Talking about innovation
Since Hannah Paterson started her new role leading our work at the Fund around Innovation, Policy and Practice she’s been busy. Back in February she reached out across Twitter looking to connect with those delivering interesting ways of doing things. Hannah was overwhelmed with responses as many people wanted to share their practice and also to find out more about what is happening here at the Fund. Here she reflects on some of her learning so far.
When I tweeted looking for interesting practice and thoughts on innovation, I didn’t imagine it would result in an avalanche of responses. However, after 70 conversations, I’ve seen some some interesting themes emerge. Here, I’ve pulled out the ones I think have the most relevance for funders and civil society to contemplate.
Curiously, not many people questioned what innovation was. People assumed the work they were doing was innovative. Some of the conversations I had were with incredible people doing great things but wouldn't be work I would necessarily define as innovative. It is difficult to unpick whether this is because they had the opportunity to chat to a funder and therefore just wanted to share their work rather than thinking of their work as innovative or whether their understanding of innovation was fundamentally different to my own.
This has been a key learning point and a good reminder about shared understanding and definitions. Who gets to define what is and isn’t innovative? How do we know if something is or isn’t innovative? How do we ensure the context in which people are working is considered? For example, what might be innovative to one person, place or issue might not be innovative to another.
Moving forward I’ll be looking at how we define, describe and frame innovation within the work that we do at the Fund both in what we fund but also in the way that we fund.
I have spoken to a lot of people within the creative and arts fields (whether that's storytelling, theatre, journalism, poetry, crafts, art, film) about how innovation lives and flourishes in this space. Creativity is intrinsically linked with innovation but it’s also a space where access to resources and funding has been particularly difficult, especially over the pandemic.
In contrast, over the last year the arts are where so many of us have found community, safety, connection and sanity. The Fund is not an arts funder but creative practices are used by many of the community groups we support up and down the country. For civil society and for funders we might want to be asking questions about how can we bring creativity and imagination into our work and use this to connect, heal and innovate?
Journalism, Mapping, Networks and Infrastructures
I had a lot of conversations with local journalists and journalist/media projects. Very few of these were connected and many thought they were the only people working in this space. This is a trend that happens across the UK and in all spheres.
Being able to map a sector takes time, capacity and money, it’s ever-changing and when we are working with our heads down it’s often difficult to look up and see who else is in the system. Peer-to-peer learning, collaboration, engagement and challenge is how we can push ourselves to think differently, bigger and notice the missing piece. It allows us to work with more humility and creativity, it provides inspiration and alternative perspectives to the work.
As a funder we should be considering how can we support, develop and fund the connections, networks, systems and infrastructures needed to connect and elevate the work? How does civil society re-imagine infrastructure and governance that enables approaches that don’t fit the mould? Can Funders be rethinking eligibility and develop ways of funding those working at the edges.
We’ve started to trial these ways of working through our Growing Great Ideas programme which supports eco-system funding and the Emerging Futures Fund which provided an opportunity for organisations to re-imagine what the future could be
Digital and Automated solutions
A common recurring theme highlighted poverty as it increasingly appears through the digital divide; citing a lack of access to equipment and the internet. Often this was flagged as a blocker - if you can’t get online then you can’t access the conversations and connections. This isn’t innovation but is perceived to be a big barrier to engaging with innovative practice, further perpetuating inequity in who is in and out of conversations and can mean those with privilege, money, time, access and resources will dominate thinking.
Questions for civil society become; How can innovation happen in a blended way both within our communities and online And, how do we make practice accessible and varied so that different people, voices and backgrounds are at the forefront of redesigning and imagining solutions that work for them?
I had conversations about developing and sharing free platforms to be used across different organisations to help make work easier, reduce time on admin, and support collaboration. Examples such as Miro, Mural, Jamboard (whiteboard tools) Calendly (calendar management), Google Docs/Slides (shared documents), Slack (collaboration/messaging space), and Trello (project management tool). These conversations dropped off as time progressed and I wonder if this is because as we continue to work in an online space we have become more familiar with these platforms and their use. I am interested to know more about the gaps in this space and have been impressed by the work that the Catalyst network https://www.thecatalyst.org.uk... has been doing to embed a culture of reuse across all their work.
Many conversations ended in thanks or started in a request for space and time to just bounce ideas off someone else. Being able to receive feedback, reassurance or just hear yourself talk through an idea can be helpful. It’s got me thinking a lot about how we seek and receive feedback, how we create the conditions to have honest and challenging conversations that might be tricky or overwhelming or a little uncomfortable but after some reflection enables us to expand our horizons or improve the work. How do we do this with care and compassion in a way that enables people to grow into their potential rather than shrink away from it? How can we feel excited about, rather than dread questions that ask, ‘have you thought about...’ or ‘yes and...’ or ‘if you’ve imagined this what next…?’ or ‘how will this impact…?’ or ‘who's missing?’ or ‘what harm might this cause?’ or ‘I think this could be better if you...’.
How can we seek these questions out? Where do we find the people who can ask them? And how can we be this person for others?
Making change stick
The final theme which came up repeatedly was how to make change stick? How do you create the conditions for people to be able to embrace change and embed new ways of working across an organisation or system? I spoke to people who were exploring an array of approaches, from behavioural profiles to health psychology, service design to centring collective wisdom and relationship building. This was an interesting and universal challenge and one that so many of us are grappling with but with no clear answers.
Over the next few months, I will be further considering these insights as well as other conversations with other funders and those working within The National Lottery Community Fund to test and explore how we create the space and conditions for innovation. I’ll continue to map, understand and define what innovation means across civil society.
I hope, this will be an open, honest and reflective conversation with space to learn, to challenge and develop our thinking. If anything in this blog has piqued your interest or you would like to chat about innovation and how we understand and support it please do get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org
With huge thanks to all of those people who took the time to contact me and to share their thoughts and ideas through a conversation.