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How to support innovation using the ESF 11 November 2015

Posted by cooperatoby in Social enterprise.
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Social innovation is one of the buzziest words of the last few years – but once it is mentioned the almost inevitable follow-up is – “whatever it means…” Everyone knows that social innovation is a good thing, and they want more of it, from more people. But how do they know whether they have it or not? Even more problematically, how can they encourage its emergence?
In some senses this dilemma is a long-standing one: the European Commission has habitually refused to answer the question “what is innovation?”, retorting that “if we knew what it was, it wouldn’t be innovation”. Sometimes I have suspected that European programmes place such a premium on innovation purely because that is the institutional space left for them – the day-to-day stuff is left to the Member State level.
The popularisation of the social innovation meme by President Barroso and others has raised the stakes. In transnational work in the ESF, for example, social innovation is supposed to be mainstreamed. And innovation has to be more than creativity – it implies rigorous management in making change happen.

Flanders institutionalises innovation

Flanders is a region that has got ahead through innovation, and the Flemish ESF Agency is one of the few to take a serious and structured approach to encouraging innovation. It devotes 8.5% of its ESF budget – €32m – to innovation and transnationality. On 26-27 October it held a seminar in Brussels to selflessly transfer to other ESF managers the results of an 18-month project to improve the way the ESF supports innovation: Meer werk maken van innovatie voor werkgelegenheid en arbeidsmarkt. The project involved partners from the Czech Republic, Sweden and Poland. 70 people from the ESF all over the EU community attended the event.
Project activities included a literature review, study visits and exchange events, and its results are presented in a comprehensive 396-page toolkit. This focuses on service development but also says something about systems innovation.

Theoretical framework

The first thing to say is that the seminar was hard work – and I mean that in a good way. The content was challenging – even the bits when the participants were supposed to have the luxury of sitting back and absorbing presentations. When it came to doing exercises the effort demanded was even more. But it was well worth the effort, and Benedict Wauters is to be thanked and congratulated for sharing his results.
The content was unique in my experience in that it combined the most abstruse of theory with the most hands-on of practice – and took in some illuminating practical examples along the way.
The theoretical framework Flanders has adopted is based on Theory U which emphasises interactions between people, works upwards to transition theory and has the final goal of improving human welfare and development.
The theoretical underpinning came in the form of presentations from two EU-funded research projects on what social innovation is.

• Theory 1: A multilevel theory of transition

The first is TRANSIT (Transformative Social Innovation Theory), presented by Flor Avelino from Erasmus University in Rotterdam.
In her vocabulary, a transition is the sort of high-level innovation that takes between 20 and 50 years to occur, and is further-reaching than the three lower levels, a systems innovation, a process innovation or a product or service innovation. Transitions evolve over time: the challenge of peak oil became that of climate change and is now all about the economic crisis.
She defined 3 levels of socio-economic processes:
• The highest level is the landscape or underlying process such as climate change and population ageing
• In the middle comes the socio-economic regime, or set of dominant practices – such as an oil-based economy
• At the lowest level come niches – spaces for innovation that are opened up by technological developments – such as wind power or car-sharing
The theory holds that the regime will defend the status quo, so one of these transitions will happen only when it gets caught in a pincer movement from both sides at once: caught between a shock in the landscape – such as climate change – and the opening up of a technological niche like a new form of energy generation. To my simple mind this is a more developed way of saying there has to be both a supply and a demand for innovations, and no barriers in the process of matching them. But the theory puts it in dialectical rather than market terms.
Flanders SI -  the bigger picture of innovation.
A multilevel strategy for transition management therefore involves playing into landscape developments, challenging regimes and empowering niches to scale up.
Social innovation involves a change in the social relations through which we know, frame, organise and do things. This brings to the fore the concept of agency – what can people do? It is expressed in a set of new social movements which challenge the status quo. The project is studying 20 of these, focusing on Europe and Latin America, and including Impact Hubs, Ecovillages, Fab Labs and RIPESS.
The project is looking at how different narratives of change interact, including, in the field of ‘new economy’, the green economy, the collaborative economy, social entrepreneurship and the social economy, and the solidarity economy – i.e. changing the whole economic system including the private and public sectors. What they have in common is that they are hybrid – they challenge the boundaries between public and private, formal and informal, and for- profit and non-profit. Above all, they involve a shift in power relations. However it is unclear how power is shifting – in the case, for example of Airbnb. What seems like a transformation may in fact be a capture by the existing regime.

