“I personally don’t like the term ‘innovations’, because it has a kind of white-out effect,” admits Nicholas Gruen.
Coming from the chairman of The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI) it’s a surprising thing to hear, but he quickly expands on his point. “There is nothing visceral about ‘innovation’, but what satisfies me about what we do at TACSI is that it is real. It is engaging. And it gets to grips with people’s deepest issues.”
It’s a powerful point. Based in the Australian city of Adelaide and set up in 2009, TACSI’s activities are driven by its belief that the best ideas and innovations stem from those people who experience the challenges they are trying to solve. “The world is very different when you look at it from the users’ perspective, rather than that of the professionals,” he explains.
“This idea is very much in our DNA and we go to pretty much every social policy issue with this question in our mind, which is: ‘Where is the perspective of the people who we are trying to help being missed out?’ We want to build things with their point of view. And this point of the empathic bond between peers – building a programme around this – seems to me to be a very powerful thing. Unfortunately I don’t often see it in professional programmes, if at all.”
Keeping it in the family
High among TACSI’s priorities has been its work in the area of families and child protection, which was one of its first projects. It arose from a request by the South Australian government to help cut the number of families needing crisis services and to help keep more kids out of the child protection system.
“So, we worked with families to codesign a new programme to help them make the changes they wanted to make in their own lives,” explains Gruen. “We find families who have been through tough times and connect them with families who want things to change. It is a programme that reflects as much professional knowledge as any programme, but it is all subverted to the users’ perspectives and needs. The difference is very powerful in terms of its effectiveness. You see these families doing visceral work with each other and there is a strong empathic bond around which the logic of the programme works, and this has proven to be very effective.
The programme – ‘Family by Family’ – has a number of benefits. By tapping into families it ensures that support is available 24/7 as opposed to nine to five on a working day. And it is also extremely efficient – one professional family coach works with 15 ‘sharing families’, who in turn work with 40 ‘seeking families’, reaching up to 100 children at risk. “It has saved the government lots of money,” adds Gruen. “It’s been difficult to obtain the basic data necessary for us to determine our effectiveness compared with alternatives, but our best estimate is that for every dollar governments spend on Family by Family, they stand to save seven. It keeps kids out of state care and other child protection and crisis services.”
Spreading the success
The priority now, though, is to scale the programme so it can help even more people. “The things that we are doing are comfortably accommodated by the system and don’t go very far,” he concedes. “The main roadblock is that to really scale it, and have it replace much less effective spending over a period of time, requires a comprehensive transformation. It requires an ability to map investments to where they are most effective – reducing them in some places. Somehow this is very hard for the system because to do it there will be unions, management, different groups of people all telling you that it shouldn’t, mustn’t and can’t be done.”
To overcome such barriers, Gruen and his colleagues can point to the positive impact of Family by Family as they seek to persuade other government departments to adopt a similar bottom-up approach to innovation. “We can present increasingly strong evidence that expanding this programme will lower costs and improve the life chances of some of the most vulnerable people in society,” he says. “Not many investments can make this claim.”
Unfortunately, Gruen says there remains much scope for improvement, as a reluctance to embrace change remains all too prevalent. “It’s puzzling how far we are from solutions that, when you think about it, are just common sense,” he says. “Consider the fact that schools continue to be bad at teaching people. It sounds like a terrible thing to say because I guess they are OK at it but, for example, the maths curriculum hasn’t changed in Australia since I was a kid and hasn’t changed in any large way for 100 years. We still teach trigonometry rather than data science and analytics. We just keep doing what we’re doing and, in many ways, the schools serve teachers’ and bureaucrats’ interests as much as, or more than, their students’.”
By contrast, TACSI has identified five critical factors to effective social innovation. Firstly, any innovation is based on assumptions about the current situation, what’s possible and what will work locally. A good innovation approach improves assumptions about the current situation and widens assumptions about what’s possible. Secondly, good innovation draws on people’s real-life expertise at all stages to build solutions that work for them.
Thirdly, breakthrough innovation comes from the application of new thinking to long-standing problems. This takes teams able to draw on a wide set of references and combine their knowledge to develop new solutions. Fourthly, good innovation stems from trying things out at a small scale and making mistakes early to reduce the risk of failure at a larger scale. And finally, thinking about scale and designing for implementation is necessary from the start. This requires leadership willing to commit resources to embrace a rigorous approach to developing, testing and spreading solutions that work.
“Whether or not governments pick this up is out of our hands, but what I can say is that it looks like we have a good story to tell,” concludes Gruen. “Government is already putting a lot of resources into problems and still not solving them, but if you start wrestling with this stuff then you can make the resources work much better. Having seen the work TACSI does, I think many intractable problems really can be fixed. That’s not something I thought six years ago. Time will tell if the people who tell us they want to see innovation really do, or whether they ultimately prefer business as usual with a few innovation baubles on the side.”
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