Personal growth crucial to social change

 

 

COMMENT

When you say the word “innovation”, most people tend to think “technology and IT”. After all, it was a tech company — Google — that was hailed by Forbes as the world’s most innovative company in 2019.

But, says Warren Nilsson, associate professor of social innovation at the University of Cape Town (UCT) Graduate School of Business, to limit innovation to technology is to limit the scale of the effect we can have.

Nilsson says that although technological solutions often get all the attention and grab the headlines, innovation is not always glamorous or even clever. Rather it is about how effective an intervention is at addressing a particular business or social challenge and whether this is sustainable. Sometimes technology — badly applied — can even get in the way of this, he argues.

By contrast, innovation is about deep inquiry and engagement with the issues and the ongoing harnessing of the knowledge needed to refine the solution, Nilsson says. “From that deep enquiry and the relationships you build, many partial solutions will emerge, and in time you may well have a new business model or a new product.”

Crucially, he argues that businesses need to see themselves as part of the world that needs to change rather than as an external force that is applying a solution.


Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the arena of social innovation, broadly defined as new practices that are developed to meet social needs in a better way than the existing solutions.

Take the frustration at the long, slow pace of housing provision for disadvantaged South Africans. Rather than sit back and patiently wait their turn, property entrepreneurs in townships came up with their own solutions. These micro-developers, as they are sometimes called, started building houses without the traditional support base of financing from banks and the formal real-estate sector —initially, at least.

These township-inspired initiatives soon spawned opportunities that allowed the formal sector to become involved. So a trust was founded — supported by commercial banks — to fund the micro-developers.

“We are testing new ideas here. Then we can start to share the learnings with government, and with financial institutions like banks, who were previously reluctant to work with emerging developers,” said Zama Mgwatyu, project manager at the Development Action Group a micro-development funding initiative.

Understanding the drivers of this kind of deep innovation and creating the conditions for it to take root, has been the life work of Nilsson, who now co-directs the MPhil in inclusive innovation at the UCT Graduate Business School. It is one of the few degrees in the country that explicitly encourages students to grapple with social challenges on the continent.

And, according to Nilsson, this really starts at the level of the individual. Before they can upscale their influence, social innovators often have to start small — they have to undergo some transformation themselves.

“As you go on that journey of deep reflection, you need to not just question what’s wrong with the world, but also what you need to disrupt in your own thinking,” says Nilsson. “I don’t think you can do social innovation without your own personal transformation journey.”

That’s in part because we are products of the systems in which we work and operate, he argues. That is baggage that we have to shed first. “Like any of us, you carry so much of the system in yourself, unknowingly for the most part,” says Nilsson.

“So unless you’re really questioning your own way of thinking, and finding ways to encourage others in your organisation to be doing the same, you’re just going to be scratching the surface of the problem.”

This applies as much to social innovators working in small startups or bigger more bureaucratic organisations that resist innovation. Badri Zolfaghari, a researcher in the field of organisational behaviour at the UCT Graduate School of Business, and Nilsson’s co-director on the MPhil, points out that many of their students come from government.

“These students go back to these large organisations and they’re trying to influence those organisations,” says Zolfaghari. “It depends on a lot of factors — their positions or seniority, for instance — but they all need to do the work of personal transformation to stand a chance of being effective.”

A second key factor in effective social innovation, according to Zolfaghari, is thinking locally. It’s not about ignoring the value of international knowledge and practices, but rather about understanding that these don’t always translate well to conditions here.

“We are seeing that social innovators in South Africa are saying that what works in other countries and what’s been written in other countries may not work in the context of here,” she says. “So they’re creating local knowledge that is relevant to people here.”

Again, it comes down to an appreciation of the fact that you are part of the system, says Nilsson.

The good news for South Africa is that the country is packed with social innovators who embody these characteristics and are aching to create new solutions to stubborn, old problems.

“The people who are drawn to our programme, for instance, are people who are innately disruptors of their systems or are ready to disrupt the systems they’re operating in,” says Zolfaghari.

What’s more, they haven’t given up on the country just yet.

“These are people — many of them still quite young — who, despite everything that has been going on, are optimistic about the direction the country is going, and the role they want to play in that,” she says.

“And they feel a personal responsibility for making that happen,” adds Nilsson. “Our role, therefore, is to find ways to support and enable them to turn that passion and purpose into effective and sustainable solutions.”

Morgan Morris is a freelance writer based in Cape Town

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Morgan Morris
Morgan Morris works from Lebanon, TN. Husband of Amy, father of Morgan. Doesn't get better than that. Digital Content Manager & editor of award-winning website at https:t.co/eRo4noieNx. Morgan Morris has over 1019 followers on Twitter.

Related stories

Auditor general flags Ithala Bank’s digital deal

The Prudential Authority has given Ithala Bank until June 2021 to submit its application for a banking licence in terms of the Banking Act

On Hodan Nalayeh’s brave legacy, and what it means to be Somali

Hodan Nalayeh was a Somali journalist famous for telling uplifting, positive stories about her country. She was killed in a terrorist attack in Kismayo in July 2019. A year later, the writer Ifrah Udgoon remembers how Nalayeh’s life and work shaped her own

‘The silent road outside my house was the sound of a coming recession’

John Davenport's Google survey of 500 people shows that people are twice as scared of the economic effects of Covid-19 than they are of catching the virus

The writing was on the wall for SA newspapers long before Covid-19

Publications have cut salaries and frozen posts in a bid to survive the disease, but most owners failed to take appropriate steps when problems emerged in the late 1990s

Initial teacher education must be prioritised

Education and the education of teachers is already a complex issue and even more so in rapidly-changing global circumstances

Australia to force Google, Facebook to pay for news content

Australia's new regulations will also cover the sharing of data, and the ranking and display of news content, to be enforced by binding dispute resolution mechanisms and penalties
Advertising

Subscribers only

SAA bailout raises more questions

As the government continues to grapple with the troubles facing the airline, it would do well to keep on eye on the impending Denel implosion

ANC’s rogue deployees revealed

Despite 6 300 ANC cadres working in government, the party’s integrity committee has done little to deal with its accused members

More top stories

Fake trafficking news targets migrants

Exaggerated reports on social media of human trafficking syndicates snatching people in broad daylight legitimate xenophobia while deflecting from the real problems in society

It’s not a ‘second wave’: Covid resurges because safety measures...

A simple model shows how complacency in South Africa will cause the number of infections to go on an upward trend again

Unisa shortlists two candidates for the vice-chancellor job

The outgoing vice-chancellor’s term has been extended to April to allow for a smooth hand-over

How US foreign policy under Donald Trump has affected Africa

Lesotho has been used as a microcosm in this article to reflect how the foreign policy has affected Africa
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday