or initiative-based way of thinking to a campaign oriented approach, based on the ideas of social organising and social movements.
Anyone who works in a large public sector organisation will recognise the challenges of these ways of working to our normal organisational processes and governance practices – although a number of our alumni are already working with them within and across their local organisations. Luckily, our colleagues in other sectors (and, most of our citizens) are far less constrained – the social entrepreneurs, community groups and start-ups are already working effectively in this way. So, what could the role of local or central government, the NHS, the emergency services and other large players be? Well, perhaps we should shift our attention away from try to become the innovators ourselves to being the convenors, the funders, the protective umbrellas and the test-beds – the innovation infrastructure stewards who provide the spaces in which these smaller, more fleet-of-foot agents can play?
This way of innovating across organisations in a place or in a particular ‘problem space’ (eg housing, environmental resilience, mental health) would require significant rethinks on governance, funding flows, organisational boundaries and procurement processes to name but a few elements. But we at the Leadership Centre believe that the only way to go is to practice the ‘learning-by-doing’ that is at the heart of our programmes and work these things through as we go along.
Over the next year, we will be working more actively with this idea of innovation ecosystems across our portfolio. We invite any of our alumni who have an interest in this area to get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org so that we can curate a ‘coalition of the willing’ and see if we can generate a new level of creative flow on our most wicked social issues.
Here is some further reading on the ideas of innovation ecosystems and how they are being applied to work on social issues in other parts of the world: