Social enterprise: The innovation business

Geoff Mulgan looks at the legacy of social pioneer Michael Young and how the institutions he built have left an indelible mark on the UK's third sector and inspired the foundation that bears his name.

The British third sector has been one of the world's most innovative, responsible for inventing thousands of novel ways of addressing social needs that have gone on to have global impact - from housing and hospices to Oxfam and Live 8. There have been many heroes in its history, but few to match Michael Young, who was described by Harvard's Professor Daniel Bell as "probably the most successful entrepreneur of social enterprises in the world".

Building on Young's legacy is the Young Foundation, which was launched last autumn through the merger of the two organisations that he used as his vehicles: the Institute of Community Studies and the Mutual Aid Centre.

The foundation is an unusual organisation in that, like Young's own philosophy, it closely combines research and practical action with a strong team from the voluntary sector, government and business.

Young first became famous for drafting Labour's 1945 manifesto. In the 1950s he set up shop in London's East End in the Institute of Community Studies, which became his base. From there he wrote a series of bestsellers that changed attitudes to a host of social issues, including urban planning (leading the movement away from tower blocks), education (leading thinking about how to radically widen access) and poverty.

He pioneered ideas of public and consumer empowerment both in private markets and in public services, some of which are only now becoming mainstream (NHS Direct, the spread of after-school clubs and neighbourhood councils can all be traced back to his work). One of his books coined the term 'meritocracy'. Another radically rethought the role of the family.

His greatest legacy was institution building: he helped to create dozens of new organisations, including the Open University, the Consumers' Association, the Economic and Social Research Council, the National Extension College and the Open College of the Arts. Well into his eighties, in the late 1990s, he created the School for Social Entrepreneurs and Grandparents Plus. Other organisations pioneered new approaches to funerals, baby-naming, neighbourhood democracy and the arts. All drew on research that had identified unmet needs. Many were replicated around the world.

It is this tradition the Young Foundation is now reviving - wide-ranging, strongly focused on practical action, grounded in research and ideas.

The approach builds squarely on Young's approach to social change: undertaking initial research, talking widely, shaping new institutions and initiatives to meet identified needs, then launching them alongside a debate about why they are needed. It also builds on the values that guided Young and his colleagues - above all, a strong emphasis on enabling people to govern their own lives.

At the heart of this approach is a commitment to innovation. Although there are libraries devoted to innovation in business and technology, there has been little serious attention to how social innovation happens, or how it can be accelerated.

A quick look at history shows that social innovation is often messy and unpredictable. It often starts from a hurt, a need, a blockage. It then takes visionary individuals or groups to imagine how things could be different and go through the hard slog of persuasion, trial and error. At some point there usually has to be an alliance with insiders or the already powerful to provide resources or recognition, thus taking ideas such as kindergartens or microcredit, wikipedia or the Big Issue into the mainstream.

At the Young Foundation we've noticed two striking features of social change: one is that although individuals often appear to be the driving forces - and visionary individuals can achieve a lot - ideas are what really make the difference. As Keynes put it, "the world is ruled by little else". Even the most outstanding manager or social entrepreneur will be limited in their impact if they do not promote a powerful idea. A second feature is that the really profound changes - such as environmentalism or disability rights - tend to straddle different fields, from social movements to the public sector, and the best change-makers understand this.

These are key reasons why we try to link ideas and action. So, for example, our consortium on neighbourhoods working with cities including Sheffield and Liverpool combines advice to government, advocacy, pilots and practical tools. Our Launchpad programme is designing new organisations to meet unmet needs in fields including chronic disease and jobs for refugees, with a rigorous process focusing on ideas that have the potential to be replicated on a large scale. Some of Young's most important achievements took decades to come to fruition. But the great lesson of his life was that, if you combine vision, a willingness to take risks and patience, few things are impossible.

- Geoff Mulgan is director of the Young Foundation and former head of policy and strategy in the Prime Minister's office. For more about the Young Foundation, visit youngfoundation.org.uk.

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