Power of Us – Prototyping the 21st Century Town Hall

Funders and social investors for social change in the UK sit in a pivotal moment. A moment where unmet social need is growing exponentially on the ground, driven by a combination of shifting economics and contraint supply of public capital. The scale of demand is such that it is increasingly inconceivable for it to be filled by grant capital or grant funds. We find ourselves amidst a new class of massive wicked societal challenges, from growing structural inequality to in-work poverty. Birmingham is an archetype of the future the UK is facing – its levels of economic disadvantage, material deprivation and health inequality are indicators of this reality. The scale and nature of these challenges provides an opportunity for disruptive innovation with one of the youngest and most diverse populations in the EU, Birmingham is well placed with great necessity to reimagine and remake what is possible and necessary.

Demand management and cost control have become the buzzwords of the day in mainstream public sector consultancy, the days of consolidation efficiencies appear to have gone. Grant funders have in many ways been reduced to looking to for silver bullets, looking for magical key leverage positions and the ‘overton window’ of change been reduced to social enterprises, startups, programmes of capacity building and intrapreneurship innovation. Our new world of messy interdependency requires us to progress from the comforting illusion of a single causal solution towards one recognising the role of system change and shifts; where the solution exists in a framework of new institutions, policies, startups, new finance & data tools and instruments.

History in many ways shows us a different pathway, massive social change is hardly ever driven through an enterprise model alone, or from actors in a single domain be it policy, or venturing. Instead, it has been shown change is only to possible through the passion, investment and contribution of many people, diverse organisations and actors, collaborating entrepreneurially with shared purpose and open mission.

As David Callahan wrote: “While I can think of a number of social entrepreneurs who’ve come up with innovative ways to solve specific problems. Like, say, helping more low-income people get business loans or putting more solar panels on homes, I can’t think of any who’ve lately been instrumental in spearheading large-scale change. You know, the kind of change that affects millions of people and makes the front page of the New York Times.”

Change and the funding of change can no longer be the sole responsibility of any one sector, business, hero entrepreneur or foundation via a single magic bullet of a product, service, start up or policy. We are increasingly understanding that change has to be unleashed as the collective collaborations of interventions across a system, unlocked by a movement of changemakers. These changemaker movements span across multiple disciplines from citizen campaigns, corporates, policy makers, entrepreneurs, to NGOs, government and beyond. Hero social entrepreneurs and startups are not enough on their own.

Social innovation is the collective effort to face entrenched social issues through the collaborative and coordinated action of the public, private, third sector and citizens at large. Today most social issues (for instance poverty, social exclusion, quality of health care) and macro challenges (such as ageing, climate change, the sustainability of welfare systems) interlink with one another and drive a cycle of deprivation. Social ills cannot be faced one at a time, in isolation, by adopting single points of intervention. For instance, if we want to increase educational attainment in a neighbourhood or in a country the question is not simply one of whether more funding should be allocated to just schools. It is necessary to intervene in multiple domains affecting education in the area. These might include investing in prenatal nutrition, establishing breakfast clubs, setting reading clubs to mentor pupils, mother’s and fathers associations to support young parents, youth circles to provide peer support and developing new technology to facilitate communication between parents and teachers.

Numerous historic examples exist of multi actor models of change. Many social movements have moved beyond the venture and any one sector or actor. For example, the Tea Party, Black Lives Matter in the US, Women’s Equality Party, Occupy, Anonymous, Incredible Todmorden are examples of the power of movements, whether we agree with the outcomes or not, as David Callahan shared the power to catalyse change has been palpable. However, as has been often stated activism is not enough, be it click activism or street. We need policy change, new institutional infrastructures, new interventions, new products and services. This needs to be built on the the legitimacy of action, the dialogue around the issues, the authenticity to act galavanised by social / civic movements. Together we begin to have the architecture and legitimacy of change. Globally, examples of multi actor co – funded, co – designed, co – delivered and co – evaluated innovations are emerging such as LA2050People’s LibertyOpen Works amongst others, however they are largely black swans going against the tide, and often do not have the support of institutional infrastructure to drive the level and scale of change required.

At the center of many of the emerging examples is the re-discovery of new models, shared and collaborative action, wealth, economics and powers of change. All modalities which transcend the singly delegated representative or the individual entrepreneurial hero, venture or actor. They all move beyond the single product, policy, programme, service innovation, or civic participation. It requires us to build movements of multi-actors of change, openly and invitingly sharing the mission. This means that we need a new systems approach, in which the public, private, third sector and citizens work together as a movement for change. In such a movement, the actors will operate together to sense make, understand, and address how to face entrenched social issues in the most effective way by co-designing, co-funding, co-delivering and co- evaluating innovative solutions. Together, subservient to an open mission, with the shared outcomes, collective wealth, intelligence and collective progress at the core of the mission.

This transition will require the collective and collaborative leadership of multiple institutions. They must work together to build this shared institutional infrastructure, invest in building a shared language, shared taxonomy, shared and open data, shared understanding and comprehension, and shared leadership / governance models, shared financial models in a system, along with a shared social contract. These are some of the necessary preconditions for defining and reaching shared outcomes, system awareness and collective wealth driven by interventions. This presents us with the key institutional transformation challenge, how we move from silos of organisations / sectors to impact systems?

We need to build a model of change that unlocks the #PowerofUs and the corresponding institutional infrastructure to match the scale of collaborative change required. This requires us to understand and build on the emerging tools and techniques of unleashing the power of us which are open, collaborative and sustainable. This must be across business, government and NGO’s, from crowdsourcing, open source communities, open innovation, impact capital, open data, social media, to social innovation. Alongside this we need to re-invent the corresponding institutional ‘dark matter’ to unlock new models of systems accounting, governance, financing and design of large scale system change to embed and truly unlock the power of us in and across our 21st century cities, towns and villages.

Traditionally we have had representative democratic institutions for addressing the change required, these institutions now struggle to address the complexity of change and challenges alone. We need a new model of the Town Hall, which is part policy lab, part accelerator, part civic movement builder / change platform, part open research laboratory. These new models must be underpinned by a new model of civic legitimacy and system financing. We need a new model of Town Halls to unlock 21st century understanding of ‘us’, to seed new large scale open collaborations of change, and build the shared capital required for change.

This is an open invitation to build this shared mission, where funders are invited to be the new Carnegie’s of the 21st Century investing into re-imagining and developing the necessary institutional infrastructure for change.

Indy Johar