Ash Center: How Do Social Innovators Achieve Results?

May 24, 2013
Ash Center: How Do Social Innovators Achieve Results?
Agents of Change Co-Author Jorrit de Jong

Agents of Change Acts as Classroom Tool for Mapping Out Innovations Process

By Kate Hoagland – Communiqué: Spring 2013, Volume 12

Social innovators have made great strides towards transforming the way societies solve their social problems. In the Netherlands, Bère Miesen created a country-wide system of Alzheimer Cafés which has brought international attention to dementia as a major social problem. In New Orleans, Leslie Jacobs led the charge for a new accountability system to weed out chronic public school failure, which eventually allowed a record number of charter schools to take over.

While much academic research has focused on actual game-changing innovations like these and their social impact, very little research has been done on the actual process by which innovations are achieved. Instead of the inspirational catalyst or the resulting success story, what are the roll-up-your sleeves strategies and tactics that make an innovation really work?

In their new book Agents of Change: Strategy and Tactics for Social Innovation, co-authors Sanderijn Cels, Jorrit de Jong, and Frans Nauta take up this question. The authors seek to demystify the innovations process and chart how long-term change is sustained, often against the odds. As stated in the book’s introduction, “To successfully maneuver through the institutional obstacles, innovators need to combine the deep strategies of chess masters with the quick tactics of acrobats. This book asks the question, how do social innovators actually do it?”

Agents of Change is organized around eight detailed case studies, describing the often hostile environments in which change agents brought about solutions that are still sustainable 12 years later. The authors provide a chronological account of the innovation process including strategies and tactics employed from the initial vision and buy-in from stakeholders, all while in the authors’ words, “adapting to their bureaucratic environment even as they seek to reshape it.”

Filled with candid interviews from social innovators that brought about each of the book’s featured innovations, the book demonstrates key characteristics and tools change agents employed. A good idea in the abstract may be an easy sell, but to actually navigate the cumbersome bureaucratic hurdles, resistant institutional environments, and often limited available resources requires more than just sheer determination to make an innovation a reality. In mapping out this process, it is the authors hope that other aspiring innovators can follow a similar path.

The lessons and strategies demonstrated in Agents of Change are instrumental to the “Innovating in the Public Sector,” curriculum, a new Kennedy School course taught by Stephen Goldsmith, Mark Moore, and Jorrit de Jong this spring. The course is divided into three sections: the innovative individual, the innovative jurisdiction with a strong focus on cities, and institutions that can support innovation in broader society. The course draws on a wealth of material from the Innovations in American Government Awards program, a flagship initiative of the Ash Center that has recognized nearly 500 public sector solutions to seemingly intractable problems.

As part of the course, students interview past Innovations Awards winners and finalists to outline the actual process by which an innovation is achieved and sustained. The course also includes a series of case studies ranging from issues of port security and community policing to data analytics and broader issues of climate change and epidemics as a means of teaching these future leaders how to establish a defined framework for evaluating innovations and launching their own.