Sunday, 29 April 2007

Geoff Mulgan

• After opening remarks by Jeff Skoll and John Hood (the New Zealander who is also the Vice Chancellor of the University of Oxford) the keynote speeches started. Geoff Mulgan spoke on the main theme of this year’s conference: Social Innovation — what it is, why it is important, what are the barriers and how can it be accelerated.

Mulgan is one of the people who started the Demos Think Tank which has been a major intellectual influence on the Blair government. Mulgan went on to become head of Strategy and Policy in the Prime Minister’s office, but more recently has left government to head up a revitalised Young Foundation. (This Foundation is inspired by the work of the most successful British social entrepreneur in the 20th century, Michael Young).

A major focus of Mulgan’s current work is research and promotion of the process of social innovation. He has produced several reports on this for the Young Foundation, and the latest version (now published by the Skoll Centre in Oxford) is one of the best summaries of this field that I have read so far.

• In this report, Mulgan points out that economists now estimate that 50%-80% of economic growth comes from innovation and new knowledge. While there are no reliable figures, innovation appears to play an equally decisive role in social progress. Social innovation also plays a decisive role in economic growth, and there are signs it will do so even more in the future. Mulgan says that the key growth sectors of the 21st century economy look set to be health, education and care ... accounting for around 20-30% of GDP.

But surprisingly little is known about social innovation compared to the vast amount of research into innovation in business and science. After an extensive survey undertaken by the Young Foundation, Mulgan says he found no systemic overviews of the field, no major datasets or long-term analyses, and few signs of interest from the big foundations or academic research funding bodies. He argues that this lack of knowledge impedes the many institutions interested in this field, including the innovators themselves, philanthropists, foundations and government.

• Mulgan’s speech was a call for a more concerted approach to social innovation. He talked about “Social Silicon Valleys” to describe the future places and institutions that will mobilise resources and energies to tackle social problems in ways that are comparable to the investments in technology made in the original IT Silicon Valley in California.
“ Although social innovation happens all around us, many promising ideas are stillborn, blocked by vested interests or otherwise marginalised. The competitive pressures that drive innovation in commercial markets are blunted or absent in the social field and the absence of institutions and funds devoted to social innovation means that too often it is a matter of luck what comes to fruition or displace less effective alternatives. As a result, many social problems remain more acute than they need to be ...” — Geoff Mulgan
• I thought Mulgan’s presentation was an excellent start to the Forum. It was also encouraging to hear the contributions of many earlier British social entrepreneurs (Robert Owen, The Rochdale Pioneers, Michael Young) being name-checked, and also an emphasis being put on the importance of historical British social movements (such as the co-operative movement) in fostering social innovations. The example of how various movements worked together to create a climate for the abolition of slavery in the 1800s was mentioned several times — the Skoll Forum was taking place during observances to mark the 200th anniversary of the passing of legislation outlawing slavery in the British Empire.

“The Process of Social Innovation” by Geoff Mulgan, published in Innovations Spring 2006 (MIT Press)
“Extreme Makeover” by Geoff Mulgan, The Guardian 26 April 2006
Good and Bad Power: The Ideals and Betrayals of Government by Geoff Mulgan (book pub Allen Lane 2006)

Social Innovation: What It Is, Why It Matters and How It can be Accelerated
by Geoff Mulgan with Simon Tucker, Rushanara Ali and Ben Sanders
(Skoll Centre Oxford Said Business School 2007)