Earlier in the year I was involved, with Simon Berry and others, in attempting to win a £1.2 million government contract by writing an "open source" bid for an Open Innovation Exchange in public. We were shortlisted, but didn't win ... and now we can see what the successful team are offering. I have to say it is looking good, and may have some lessons for another innovative initiative, at the RSA.
The Innovation Exchange has been launched to foster innovation within the third sector and to find ways of improving relationships between social innovators, public service commissioners and investors. We have just announced the first two themes around which we seek to build networks, develop innovative capacity and further relationships between innovators, investors and commissioners. Our first two themes are supporting independent living and excluded young people. Please join the conversation online around innovative practice in response to these challenging themes. This is just the beginning. We wanted to get started quickly with launching the network online, with a view to working with you and the growing community in shaping all that we can do together. We’re building up to the launch of an ambitious online networking and collaboration platform by Spring 2008 - we’d really like to hear from you with ideas.
More here on the launch. The main partners in the Innovation Exchange are The Innovation Unit, acevo and social software specialists Headshift. We knew that Headshift would be pitching in with some pretty sophisticated ideas for the website: they won an award for the Demos site last year and have done a range of other innovative projects using a mix of blogs, wikis and other tools.
However, the Innovation Exchange team have not (yet, anyway) fallen into the trap of spending enormous sums of money on a highly complex system which may not get used. Instead they have set up a modest but effective blog-based site with the aim of moving to a more more substantial collaboration system in Spring 2008 once they have more experience of what's needed.
Once you register on the site you can add your own blog posts under the two themes of independent living and excluded young people.
The interim executive director is Jonathan Robinson, who has done so much to make The Hub in London and elsewhere such a brilliant model for incubating social innovation.
There's an outline of how the exchange will work - through networks and a Next Practice programme
The Innovation Exchange will establish and support Innovation Networks – large social networks focused on tackling specific social problems. Innovation Networks will be open to innovators on the demand side (public service commissioners and managers), on the supply side (practitioner innovators from any sector trying to tackle the problem) and to social investors from any sector (philanthropists, CSR funds, Foundations or government funds) interested in tackling the social problem. Over time we will look to evolve these networks to help scale up innovative or ‘next’ practice across the third sector.
Emerging from each Innovation Network will be a Next Practice programme to provide bespoke advice and brokerage support to fledgling innovation projects. The Next Practice Programme will focus on a sharper and more refined version of the problem set by the original Innovation Network. Each programme will be sponsored by a panel of social investors, public service commissioners and policy makers who will provide direction, focus and an external audience for the participants in the programme.
Meanwhile the RSA, which is engaged in its own programme of innovation involving its 27,000 Fellows, has set up an RSA Networks blog hosted by Mick Fealty, perhaps best known as Slugger O'Toole. You can see an interview with Mick here, from earlier in the year, where he likens hosting blog conversations to running a pub. He's been dealing with my slight provocations on site with outstanding good humour.
On the blog Sophia Parker wants to check how far Fellows will commit to the innovation programme, and asks for ideas about moving from networks to projects:
The first (question) is the extent to which we as the Fellows are up for this - by which I mean Matthew's vision of turning the Fellowship into a 'network for civic innovation'. How many of us will find the time and energy and commitment to work together in new ways? My hope and aspiration is that enough of us want to do it to really begin to make a difference. What do others think?
At this point, my thoughts are that this project is not about turning every single Fellow into a civic innovator. It is about giving people multiple 'ways in' to their organisation. For some, that will be finding other like-minded Fellows. For others, it will be about coming together in a local area to change something. We must find better ways of enabling these kinds of connections between Fellows. But it is also true that the RSA cannot directly support every single initiative that Fellows begin.
And that leads to my second question - how does the RSA decide in an open and transparent way which projects it should put serious resources behind? I feel strongly that the Fellows themselves should be involved in this process - but the question is how this happens: how can Fellows themselves shape the agenda that the RSA sets through its large-scale projects?
NESTA is funding the RSA programme, and is one of the partners in the Innovation Exchange, so there may be a chance to connect productive and innovative thinking about networks on both fronts.
I'm also glad to say that the OpenRSA initiative that a group of us have been promoting in support of the "official" RSA initiative has just got some unexpected recognition. The California-based team at Wikispaces, who host our site, have chosen OpenRSA as their space of the month.
The RSA Networks site could benefit from some additional functionality, as Mark and I have suggested, so perhaps its time to join up.