Social innovation campers have green ideas

Most of the activist and grassroots community organising I’ve been part of has struggled with some of the basics. It was something that took up a surprising amount of effort. Where are going to meet? Are there enough chairs? Can we make a cuppa after the meeting?

I don’t remember a time we ever had chardonnay served as we neared the end of a session.

So it was slightly to my disbelief when 4 o’clock chimed at a gathering of keen social innovators on Saturday that drinks appeared. The panoramic view over Wellington harbour, with yachts bobbling, was made even more alluring.

This gathering kick started a process for “anyone in NZ with a great idea to use the web for social good [to] find the support they need to make it a reality”.  The basic premise is to match people with ideas and knowledge of social needs and opportunities, with doers (in this case the room was dominated by people from the web industry) and investors.

A few more meet-ups are being organised in preparation for a weekend camp in November. In the months  leading up to the camp, the main focus is on generating and selecting ideas (based on pressing needs) which are then rapidly developed by teams. A support package is then offered to a few projects to help them get off their feet. The NZ process is modelled on highly successful camps run in UK.

It’s one of the initiatives of the new NZ Centre for Social Innovation which is bringing together business, community, academia, government and anyone else interested in social entrepreneurism.

The top ideas from Saturday were:

  • “10,000 Micro Exporters” – Leveraging the overseas market knowledge of Kiwis returning home and migrants to create new niche opportunities for micro-exporting (and importing)
  • “Community Gardens” – Hyper-local communities, based around community gardens, connecting and sharing food, skills and assistance assisted by a web tool
  • “Alternative Energy” – An idea for the development of a community grid.

(See “SI Camp Meet-Up, Saturday 6 June, Wellington – Off to A Great Start!”)

Of all the ideas that came up during a well facilitated afternoon, community gardening is the one which holds some promise of fundamental change. It contains within it a seed of many things, such as:

  • a shift away from dependence on a globalised market economy
  • a way of creating and sustaining relationships between neighbours
  • emphasing a quality of life based on what we do not what we consume.

And so much more.

As the idea of promoting self-organising neighbourhoods itself is not new (and in particular I recall Ted Trainor’s concept of a radical conserver society) there is a lot of prior knowledge and experience to inject into a social innovation context. Learning from the past and also what is already being done has got to be the place to start.

Some other aspects of the conversation on Saturday didn’t work for me. The framing of social problems was one. Rather than focusing on individuals who are excluded by structural inequalities (ie people who experience the consequences of an unfair society), I’d describe things in terms of our collective responsibility to ensure even one has fair life chances and how systemic barriers fail many people. To avoid the very real danger of paternalism, I’d ask people experiencing the worst in an unjust and unfair society to speak for themselves.

The SICAMP meet-up was a stimulating place for creating ideas in a cossetted environment. If we’re able to turn our minds to productively fine-tuning ideas, without scrabbling around for basic facilities, this could gain some real traction. The past being a poor predictor of the future I can’t hazard a guess where this will go. Instead, I’ll draw on the wisdom of our elders: watch this space.