Best Practice Is a Dead End – Our Focus Should Be on Building Local Capacity for Social Innovation

Eddy Adams

By Eddy Adams, on August 12th, 2013

> Read Eddy Adams's articles


What’s in a name?

Whether you call it Social Innovation, Public Service modernization, or anything else, Dublin, host city for the 2013 URBACT Summer University, is a good place to focus on how cities can make better use of public resources in future. For, as we all know, the former Celtic tiger’s claws have been clipped, with dramatic economic and social consequences for its capital – and the rest of the country.

Ireland’s cities may be extreme examples, but across Europe most city managers are running to stand still, expected to make smaller budgets go further. In our recent URBACT paper on Social Innovation  we described how cities are responding to this challenge, with particular reference to young people.

This work identified a number of shared features amongst cities looking to support and encourage social innovation. These included fresh ideas generation, smart finance, new delivery models and the mobilization of ‘unusual suspects’. We also underlined the importance of leadership and the need to involve front line staff and customers in new service design.

The paper stressed the importance of design-led thinking. It also highlighted the need for municipalities to review services in the light of shifting needs and resource levels. The importance of re-assessing and prioritising service demand is growing amongst policy makers, as they address the increasing gap between funds and service demand. For example, in the United Kingdom Demand Management is the subject of some interesting research being led by the Royal Society of Arts 2020 Public Services Hub.

URBACT Social InnovationTo help demystify the Social Innovation concept, it was important for our URBACT thematic report on Social Innovation to identify tangible examples of effective work in Europe’s cities. However, this is just the starting point. There is no shortage of good practice out there – so why aren’t we all doing it? Why is good practice transfer not more commonplace?

In a recent blog entitled Drop Best Practice, Spread the Process Christian Bason – A member of MindLab in Denmark – concluded that “Best practice is a dead end”. He arrived at this after noticing that examples of breakthrough practice in the public sector was routinely not copied by other Danish municipalities. He noted that:

“So here is the heart of the matter: Public managers and their employees are unwilling to take up ideas that others have already used. They prefer to have their own.”

So what’s to be done? Bason reckons that there are only three exceptions to the rule. First is when the money has run out and the situation is desperate – the burning platform scenario. Second is when politicians demand change. And the third is when public sector staff are fully immersed in a change process which turns up their demand – and receptiveness – for good practice examples. On this basis the optimum way to promote exchange of good practice would be to:

  • Remove funding
  • Stimulate political demand; and
  • Support local innovation processes

Yet, looking around we see that many European cities have already experienced funding cuts, often combined with a drive for change from politicians – driven by a dissatisfied electorate. But support for local innovation processes remains ad hoc. Much of the short-term municipal activity has been on cutting capacity in response to the crisis. This has created a climate of fear and uncertainty that inhibits creativity and risk-taking. But faced with long term-problems, cities must move on from this, and focus on establishing structures and promoting behaviours that encourage social innovation. This includes opportunities, incentives and the capacity to identify and exchange good practice.

This is URBACT’s core business and the ongoing National Training Schemes (NTS) capacity building events  and the forthcoming Summer University are central planks of this work. Through this, URBACT is facilitating the exchange of good practice and strengthening the competencies of city stakeholders across Europe. It is also brokering trusted relationships between city actors on a transnational – and now through the NTS, a national – basis.

So, for those of you participating in Dublin URBACT Summer University (USU), the question of how we build city stakeholder capacity for social innovation will be a cross-cutting theme. It will be central to the Lab on 21st Century Public Services, but also to the other seven thematic areas. The USU team is looking forward to working with you on that. For those who can’t be with us we will keep you posted on our work in the summer university through our social media channels. So we hope hope that you will be able to contribute to the debate, and of course to our ongoing work building social innovation capacity within cities.

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by Eddy Adams, URBACT Expert

Twitter: @Eddyca1

3 Responses to “Best Practice Is a Dead End – Our Focus Should Be on Building Local Capacity for Social Innovation”

  1. Numina Group says:

    Hey Eddy,
    Great article about building social innovation. Social innovation as well as innovative technologies will definitely drive the future economy. Sometimes taking another idea and improving on it can be more powerful than having your own idea. Getting everyone together to support the cause is definitely a social issue and something that we need to figure out a way to handle more successfully.

  2. Good Practices are Dead, Long Life to the Good Practices!

    I was confused by the title at first sight: why is best practises a dead end and competing against local capacity? Why should we drop best practices to foster social innovation? On the contrary, focusing on the process can only benefit from a broad experience basis. In decades-long urban development processes you certainly can’t go yourself all the possible ways. You need to know about good (and bad) practices in order to make the best possible choice. So finally I was re-assured by your conclusion that encouraging social innovation needs “the capacity to identify and exchange good practice”.

    Thrilled by the parallel between social and technological innovation, both involving creative thinking, I looked into some old articles and found an interesting quote in an old interview with Steve Jobs. Asked about the many patents he “borrowed” for his innovative products from other companies throughout his career, he quoted Pablo Picasso “Good artist copy. Great artists steal”. On the same line the famous Italian comedian Totò said once: “Everyone is able to do something. The really difficult thing is to copy it!”

  3. […] Artículo de Eddy Adams, Experto del Programa URBACT. Artículo original disponible en inglés aquí. […]

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