Social Innovation in and after the pandemic

Written by Chris Vanstone, Chief Innovation Officer at TACSI


So, what now? What else should we be doing?

This is the question that Carolyn, our CEO, put to us in our regular Friday morning business meeting, at the end of our first week of our Covid-19 home lockdown.

What could a national social innovation organisation, like TACSI, usefully contribute to this situation? Where should we put our energy now, as long as we have it, and where should we put our energy post-pandemic? Here are three thoughts on that.

1. Sharing innovative strategies for life and work during a pandemic.

Individuals and organisations alike, are going to need a bit of help to work through the implications of the pandemic. TACSI is connected to many diverse and creative communities, practitioners, members of the public, public servants, NGO leaders, who have track records in innovating their lives , work and organisations. We could play a role in connecting up that know-how, and supporting people to apply it to their own context. Here’s some of the wisdom we could draw on:

  • The families that are part of Family by Family families will be developing creative strategies for getting through what this means for family life.
  • Carers who are part of the Weavers community are experts in coping with caring situations.
  • The Systemic End of Life Impact Network members are advocates for what it takes to enable a good death.
  • The TACSI team, especially our organisational development people, and their networks, know what it takes to set up an organisation to work in a distributed and networked way. Our social innovation teams often practice social innovation at a distance.

2. Keeping social innovation and social impact practice ‘social’

The pandemic has accelerated online, remote and lower carbon working out of necessity. Some of these new practices will have a positive legacy, but how do we ensure that the human elements that are so core to social change, and social innovation flourish in this online world? How do we enable: deep empathy, vulnerability, tough conversations, effective learning, skill development, confidence building, trust building, the creation of shared purpose and responsibility? This has to become a sustained focus for social innovators everywhere.

3. Reimagining a better future.

This pandemic is shaping up to be an awful shared experience. More will die, more will lose their jobs, mental health will deteriorate, domestic violence will increase. But some things in our collective consciousness will shift, and in the long term, that may just make more pro-social and environmentally sustainable ways of living a greater possibility for our future. There’s a role for social innovation in helping organisations make sense of these new possibilities, and to help them take action to make the most of them.

Here are five potential shifts to watch:

We might start showing up more like people.

It’s hard not to show up to work as a human when your pants are drying in the background of the video call. In the space of a couple of weeks private and professional domains have become much more blurred.

We might better appreciate the value of caring and connecting.

‘Informal’ care systems have become much more visible. We’ll realise the value of friends more than we have before, we’ll reflect on life for our elders, the emotional labour of caring for children will become much more real to non primary parents.

We might strike more cooperative relations between the public and institutions.

Right now some parents are realising they are great at home schooling, whilst others can’t wait to hand the job back to trained teachers. In Australia we’re seeing increased resources flowing to peer support in the mental health and families space. In the UK people are volunteering en-masse to support the NHS. Governments are acting rapidly to respond to crisis and the public are, for the large part, responding.

We might come out of this better equipped to address systemic issues.

Perhaps, with time, we’ll come to see this pandemic as an awful, but brilliant education in what it means to live, think and act systemically. We’re experiencing first hand the tenants of systems thinking: time delays, exponential effects, and the reality that small acts can have significant unintended consequences. For most Covid-19 is proving a far more visceral education in systems effects than climate change. Could we be better metally equipped to tackle social issues after the pandemic than we were at it’s outset?

We might put greater importance on wellbeing for all.

The heartening thing about the response to the pandemic is that this is a population wide response for the wellbeing of vulnerable people. This is not an economic decision, quite the opposite. This is a human decision, and hopefully this humanity will survive the pandemic.

Perhaps the most important role social innovation can play, now and later, is to fuel the imagination, to promote the idea that things can be shaped to be different and better, and to give those ideas practical form.

Or, we might not take the opportunity. We might return to the outside world from binge watching Netflix, to be happy things are normal again. Only they won’t be.

Update: Our online working strategies are available online here as a set of patterns, we’ve run a webinar to swap know-how on how to keep social support services working during this time. We’re also in conversation to develop a new platform for families to provide remote peer support to families that are particularly vulnerable at this time, based on our Family by Family model.