Posts Tagged ‘san sebastian’

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inaugural SING meeting

October 28, 2008

Yesterday marked the inaugural meeting of SING, a women’s network for social innovators. We had a lot of fun. We had a lot of intense conversations. We drank a lot of wine. We probably got a bit shouty at points. It has certainly given me huge food for thought and so I wanted to capture my immediate reactions.

One of the things we kept on coming back to is whether or not we could really justify the exclusively womanly nature of our meeting. I absolutely think we can, for two reasons:

First, the fact is that social innovation, in as much as it is a ‘world’, remains a notably male world, shaped by thinktanks, technology and entrepreneurship. Of course women operate in all these fields, but their presence doesn’t stop such spheres still feeling pretty masculine in their values and their approach. That might not always suit the men operating in these spheres – but it certainly doesn’t work for many women. On that basis alone I think it is entirely reasonable to create a female space in the midst of a male world – not a man-hating one where gender is *always* a problem – but a space which acknowledges that there are still gender dynamics at play, and that yes, such dynamics can be problematic sometimes. As the wine began to flow last night I was struck by how many gender-based tensions women had been internalising in their work contexts. It felt like they were being given air, almost for the first time for some of us.

Second, women probably do have a bigger role as social innovators than we have necessarily recognised so far, because they dominate two key sites of social innovation: the household economy and start ups. On the household stuff, I talked about Robin Murray’s diagram of the economy in a previous post. He values the household economy at three times the size of the state, and half the size again of the market economy. And one thing we know for sure is that households remain firmly female spheres. The barefoot innovators are likely to be women, by this analysis.

If the household economy is one site of social innovation, then social enterprises, networks and movements together represent another site. It is women who are leading the stampede out of large bureaucratic organisations – they are currently starting more new businesses than men, and their start ups are more likely to still be in business five years later than men’s.

For these two reasons alone I think the place of women in social innovation is fascinating and worthy of exploration. We didn’t make too much progress in defining the role of this network last night (we were having too much fun getting to know one another, and besides somewhere along the way the notion of being directional and structured got damned as being terribly masculine) – but for what it’s worth I think there are three aspects to any future network:

One, a support network for venting frustrations, challenging each other in a supportive atmosphere, mentoring across age groups and enjoying each others company. Women like being all of themselves, I think, dropping their ‘professional’ masks and then still working together. Roald Dahl’s depiction of The Witches heaving huge sighs of relief at being able to remove their shoes and wigs may have been unkind, but there’s something in allowing each other to be complete, to bring together personal and professional, that is appealing.

Two, a scouting and storytelling network, for bringing together women who are doing amazing things around the country and indeed the world (we have some stringers in other countries too, and want them to start meeting in a similar way to the session we had last night). I think we so often underestimate the power of the story. We need more examples of women, telling their stories, meeting one another and realising their collective power (more on the Power Audit in another post).

And third, a network that starts to explore a new way of living and working, that is based on ‘feminine’ rather than ‘masculine’ attributes. Over the course of the evening I gathered comments and thoughts that began to give some shape to what this might mean in practice. Things like ‘how women work’, ‘how and what women see’, ‘how women deal with others’, and ‘how women define success’ all came up. Each of these can be further developed – for example, in how women work, issues like being honest about failure, not being the sole owner of an idea, finding new ways of blending home and work rather than choosing between them… If we really wanted to push this on, we might argue that a world based on more feminine qualities would be a more sustainable one, less driven by risk taking and showing off, and more driven by relationships and responsibility. It’s controversial but I for one can’t wait to explore it more.

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reflections on social innovation

August 8, 2008

This picture might look like a holiday snap but in fact it’s a photo of the seaside at San Sebastian. Mainly known as the place that has the highest number of Michelin-starred restaurants per capita, but for about 100 social innovators around the world, it will also be remembered as the location of a pretty intense conference on the state of social innovation globally. I was there too, and it’s taken me a week or so to process my thoughts on what I heard while I was there.

I’m sure it will inform lots of subsequent posts so here are just a couple of things that I’m wondering about now I’m back in the considerably greyer London. First, I was struck by the absence of politics, in both the big p and small p sense of the word, in the stories people told and the discussions we had. Social innovation at its most simple is about finding new ways of meeting currently unmet needs. Maybe that is ideologically neutral. But when you think about it as ‘innovating the social’ (as someone said on the final day), it is surely more of a politically loaded issue? Doesn’t it imply – or shouldn’t it – a particular vision of how society should be? I am worried that we lose something by making it a politics-free zone. Maybe this is partly bred by my discomfort at how easily the Tories have picked up social innovation as a core theme. Food for thought.

The other reflection I have is about whether social innovation is at all gendered. Robin Murray, probably the nearest thing you’ll find to a genial genius these days, used a slide that depicted four ‘spheres’ of action, with his attempts to put a monetary value on each of them (will share these slides as soon as SIX upload them…). First, the state, valued at £540bn. Then the market at £11,600bn. Next the grant economy, at £31bn, and finally the biggest of them all, the household at £14,500bn. Seeing the value of the household like this was last attempted by feminists making the case to recognise the otherwise invisible work of women – caring, community, family work – and to value that as essential to society. Given the continued role of women in this sector, could social innovation be a key to unlocking a different narrative about gender?

A very unformed thought currently, but given the excitement women expressed when I started to road-test the idea of a global women’s network around these issues, I am clearly not alone in wondering about this.