03 February 2010

Australian Centre for Social Innovation - Adelaide

Reposted in full from the Adelaide Review, 28 January 2010

'The Australian Centre for Social Innovation is the latest in a series of institutions that aim to provide both the city of Adelaide and the state of South Australia with guidance in creatively addressing a raft of current and potential social problems. The Adelaide Review spoke with newly appointed CEO Brenton Caffin.

With strong support from the Premier and South Australian government, the idea for the development of an Australian Centre for Social Innovation, headquartered in Adelaide, came from a key recommendation from former Thinker in Residence, Geoff Mulgan. Mulgan argued for the role of such institutions in developing methods for social innovation and better matching the supply of good ideas to the demand of current and future social problems, of which there are no shortage.

Following Mulgan’s recommendation, the State Government agreed to provide seed funding to establish the Centre and recruited a national Board, chaired by Phillip Adams, to oversee the Centre’s development. New CEO Brenton Caffin joined the Centre in October last year and has since been working with the Board on both the business plan and program of work for 2010.

Social innovation, lest it be thought a rather woolly term, could be best described as “a novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just than existing solutions and for which the value created accrues primarily to society as a whole rather than private individuals”. Geoff Mulgan has succinctly described social innovation as “new ways to address unmet social needs”.

South Australia has a strong tradition of social innovation, from the early development of the Torrens title, legislation to enable women to run for parliament, the establishment of the South Australian Housing Trust back in the 1930s, environmental legislation such as the container deposit and more recently the plastic bag ban and alternative accommodation initiatives such as Common Ground. Meanwhile, global examples range from the Grameen Bank’s development of micro-finance in Bangladesh through to new ways of online collaboration such as WikiPedia.

A social innovation can be a product, production process, or technology (much like innovation in general), but it can also be a principle, an idea, a piece of legislation, a social movement, an intervention, or some combination of them.

“Social innovation can take place within government, within traditional companies, or within the non-profit or third sector, but is increasingly seen to happen most effectively in the space between the three sectors,” comments Caffin.

“We will definitely be drawing lessons from a range of models, while putting our own flavour on what we do here. The Young Foundation (where Mulgan is Director), which builds on the 50 year legacy of social entrepreneur Michael Young, has been extremely supportive to date in sharing their thoughts and experiences. There are some other excellent examples, such as MindLab in Copenhagen and KennisLand (or KnowledgeLand) in Amsterdam, that I recently had the privilege to visit.

“From the White House (Obama has established an Office for Social Innovation) through to Singapore and New Zealand, there is a growing movement for institutions like ours to contribute to achieving positive social change through innovation. Collaboration with these institutions will be key to developing our methods and ideas further.”

A primary task will be simply raising awareness of social innovation in Australia – identifying, supporting and promoting the best social innovations across the country and getting involved on projects that will see a social impact here. And while ultimately the goal is to be a national centre of excellence in the field of social innovation and some initiatives will be pitched at a national audience, much of the Centre’s initial work will start in South Australia.

March 2010 will see the launch of Bold Ideas, Better Lives, Australia’s Social Innovation Challenge, where individuals, communities and organisations across Australia can submit their ideas to the Centre. Working closely with a shortlist of entrants, ideas will be developed into feasible projects and in the final stage up to 10 projects will be supported both financially – there is $1m on the table – as well as with capacity-building to implement their ideas.

The Centre is also looking to explore the potential of using design-thinking approaches to radically redesign social services.

“The design community, as exemplified in the work and writings of Tim Brown and the team at IDEO, is rediscovering its role in not just designing better products, but in making better lives. At the same time, constraints on public spending are forcing the public sector to think creatively about how to achieve policy outcomes in more cost-effective ways. We are keen to bring these two worlds together to experiment with and develop new ways of working and new models of service delivery,” adds Caffin.

There will be an emphasis on collaboration.

“One of the first questions we ask when conceiving a new project is “who can we work with on this?” We recognise that there is a huge range of expertise, interest and passion out there and we want to harness that power and enthusiasm and avoid reinventing the wheel. So we’ll be partnering with institutions, communities and individuals to make sure we’re finding the best way forward to achieve positive change in our society.

“Ultimately, the Centre has been set up to contribute to a more inclusive and just society for all Australians by being an incubator for socially innovative ideas and a safe space for experimentation. The pace, scale and complexity of challenges that are emerging, from climate change adaptation to the consequences of an ageing society, means that we have our work cut out. Staying relevant means addressing existing social problems while recognising and responding to new and emerging challenges. Ultimately, we will be judged on the value of the contribution we make.”

In this respect, Caffin urges the public to become directly involved: “Talk to us. Write to us. Come to our events. Dream up an idea and let us know. Is something affecting your community? Tell us your story and what you want to see changed (even better, tell us how you think you can change it). People lie at the heart of social innovation so we will be actively looking for ways to get people involved.”

For more information, visit www.tacsi.org.au or write to: info@tacsi.org.au

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