• Theory 2: Capability theory

The second research project, CRESSI – Creating Economic Space for Social Innovation, was presented by Nadia von Jacobi of Pavia University. It is applying Amartya Sen’s Capability Theory to social innovation. Basically this holds that social progress is about expanding people’s opportunities; it is not only about the resources people have, but the choices they can make. From a given set of resources (or endowments) – which include the physical environment, institutions, social networks and cognitive frames – people are subject to a set of ‘conversion factors’ – such as their individual traits and the context they find themselves in – which determine the ‘capability set’ of choices they have open to them. Social innovation occurs when the functionings people achieve feeds back and influences the resources available.
If people are to have greater agency, they need to be empowered. They need to have various sorts of power:
• power over – you can resist manipulation by others
• power with – you can act in groups
• power to – you can create new possibilities
• power from within – you can change yourself
Social innovation involves people forming networks and exerting power on three forces in society: institutions, social networks and cognitive frames. This bottom-up approach overcomes the pitfalls of the top-down logic, which treats people, as target groups – patients rather than agents, underestimates complexity and assumes it is neutral with regard to the existing asymmetry of power.

An example of service design

As regards practical tool for social innovation, seminar participants had a choice of two, and I chose service design, presented by Kelly Pollard and Laure Monbrun of PearsonLloyd, a London-based designers. In the A Better A&E project the consultants worked with the UK Department of Health and the Design Council to improve the quality of the waiting experience in accident and emergency depart¬ments of hospitals. The objective was to reduce aggression and violence against A&E staff, of which there are 55,000 cases each year in the UK, which cost the NHS €95m.
Flanders A better A&E resultsThe process they undertook was a little counterintuitive. Instead of tackling head-on the relatively small number of case of direct physical violence, they decided to reduce the frustration patients felt all the way through their visit to A&E, thus improving the quality of life for a great many more people.
The process they went through is known as the ‘double diamond’ (not the beer I used to avoid in the 70s) and comprises 4 stages: discover -> define -> develop -> deliver. It involved talking to the stakeholders to learn about their behaviour and needs, mapping the patient experience, and developing a clear set of charts and signs which would make sure that patients knew what was happening to them at any given moment. They also produced guidance for staff and are developing a mobile phone application. Equipping a hospital costs about €80,000 and typically shows a return on investment of 3:1.

Designing ESF calls for innovation

The seminar’s third section showed us how Flanders organises ESF calls for innovative projects. It holds separate calls for two types of innovation:
• innovation via exploration – for people with a challenge they need to meet
• innovation via adaptation – for people with a service that works well and deserves scaling up

It gives each project a 100% grant of €50,000 for a first phase lasting 6 months, and if the result is validated (by external experts) then it gets a follow-up grant of up to €150,000.
Flanders SI double diamondThe process is rigorous: in the first 6 months, projects have to produce a concept description, an experience map, a high-level business model, a concept test, a report on field results – and plan for phase 2. It is estimated that about half the applicants will go through to phase 2, which lasts 18 months. Nevertheless Flanders has received about 30 applications under each heading, with a lot of universities figuring among the applicants, but also some NGOs.

Further information

Check out the toolkit and a series of presentations!

