Diverse Communities Drive Sustained Innovation

Every idea is a great idea – from everyone

According to Charles Leadbeater, leading author on creativity and innovation, the most effective innovators build creative communities and provide them a cause.

Communities are the basic unit of sustained innovation because innovation invariably stems from creating new recipes or new ways to blend old and new ideas to create new technologies and solutions to a shared problem.

If you can bring together a diverse bunch of people under a common cause with different ideas, knowledge and insights, then through their conversations you’re likely to achieve a significantly better outcome. This means diversity in its broadest sense: across culture, inclusivity and experience. A community based approach is more sustainable because ideas shared and explored can transform into new ideas and develop differently to achieve solutions unforeseen at the outset. 

Innovative and successful solution outcomes stem out from the community network, overcoming the typical barriers faced when solving a significant problem – whether that is organisational, budget, preconceived assumptions about what can or can’t be done, or even political barriers. There are some great examples of where and how this is being achieved, each of which has a somewhat different innovative model for collaboration, and how the community engages with the challenge or problem. 

A transformed landscape is a transformed community

Incredible Edible developed from three core ideas: 

  • Galvanise the local community through growing and celebrating local food
  • Support and buy local produce
  • Encourage learning and interest in food and horticulture

The initiative clearly captures the spirit of community led innovation: ‘We are more passionate about people than plants. We are not just a growing group. We believe that when people spend time connecting together and listening to each other positive change happens’. 

As founder, Pam Warhurst says, “the power of small actions is awesome” and by “just doing it” the Incredible Edible story began and has grown to a network of over 100 groups in the UK and 600 globally. Warhurst describes how one voluntary action leads to new ideas and new actions – from the local garden centre donating land, to that becoming a market garden training centre, to local academics turning this into a horticulture certification course, to extending the ‘grown locally’ ethos beyond vegetables to eggs and other farming produce and more. It is an open inclusive movement – “if you eat, you’re in” – which also explains its success. People are ready and respond to the story of food (the cause), they want positive actions in which they can engage: “it just needs people to think creatively, bend budgets and not to be constrained.” Growing edible plants in the community not ugly prickly plants can change communities and grow a movement that creates opportunities for learning, better local business and a better future for next generations.

The Airbnb for the kitchen table

From the garden and into the kitchen, WeFiFo is a creative and innovative way to connect people, build stronger communities and generate income through shared food experiences. It does this via a platform that connects cooks of all abilities and aspirations with those wishing to have a unique dining experience within their local community. 

As Seni Glaister, Chief Executive, WeFiFo, pointed out when I spoke with her in December 2018, there is a loneliness crisis in the UK. Creating this casual dining environment for people to meet and hopefully develop new networks and friendships is an easy and comfortable way to address the loneliness challenge. Loneliness is not a problem unique to older generations.  16 to 24 year olds are the loneliest age group, according to a BBC survey last year, which makes them lonelier than over 75s.

Social eating is better for your health, happiness and better for the community, yet almost half of the meals in the UK are eaten alone. I was fortunate to experience a great Christmas meal or food experience via WeFiFo with Fat Macy’s, a pop up supper club run by young Londoners living in hostel accommodation to secure deposits for their first home.  I like the idea of one entrepreneur creating an environment for a start up to achieve its purpose… And they cooked and served up a fantastic meal. 

The WeFiFo innovative commercial model encourages talented cooks to monetise their culinary skills, develop their abilities and be in control of their working hours and rewards. Hosts and guests can earn online rewards and share feedback too. This enables organic growth for cooks, hosts and the WeFiFo platform itself. The model also extends to corporate partnerships. I can’t think of a better alternative for business networking lunches/dinners or to host customer roundtable discussions. 

A week at the race track

From the kitchen and into the fields… This July, for the third year running, the Northumbrian Water Group (NWG) Innovation Festival will see over 1000 people take on the challenge to explore and come up with innovative ways to ‘help change the world and create bright ideas for a better tomorrow’.  NWG sets up camp at Newcastle racecourse for a week of creative problem solving, networking and fun. Major national and global companies, innovation experts, local businesses, universities, schools, and also members of the public give up their time to tackle a diverse set of challenges such as:

  • How do you create the ‘perfect’ water company?
  • How can we become a carbon positive company?
  • How can the use of Digital Twins improve our future?

Nigel Watson, NWG Information Services Director, promises that this year’s festival will “see us tackling some big issues and working with some really influential companies and people to help solve some vast problems.”

What is remarkable is that one company can bring together such a large gathering, from such a diverse range of organisations as well as opening up the festival to the public and local schools inspiring creativity and innovation for what results in practical problem solving. And it’s fun, too. 

The festival runs a series of sprints, each hosted by a different sponsor in individual marquees. People essentially sign up for which sprint they wish to engage with, and naturally in an open collaborative environment you get a mix of people exploring and sharing different ideas across the different sprints. It’s a great model and the appetite to be involved is refreshing. From my own experience in being there last year, once you’ve been part of it, you don’t want to miss out.

10,000 hours, 100+ individuals, 20+ organisations

Now, to something that is close to most if not all of our hearts… Cancer. Cancer Central is a centralised source of cancer information from point of diagnosis, treatment and beyond. Set up by Avril Chester, entrepreneur of the year at the women in IT awards, Cancer Central has been created on the principles of what Avril terms ‘Cominovation’ (community and innovation) – connecting with experts from different fields across industries to achieve the Cancer Central vision. The Cancer Central digital platform is built with an intelligent AI chatbot (nicknamed ‘Ave’) powered by IBM Watson. It uses conversational search to connect people with products, services and support, when and where they need to. The platform went live thanks to over 10,000 hours donated by 100+ individuals and 20+ organisations covering large technology partners, startups, volunteer experts, designers and developers all supporting the Cancer Central vision. Through the community, the Cancer Central team run a series of hackathons, design sprints, reviews and feedback along with on-boarding new partners and capabilities to constantly update the platform. Individuals are essentially giving their time, skills and expertise to something they are passionate about and coming together with like-minded people to innovate for a common purpose.  

The community spirit

I think these are inspirational examples of how a few visionary innovators are building creative communities focused on a cause to create fantastic solutions with a social purpose. They are all examples of how networks of people create new ideas and new networks spawning new and often different spin-off ideas. I think most people have it in them to be part of and contribute creatively to a great cause. And I think we’ll see more of this from future generations. As I’m learning, we have 80,000 hours in our careers – we can make the right career choices, and we can all do something to help solve the world’s most pressing problems as well as have a more interesting life. It can be full time part time or anytime – whatever works for you. It is better to do something than nothing at all, and no matter how small, it is rewarding and often fun.

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