When I first saw “Societal Innovation” I thought “What’s that?” Google gave me “good for society and enhances society’s capacity to act”. I added in my mind “and enhances society’s capacity to survive”.
So maybe there’s broadly two categories of societal innovation: Technical Innovation and Social Innovation. Dave Kerr (@dave_m_kerr) recently pointed out to me a great example of recent innovation that fits the first category: the LifeStraw produced by a Swiss based Danish company, Vestergaard Frandsen, and cited in Tania Ellis’s book “The New Pioneers”. This is a textile business which used to produce work uniforms but now specialises in disease control textiles & other innovative life saving products & concepts. The LifeStraw is a 25cm long water filtration straw which – at a price of less than 6 dollars for governments or international relief organisations – can be used by a person for up to a whole year to turn most dirty water into safe drinking water!
Certainly an innovation that enhances society’s capacity to survive in many parts of the world, and at such low cost.
But I’m more taken by the concept of “social innovation”, particularly as far as the world of work is concerned. I’m a great fan of the work of Dr W Edwards Deming, and I heard him speak in Nottingham in 1988. One phrase that really stuck with me is “Just think what this country could be if people could take joy in their work”. It really ought to be the job of leaders to create the environment where people can do exactly that.
I have been privileged in my work to witness organisations that live this message. Leaders start to engage everyone to improve end to end processes, increasing both effectiveness and efficiency dramatically, but being most struck by the excitement and involvement generated amongst the people who work for them. People say things like “at last, my boss is treating me like I have a brain!” “At last, I’ve been able to develop ideas I’ve had for improvement ever since I joined!” “At last, I look forward to coming to work!”
Instead of imposing “management control”, these leaders have released people from their shackles and move instead to “leading the system”: giving direction and meaning to people’s work and then getting out of the way to allow improvement to happen. And this enables a “chain reaction” of events which impacts technical innovation as well.
Going back to Dr Deming at Nottingham, someone asked a question “Does your philosophy apply to Research and Development organisations?” Dr Deming replied “Any good research has to be done by people who have joy in their work”.
There is no way that the LifeStraw would have emerged from a company where people did not find joy in work.
21st Century leaders have a responsibility. For societal innovation to take place, for work that is good for society and enhances society’s capacity to act to emerge, they have to create places where people can engage and genuinely take joy from what they do.
 Henry Neave – “The Deming Dimension” p 210