Contrarian, Spiritual, Strategic Innovation

Peter JonesHuman Values, Social Innovation, Transformation Design

We often speak of social innovation as if we’re applying the principles of business and product innovation to a social product. However, there are significant differences in how we treat service markets and how we participate in communities where we (and participants) have a democratic stake. They are both social systems, but markets are organized around price and supply/demand signals. Social systems are organized around a shared meaning – at least normatively, if not typically in their design.

What we call social innovation is (historically) a new practice area, and the start of a very long term trend. Those working in the many areas of socially-desirable services and practices might recognize the breadth and diversity of the field, that so many types of service and innovation can be considered social innovation. I do have a real concern that social innovation is becoming as hyped as much as everything else touched by People with Jobs on the Internet. As with “Design” and the very word “social,” I believe societal participants must claim their ownership and responsibility for the long-term vision of social innovation. It is not something IDEO invented. In the late 1990’s Flores and Dreyfus described the relationships between entrepreneurship, leadership and social action (in Disclosing New Worlds). Their claim for the  practice of “history-making” was based the skill of interpretive speaking in creating culture.

There’s a social innovation trend that gets no respect, perhaps because it has been the domain of hucksters and flawed human beings in the past. But as with all social systems, things are changing, and practices with a core of truth and meaning beg to find some form. We might call it spiritual innovation, an idealistic, far-reaching, non-outcome oriented creation of value. As my colleague (Agoras Institute board) Tom Flanagan posted recently:

The Tea Party in Madison, Wisconsin, the Tent Cities in Israel, the Riots in London …. Gandhi today might once again say “We caught the religious imagination of an angry people.”  But who is the “we” this time around.  Our religious institutions seem unprepared for this moment in history.  What comes next?

Not what come next, but who?  There was a time the Catholic Church weighed in against inhumane economic power and advocated for the poor. The Anglicans were much more more activist in the past. The Buddhist community was engaged in peace activism more during Vietnam than (at least visibly) now. Supposedly young activists are organizing using Twitter to demand democracy. When I use Twitter I find I’m guided by my own interests, and a bias toward instrumental outcome takes over. I AM on the computer after all, so don’t waste my time any more than it is!

Younger people (especially) continue to drop away from traditional religious institutions, finding forms and teachings perhaps irrelevant today. Yet leaders with spiritual intent of our memorable past invoked a global liberation that inspired – and led- lasting change in nations and people. MLK, Dorothy Day, Gandhi, the authorship of Thomas Merton. We think of them as activists, but first they were preachers, of sorts. They had something to say.

An now, are we all so wary of “being preachy” that peaceful and ethical voices for alternative action are being overlooked? Are voices in the wilderness ignored? Have we expanded collective “insight” to the point that true contrarian wisdom is just noise in the field of strong egotistic signals?

What would emerge if we collaborated with religious leaders and social activists to co-design a cooperative social system based on shared deep drivers of spiritual values?

I’m just asking at this point. I’m asking “What is a contrarian innovator?”  A humane innovator?  A spiritual innovator? Are there forms of strategic innovation we can pursue toward different ends than market or “social” success? What if the envisioned success of coordinated democratic innovation was a 50 year humanitarian mission? What if all the financing of action generated by invested institutions could not buy or intervene the humane innovation? What if we knew we were unstoppable?

What if the way we pursued strategy was more important to the outcome than the content and design of the strategy itself?  What if the successful coordinated strategic action of an organization was the result of deeply embodying a visualized possibility and conversation for action? What if our organization was based on agreement, and not hire or barter of time for service?

Informed strategic action does not occur as a result of publishing a documented plan and motivating people to carry out the plan.  Strategic leadership cultivates a shared philosophy among organizational members – it is not a project action plan. This may not yet be “true” in the sense of testing empirically – but it may be true to the experience of one’s success.

What if a postmodern, individualist view keeps us isolated from and defeats commitment?

What if an informed, shared strategic innovation was itself the creation of a damn good meta-narrative that stuck in people’s minds for a generation? Whose narrative would we trust? Can we create one together  that together helps people thrive and build humane cultures as new social systems of trust, compassion, integrity, and mutual production?