Sunday 6 May 2012

Austerity and Innovation - Reinventing Society

Over the last week, I have been busy - let me bring you up to date.  Last Wednesday, May 2, I tuned in to a podcast of the MARS lecture on "Austerity and Innovation" given by Geoff Mulgan who is the Chief Exec of the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) in the UK.

Before you stop reading because you think this material might be too dry, well.....keep reading.

There is a small-ish group of people working internationally at the top of their game in the field of innovation (and this discussion has direct benefit to our disability community).  Geoff Mulgan, Al Etmanski, Tim Draimin, Dr. Frances Westley, and Sir Ronald Cohen are a few of the visionaries who are working together to map sustainable solutions for the wellbeing of marginalized populations, including people with disabilities.  Their ideas may well be the key to a good life for Nicholas and future populations with disabilities in the developed world and beyond.

Geoff Mulgan began his talk on Austerity and Innovation with a slide of a J.M.W. Turner painting titled "The Fighting Temeraire".

The image depicts a huge and beautiful shipped being tugged to her last Berth, to be broken up.  The tug is steam powered - the ship is not.  Mulgan uses this image as a metaphor for innovation.... sometimes we have to break apart what we know and love in order to replace it with something that is perhaps smaller and uglier.  But we must do this to truly innovate - we must have the courage to smash old systems in order to experiment with something that might have great potential for transformational change.

Often, it's austerity that pushes us to explore new ideas for getting what we need.  When budget-conscius travellers found hotels too expensive, people began 'couch surfing'.  It's now the world's largest travel community.  Another stunning example of austerity innovation is the Aakash tablet computer, an extremely low cost device currently being massed produced for the poorest of the world's poor and distributed free to university students in India.

According to Mulgan, 14% of corporate budgets is spent on innovation, research and development.  But no public agency spends this kind of money to invest in change.  The question posed to the audience was "How can 20% in health, education or social services budgets be absorbed without compromising service?"  The traditional answer to that question is to freeze budgets and sell assets.  A creative response is to innovate at the organizational level.

For practical examples of possible transformational change, Mulgan asked us to think about circuit economies - those sectors of public services where people in need of publicly funded assistance keep coming back for more - the recidivism of convicted criminals or people re-hospitalized after medical procedures.  In those cases, one of the great ideas spearheaded by Sir Ronnie Cohen and gaining momentum in Canada is the social impact bond.  This investment tool pays service deliverers based on the success rate of their social impact.... the more effective the social impact (eg. lowering recidivism rates), the greater the investment in the company or agency and the greater the return to the fund investors (private individuals or governments).  It's an exciting idea and one that I believe holds great promise.

Mulgan talked about community asset sharing as an idea that is beginning to take hold in austerity-bound Britain.  In the economy of commitment, Mulgan says that putting responsibility into the hands of people who care most about outcomes is a good place to start.  The upkeep of parks as the responsibility of a neighbourhood was one example he gave.  Another was a fascinating response to the widespread closure of public libraries in the UK.  A national website called Bookhopper has sprouted up that prompts people to list the books on their own shelves at home, then share and exchange with neighbours or lend through Amazon.  Book lovers meet their neighbours and forge community ties - it's a whole lot better than closed libraries with no alternatives for free book exchanges.

So, what would be the requirements for government at all levels to change so dramatically during my lifetime?

Geoff Mulgan identifies a few prerequisites for deep, systemic change:

  • revolutionize the way in which government makes public their costs and outcomes- eg when all heart surgeons in the UK published their post-surgical mortality rates, the worst surgeons were outed and survival rates improved.
  • aggregate capital across different services based on economies of 'flow' - eg. in my last post, I blogged about the couple with disabilities in Toronto and their newborn baby.  The homecare workers assigned to the couple were not allowed to assist the parents in caring for the baby, so the Children's Aid Society threatened to remove the child.  An aggregation of funding and service to focus on the family unit would save money and deliver a service that is truly helpful.
  • government must create and fund arms length think tanks to experiment with models of change and innovation.  This is what happens in the field of science, and in Social Science, models must be tested before they are rolled out to vulnerable populations.
Audience members and those listening via podcast were invited to ask questions after the presentation.  My question was "in the UK today, there is a greater degree of perceived and real austerity than in Canada.  What level of austerity do you believe we need in order to kick-start breaking apart our old systems and inventing new ones?"  Mulgan replied that he doesn't believe there is a direct connection between austerity and innovation, but austerity can certainly be a driver for change.  That said, he challenged leaders to create a 'feeling of austerity' to drive innovation.  

Do our leaders, federal, provincial or local have the courage to create a 'feeling of austerity' in the cause of innovation?  I would love to hear opinions on that matter.

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