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Public space is where we build trust 25 November 2012

Posted by cooperatoby in Uncategorized.
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On this sunny Sunday morning, I just watched an inspiring presentation by Alexandros Washburn, New York’s Chief Urban Designer, at a TEDx event in Christchurch, New Zealand, on 1st September. His essential points are:
• Public space is where we build trust – where we meet each other as equals.
• Urban designers work at the intersection of politics, finance and design – and design is the weakest of the 3 forces. Things only change if these 3 forces align.
• Start with the pedestrian: make the ground floors interesting, plan pavements at last 3m wide, then plant a row of trees for shade, then a bike lane… the width of a street is finite, so you have to make choices. NB Rue de la Loi!
• The smallest dimensions matter – even the height of kerbs. This is a thing I continually notice in the Netherlands, where paving is a refined artform.
• If it’s worth remembering, it’s worth drawing – as Christopher Alexander, author of A Pattern Language, knew. It’s shame the website is payable but the book is well worth £34.

To show how to use market forces, Mr Washburn gives the example of the High Line, a linear park made out of an elevated railway line in the West Chelsea district of Manhattan. The viaduct was only preserved because the city had the power to transfer the ‘air rights’ (something I never knew existed) to plots on the edge of the area. This removed the incentive for property owners along the route to lobby for its demolition.

PS “Design is disruptive when it lowers the threshold” – an idea borrowed from Wikihouse site.

PPS This year the TED Prize went for the first time not to an individual but to an organisation, City 2.0, which is full of ideas for urban redesign.

Coming out about trams 2 February 2012

Posted by cooperatoby in tram.
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5008 in rue Moris

5008 in Rue Moris

It’s time I came out and wrote a bit about trams. I don’t doubt that my fascination with them is some kind of boyish enthusiasm: as someone I admired (Adrian, if you read this, get in touch) at university said in a life-changing moment “oh I didn’t know you were into trains”. His benediction was significant. If one could describe something so shamefully nerdish in the same hip terms as one referred to music preferences, then clearly the world was a friendlier place than I was finding it in that painful period of insecurity and growing up. I suppose it was touching base with being male. I had found out that boyish enthusiasm is basically okay.

Vehicles of my dreams

So, I like trams. For some inexplicable reason I find them friendly. They cheer me up when I see them. This quite probably has deep psychic roots, and indeed on occasion I dream about them. At some periods of my life I have had clusters of dreams involving trams. The typical scenario is that I am changing trams and there is a confusion of tracks. It might be a multi-level interchange. Or more exotically, tramtracks are winding out over the countryside like some psychedelic album cover from the 70s. I confess this to people at parties, and if they fall into that sadly small category of people who think dreams are interesting, they ask me what I think that means. I think that to me trams signify regularity and predictability. A tram knows where it is going and it proudly displays the fact. What’s more, it is democratic and open – everybody is welcome on board for a shared journey. To that extent – and it’s remarkable the things you discover sometimes just by writing down what you think on the spur of the moment – they are like co-operatives. A piece of synaesthesia too far maybe. But at any rate, trams are a proud monument to the mobility of the masses. It’s not just me, because if you ask older people, they mostly have great affection for trams. (Full disclosure, my Mum would never dream of taking a taxi even given the difficulty she had walking, because she always remembered hopping on a tuppenny tram.) It’s no coincidence that publicists so often include a photo of a tram in their promotional leaflets.

So, trams are lodged in people’s affection, and this is not only pure nostalgia, but hints at something fundamental about them. This is that you know where you are with a tram. You can pretty much rely on it to turn up in the right place and the right time. Sometimes people ask me at Horta, the station next to my flat, “does this tram go to Midi?” and I say – “Yes, it’s the 3rd stop.” And then I add – “There are no points, so it has to.” They don’t understand what I mean of course. But every vehicle that leaves Horta can do no other than pass through Midi about 4 minutes later. This is a very reassuring thing to know at the start of a busy working day.

You know where you are with a tram

Trams are also very pedestrian-friendly. When you are in a busy shopping street, you can know to the centimetre where the tram will go – it can’t swerve and run you over like a bus can. The acme of this safe ‘closeness to the citizen’ is to be seen in Leidsestraat in Amsterdam, where 3 busy tramlines run the length of a shopping street only 12 metres wide. The lines in each direction are interlaced (i.e. they overlap), to allow as wide as possible pedestrian space at either side. They spread out to allow passing places on the bridges over the three grachten. It’s true the service speed isn’t very high, but it is convenient. And this is another good thing about trams – their ‘hop on, hop off’ nature. They pull up right in front of you and you step right in, with baby buggy, double bass or other encumbrance. They have pinpoint precision in delivering people speedily and directly to busy targets.

