Moving Too Fast?

Are Governments struggling to keep up with the social innovators?

Will Governments struggle to keep up with the social innovators?

A little over a decade ago the world still bought CD’s from record stores and worried about whether their desktop computers had enough processing power to run the latest edition of Microsoft Windows. How things have changed. The past decade or so has seen widespread disruptive innovation unsettling the music industry and IT industry alike. Whilst in the early part of this century we’ve seen a few existing corporations like Apple become bigger than ever before, in large part the past decade or so can be thought of in terms of the rise of the bedroom developer; websites and services like Facebook, AirBnB and Uber have taken the world by storm and they aren’t alone.

I was recently asked to be part of a panel discussion at a Service Design conference in Dublin, and during my trip I found myself enjoying a Guinness in a pub near to my Hotel. Flicking through a copy of the Irish Independent I came across a really good article by Jennifer Peltz entitled “Cities worry about stranger dangers as they aim to cash in on service apps”. The article spoke about the difficulty several US city administrations are having working out how to work with new services like AirBnB and Uber, and whether they can regulate them and even tax them. It struck me that governments and the public sector, not just in the US, but across the world, are in much the same situation as the music industry and Microsoft were a decade or so ago. These organisations that used to be the only provider of public services are being pushed out by social innovators moving into the market and circumnavigating the bureaucracy and red tape in order to design elegant user-centered solutions to tricky social issues.

Charles Leadbeater talks about governments and the public sector investing in yolks; schools, hospitals, day centers and other public institutions. If we think about the public sector in terms of a fried egg on a plate, most of the resources are in the yolk, but most of the problems are on the plate. Governments and the public sector are desperate to open up the yolk to get more people in, but what they really should be doing is putting more resources out on the plate where people actually live and work. This is increasingly leading to social innovators out there in their communities taking matters into their own hands. I’m convinced that as we move further into this century it won’t only be governments and the public sector who provide our public services, you only need to look at emerging services like GoodGym to get a feel for that. Advances in technology and the popularisation of design as a tool to effect social change is giving rise to the small scale social innovator. If the noughties saw the rise of the bedroom developer, this decade will surely see the rise of the social entrepreneur; leading to small scale social innovators having the power to disrupt governments and the public sector in the same way that bedroom developers disrupted the music industry and Microsoft.

Reflecting back on the Irish Independent article, I think governments should turn their focus away from trying to work out how to control these new services, and place a focus on redefining themselves as a platform which supports and encourages them. We’ve moved a long way from the post war era of need. We live in a world full of consumers who expect more from their public services. People engage with new types of well-designed service in almost every other aspect of their life, so surely it won’t be long until people start asking the question ‘what if Uber ran our waste collection services or AirBnB introduced AirCare into the social care market’? In the decade to come, whilst Uber and AirBnB are unlikely to move into these markets, a new wave of social entrepreneurs who have been influenced and inspired by them surely will.

The question that I would both like to pose to governments and the public sector, as well as help them to answer is – How can the public sector change the way that it works in order to ensure that it is a driving force at the forefront of the social innovation revolution, rather than trailing behind it?


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