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Grassroots revolution

Innovation isn’t just a commercial buzzword. It can transform our schools, hospitals, public spaces, transport, workplaces and our leisure time. And now New Zealand has its own organisation dedicated to encouraging new thinking to transform Kiwi society.
Justine Munro

Justine Munro. Photograph by Francis van Beek

Innovation isn’t just a commercial buzzword. It can transform our schools, hospitals, public spaces, transport, workplaces and our leisure time. And now New Zealand has its own organisation dedicated to encouraging new thinking to transform Kiwi society.

The Centre for Social Innovation is inspired by European efforts that have resulted in groundbreaking initiatives like FixMyStreet.com, which collates and tracks examples of dodgy British roads and pavements, and TheyWorkForYou.com, a non-partisan site that records the activities of British MPs (here’s a great local version).

The centre is the brainchild of Justine Munro, who has worked tirelessly on the project for the past year. She’s secured sponsorship from Gen-i and Kordia, brought British social innovator Geoff Mulgan to these shores, found a top-notch board headed by Auckland District Health Board chair Pat Sneddon, and launched SI Camp, a series of public workshops to identify and polish ideas for web-based projects with a social benefit.

Not that this is some anti-commercial exercise (Munro is, after all, a former McKinsey and Company consultant). “The best way to start is to get the idea first,” she says. “Work out what the need is, work out what type of response is likely to be effective. And then once you’ve proven it will work, see if the idea can be supported in a for-profit way—which is actually a lot better, because the path to sustainability is so much better. We’re all about outcomes and if people can pay, bring it on.”

Although she accepts that social innovation ventures here may suffer from a familiar New Zealand problem—lack of scale—she says we also have advantages of our own. For example, it’s reasonably easy to make connections in New Zealand, and there’s no shortage of talented Kiwis who can turn an idea into reality.

At the first SI Camp in Wellington in June, “I’m convinced that that room of 80 people had everything you need,” she says. “There were investors in the room, creators, web developers. And the people in that room had all those networks around them to every level of government.

“Most of these web ideas are very transferable to other countries. You’d start them in New Zealand and test them here but, particularly if they have a for-profit focus to them, then you take it elsewhere.”

Covering the event on the Idealog blog, Peter Griffin wrote: “Compared to recent talkfests—the Entrepreneurs’ Summit, John Key’s Job Summit and Kiwi Foo Camp among them—it was an intimate and relatively brief affair. But as the 14 big ideas pinned on the wall by the time darkness had set in over Wellington showed, the seeds of innovation often start with small conversations.”

So just when is a project deemed to be socially innovative? It’s subjective, Munro agrees, but you know it when you see it. “It’s innovation that’s built by people working very closely with users. This whole idea of user-led innovation or collaborative innovation is really huge. The social innovation we’re talking about is not a government agency sitting in an ivory tower doing it—it’s very grassroots.”