No recession when it comes to socially-minded ideas

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Looking down from the plush offices of accounting firm Deloitte at a Wellington harbour bathed in golden sunshine, it was easy to forget the destroyed jobs, bankrupt businesses and vaporised wealth the recession has already accounted for.

Peter Conway soon brought us back to earth. The secretary of the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions kicked off yesterday’s inaugural Social Innovation Camp with the grim statistic that 1,250 New Zealanders are losing their job every week. Eventually 180,000 are likely to be out of work, the worst rate of unemployment that will have been experienced in over a decade.

And it is not just unionists concerned about the impact of unemployment and related recessionary pressures on a society that even in the recent good times had some major issues to deal with.

Those gathered to brainstorm on social innovation yesterday included bureaucrats, web developers, entrepreneurs, community workers and educators—all interested in creating social innovations aimed at making a difference in an increasingly indifferent world.

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.

A speed-dating style system of table rotation ensured SI Camp attendees weren't allowed to linger long on pet projects. But many of the ideas floated had a common theme. Matching spare cash, materials and labour with demand for each is a fundamental of capitalism. But these ideas had a different slant, finding innovative ways to balance supply and demand that traditional markets normally wouldn’t cater to well.

Micro-financing was a popular concept—the idea of contributing small, no or low interest loans to entrepreneurs to allow them to set up or advance their businesses. Schemes such as, which focuses on empowering aspiring entrepreneurs in the third world, have proven a model which may similarly thrive in first world countries as traditional sources of capital dry up.

The same goes for labour, with the suggestion that out of work executives could contribute their expertise through alternative universities—Britain’s School of Everything is already doing something similar matching up ‘pro-ams’, people who have found a way to make a living from their hobbies and amateur passions, with those who want to learn specialist skills.

Another plan called for establishing a social incubator for services aimed at the elderly. It could be a social network allowing people living in close proximity to car pool, share a lawn mower or washing machine or tend a community garden for growing fruit and vegetables.

Technology consultant Lance Wiggs floated the idea of creating “10,000 micro exporters”, creating a digital platform that would allow entrepreneurs that are not well equipped to sell their wares abroad, to gain support and a route to international markets.

Other ideas involved revamping tax rules to more easily account for casual and short-term work and giving refugees and migrants a chance to teach their own language and culture as soon as they arrive in the country, with the intended consequence that their knowledge of New Zealand and of the English language will rapidly develop as well.

Community-based alternative energy schemes and digital platforms for crowd-sourcing solutions to society’s ills were also floated.

What will come out of all the talk? The SI Camp organizers plan to sift through the best of the ideas and kick the discussion along on how to progress them. The SI Camp website looks set to become a hub of discussion of such socially-minded ventures.

There’s a danger of well-meaning talkfests fizzling out with little to show for the efforts put into them. But more established SI Camp initiatives in other parts of the world are showing promise, elevating good ideas and attracting teams to push them through to reality. Some of them are fairly modest in scale, but have hugely beneficial outcomes. Take for instance, the “Fix the Freakin’ Buses” concept selected last week as one of the six winning ideas chosen by SI Camp Scotland.

“The very simple idea behind this is to put all the bus timetable data into a searchable, accessible form and plot it on a map,” the team behind the bus route plan explained.

The University of Chicago economist and Nobel laureate Robert Lucas has said that when professionals and creative people live and work together in “dense ecosystems”, ideas are generated, innovations dreamt up, that are then turned into products and services. It is this type of talent-clustering, says Lucas that led to vibrant economies springing up in places like New York and Silicon Valley.

The question now is whether clusters of socially-minded, innovative people in New Zealand can pull together through initiatives like Social Innovation Camp to do the same here in the name of the public good rather than pure profit.

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