Four new rules for radicals
Local Trust’s new innovation lead considers some problems with innovation - and how to solve them.
By David King, innovation lead, Local Trust
Mention innovation to a community group and you'll get a polarised response. One reaction is to think of the potential of new ideas or technologies. There’s a constant supply of new models and initiatives being tested around the world. As a result, communities can get information on local sports events more easily, crowdfund city improvements, build affordable half-houses and much more. For some, this rush of information can bring new enthusiasm when addressing stubborn problems.
The other reaction might be an eye roll. Putting on a brave face as government budgets have been cut, many have used ‘innovation’ to convince others that it is possible to do ‘more for less’. This faith system comes with language and practices that can end up alienating the very communities most likely to be hit by cuts.
As Local Trust’s new innovation lead, it would be easy for me to extol the positive, exciting side of innovation. But challenges exist, and I think it’s important to engage with the knottier side of innovation.
This scene from the BBC comedy, The Thick of It, captures the absurdity of using the language of innovation to mask a terrible idea.
Since getting involved in campaigning, I’ve had a copy of Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals on the shelf. The straightforward rules helped to grow the community development approach and are even rumoured to have influenced Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.
However, I worry that they could be interpreted in the wrong way, encouraging the wrong behaviours. For instance, Rule 2 – ‘Never go outside the expertise of your people’ – could quite easily become ‘amplify luddites and stunt the development of solutions.’ If Alinsky was alive today, I’d like to think he’d clarify these rules and create some additional rules. Something like:
1. Use the language of the people you’re trying to support
Anyone with a new idea or technology should adapt to the language used by the community they are looking to support. In many cases this could be easy. All of the talk of being user-centered in product design seems to chime with communities lobbying public services to be more responsive to their needs. Swap ‘user’ with ‘people’ or ‘community’ when pitching an idea?
However, we need be careful not to dumb down language and concepts that do need to be taken on their own terms, or that could benefit community groups if volunteers were able to learn about them.
At Local Trust we’ve given all of our areas access to statistical reports about their localities. Language in these reports could be unfamiliar, but volunteers involved in the programme have engaged with enthusiasm, and we hope they’ll be better placed to support their communities as a result of learning how to interpret them.
2. Make maintenance exciting
Innovation shouldn’t just mean new initiatives, but it so often does, denying us the chance to recognise the value of what is already in place. Community and social projects in particular have often struggled with sustaining good ideas over the long term. Getting distracted by new things means we pay less attention to maintaining what’s already working. Overall, this can mean we risk losing as many valuable projects as we gain.
In Big Local, there are some incredible projects already in place, like using air-fibre to increase rural internet speeds or setting up a Community Land Trust so the community can own land. We should be thinking about new ideas and technologies that support these projects to endure.
3. Don’t lose sight of the evidence base
To justify pulling our attention away from existing projects, innovations need to have a strong evidence base. However, by their very nature, innovative projects might be weak in this area. To benefit from new ideas, community groups need to test them at the smallest scale possible, then reflect on whether they’ve brought any new benefits before scaling them more widely.
4. Work in the way you want others to
Often innovations seem ridiculous because it’s clear the people pushing them don’t follow them in practice. To be credible and convince communities to work with an idea, you have to show evidence you believe in it. Actually using your model or technology can quickly highlight things that need changing.
For us at Local Trust, that means testing new ideas for the Big Local programme to match the rhetoric of the programme: the most exciting experiment in community-led regeneration in the UK.
I’ll try to update and expand these rules. If you have any gripes about innovation or guides for supporting new ideas to translate into benefits, I’d love to read them.