Customer satisfaction is certainly a vital part of the jigsaw. But there are more aesthetic reasons for tramophilia too. Trams adorn the urban landscape. Placing a tramway in the middle of a street instantly elevates it to an important thoroughfare. Visually, it has the opposite effect from a carpet of snow, which wipes out clutter and simplifies outlines, making a street seem peaceful and infinitely wide. A tramtrack does the opposite. The hypnotic stretch of the parallel bands of steel emphasises the length and directionality of the street. It seems as if it is going somewhere with an added sense of urgency. The best example I know of this is a negative one, also in Amsterdam, where traffic planning is simplified by the successful suppression of cars. Spuistraat runs up the western side of the city centre ‘island’, and is (since the closure of the Haarlem line) tramfree. A few years ago it was ‘reprofiled’ to provide a single-lane one-way carriageway with loading bays, a broad cycle path, and of course ample pedestrian space. In my view this makes it a much more attractive public space, one with clarity and perspective, echoing how it was in earlier decades.

The French are past masters in using the installation of a tramway as an excuse of the entire makeover of a street. But the best book on the subject that I’ve come across, surprisingly, is American. Street Smart – Streetcars and Cities in the Twenty-First Century (Reconnecting America) is a large format multicolour extravaganza showing the benefits trams can bring (being American, this includes property values). We need more of this results-oriented publishing in Europe.

A timeless way of travelling

This is one reason why I find so astonishing the omission of trams from one of the most seminal works of urban planning, Charles Alexander’s A Pattern Language (OUP 1977). This astonishing book is a hypertext avant la lettre, being structured in the form of 253 ‘patterns’, which are nested one within the other. Thus at the top level we have ‘1: Independent regions’ via ‘126: Something roughly in the middle’ (brilliant!) all the way down to ‘253: Things from your life’ It’s a ‘language’ in the sense that it gives us a way to talk about towns and the way we live in general.

Pattern 126 - something in the middle of Villingen, Black Forest

Alexander certainly thinks about getting about in great detail, and sees public transport as the only possible way to do it. Pattern 11, ‘Local transport areas’ discourages the use of cars for short journeys, and ’23: Parallel roads’ proposes that they should be channelled into parallel roads between 100 and 400 yards apart, one-way and in alternate directions, connected to ring roads. You can experience attempts at this in many city centres that were redesigned in the 70s.

The pattern most relevant to trams is ’16: Web of public transportation’. This is mostly about intermodal connectedness, and mentions ‘rapid transit’ (Alexander worked at Berkeley and so had the Key System and then BART on his doorstep). But he’s more interested in what you do when you step off your light rail vehicle than what it’s like while you’re in it – he proposes that it’s community-owned  interchanges (pattern 34) that should come first, and the mode that links them second. His model for this is the Swiss railways.

It may have been that in the 70s he thought streetcars were already out-of-date. Thank heavens, the turnaround in public policy since then is proving him wrong.


Happy zooming! 11 November 2011

Posted by cooperatoby in EU, social economy.
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I just transformed the short Powerpoint presentation I made in Prague on Wednesday into a more dynamic thing, a Prezi. Last weekend in Hungary I learnt that this software has been created by a Budapest business that is active in helping the Roma. So here’s an outline of the EU’s policy on social enterprise.

Nokia got it right first time 18 December 2010

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I dug out my original mobile phone the other day, a Nokia 2210 from Orange, to give to the asylum seekers held at Zaventem airport. I hope it still works, as it’s about 12 years old. Slipping it out of its cover I noticed how finely sculpted it is: its bulging upper half fits the palm of the hand perfectly, much better than its successors. And the buttons are the size of normal fingers, too. They couldn’t really improve on that initial design.

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