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Leading from the ground up: community-driven social innovation through the human touch

Innovation doesn’t need to be elusive and often it’s the simplest of ideas that can gain the greatest traction.  The key is to realise that understanding human needs and behaviour will truly make the difference.

leslie tergas social innovation

I recently returned to New Zealand after spending four years in the US.  While there, I was struck by the amount of really powerful innovation around social services being driven from the ground up by people who are compelled to make a difference. They start small, they experiment, prototype ideas and then scale them, based on what they’ve learned – and effect positive change, often outside of traditional government structures.

Take Health Leads, a programme started in Boston that connects patients and their families with the resources they need to be healthy.  

This programme started with a single insight: the fact that all doctors can do to help patients is to write prescriptions, even when what’s needed is a wider intervention to increase the patient’s overall living conditions and well-being.

It could be a child the doctor has seen repeatedly for asthma attacks. Each time the child is sent home with a pharmacy prescription, the doctor is frustrated because he or she knows the child’s home is probably damp or that the parents can’t afford to buy an inhaler.  But all the doctor can do is keep writing the same prescription.

That's no longer the case with Health Leads. The doctor doesn’t just prescribe medication, but can 'prescribe' other resources such as food, housing, fuel assistance or health insurance.  Patients take their prescriptions to the clinic waiting room where college volunteers connect them to the help they need.

The difference is how the social system interfaces.  Instead of saying “you should get help from social services”  there is now a mechanism for that to happen.  It doesn’t change the behaviour of doctors – they still write prescriptions.  But instead the doctor writes a referral 'prescription' and patients are actively connected to the social services they need.  It closes the gap for those people.

Health Leads started in one city, found an approach that worked and has scaled up.  It now operates in six cities over 21 sites, with 1,000 volunteers and 9,000 patients.

Single ideas can make a huge difference when they are meaningful in human terms, and are acted upon intentionally.

Another example that struck me was of a criminologist who has made it his life’s work to address in a practical way the issue of drug gang violence and resulting community decimation. He has done this by shifting the dynamics of animosity between law enforcement, gang members and the community, to one of partnership – a 'street fellowship'.

Instead of campaigning for people to speak out about against drug use and gang violence he is working with people already in the community and getting them to become champions, and partners, for change.  In contrast to a more top down, law-enforcement driven approach, his approach creates sustainable change because the communities own it.

In the US there is immense bureaucracy, which is particularly evident within government. These innovators are taking matters into their own hands and showing tremendous leadership by trying a new way.  It’s not an artificial story of how things should be, but is about building an approach that is connected with humanity.   And it is working.

We can learn from this in New Zealand.  Our government processes are more streamlined for sure, but we need to realise that we have insight in our communities that is by and large untapped.

We need to open up a pipeline of insight that feeds up into decision-making processes from communities and individuals and the reality of their lives.  This pipeline would feed not only into the design of services but also into policy decisions.  This is radically different from creating a policy or service and then asking people what they think.

True innovation, and better social and well being outcomes, happen when we connect to the human moment, understand what the drivers of human behaviour are, and respond to these realities authentically and boldly.

Leslie Tergas is design director and partner at ThinkPlace NZ – innovation and strategic design practitioners.  Prior to joining ThinkPlace she was responsible for building service design and innovation capability for the New Zealand Inland Revenue Department.