Learning from Innovation in Public Sector Environments

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12 november 2013

News: Culture of Critique Next Step in Social Innovation

Ethnographer and social systems designer Sarah Schulman espouses a rare emphasis on continually asking reflexive questions rather than boasting about her achievements through innovative start-ups.

What is good? What is quality? Her blog ideates through these tough lines of inquiry.


''These questions come out of my own personal work and frustrations in doing lots of activities, some of which get labeled as innovative and cool," she says. "I also feel like we missed some things. We never asked some of the tough questions, like, when we're intervening with families and older people, who's determining what's a good outcome - is it me? Is that ultimately them? What happens when there are disagreements between families?

Sarah also asks whether social innovation work runs the risk of increasing inequality if it's done without a critical lens. "In the last few years, what I've seen with a lot of innovative stuff is that we're engaging the 'easy-to-engage' - the folks that are attracted to some of these ideas in our communities. I don't think that will necessarily serve to decrease the disparities. I think we need to have a more explicit focus on engaging 'stuck' folks and not just gloss over that," she says.

Given that social innovation is a newer field, it hasn't necessarily developed a culture of critique yet. "It's really the next level that the community needs, to get to being critical of what we do and the quality of the work that we do, and not assuming that just because it's innovative, it's good," she says.

One of Sarah's latest projects takes the philosophical question of 'what is good?' to a practical level through people's stories. InWithForward builds on Sarah's work - of delving deeply into families and communities over the last six years - to create a space to expose people to new ways of thinking about everyday people.

'It'll start with ethnographies of everyday people we hang out with - of the 74-year-old woman who never leaves her home and the 31-year-old social worker who's been removing kids for the past 10 years - and really starting to understand their context and their life and their relationships," she says.


In addition to personal stories, the space will showcase how practitioners analyze these situations and use these reflections to generate ideas towards what can be done better.

"Our reflection on a lot of stuff in the social innovation space focuses on methods and projects and a lot less on the thinking behind it: What are the assumptions driving it? Where do ideas come from that are powerful and that can help to improve outcomes? We want to make that part of our thinking much more transparent," Sarah says.

She is working with a team of service designers, writers and philosophers to launch InWithForward.com within a few months.

"We want to open up the black box more to the stuff that's often behind the scenes or in our heads that we're not able to get out," she says.

Sarah is currently melding her ideas on what it means to do social good in a book tentatively titled The Good, the Bad and the Feedback as a visiting scholar at Kennisland in Amsterdam. In the meantime, you can follow her ideations and iterations on her blog.

Source: http://axiomnews.ca/node/3912

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