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Free and Decentralised in London for Social Change: The Unusual Suspects Festival, London England September 2-5


The Social Innovation Exchange, Collaborate and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (UK branch) pooled their talents, energies and resources to create spaces for people to make unlikely connections that can create “real social change”.
They programmed four days with 28 events, each held in a different venue scattered across London.  While registration for each event was required, all the events were free.  Each event, like the overall organising of the Festival was facilitated by organisations that had never worked together before.  The only unifying aspect of the Festival was an opening reception, a brief video on the theme of unusual suspects that was shown at each event and a closing reflection and party.  While the estimates for the overall participation was 1500 persons, the opening and closing drew only the ‘true believers’, a group of a couple hundred.

The range of organisations involved in offering events included the Office of the Cabinet of the Government of the UK, several arts based groups, a plethora of groups involved in social innovation, funding organisations, local government and the Seoul city government.  Noteworthy was the relative absence of social  or people’s movements and higher education engaged scholars.  Social Innovation Generation funded by the McConnell Foundation in Canada and the new Alberta $1 billion Social Innovation Endowment were there.  Other Canadians present included Rupert Downing from Community Council in Victoria, Darlene Clover and Budd Hall from the University of Victoria.

As with most conferences, one creates the experience through ones choice of events. I participated in a workshop of leadership of social change (in the Local Government Association building), an evening on harnessing creativity for social change (in a fabulous and funky South London arts centre), one on how to build better evidence for community change (in a social innovation hub in the centre of town) and how to create an ecosystem for innovation (at the Gulbenkian Foundation in East London).

The Good: The decentralised aspect meant that we got to visit different parts of the city..some posh…some working class…and see where some of the community groups were working.  Being free was also wonderful. Some very good individual connections.

The Bad: It would have been useful to have some insights into the contemporary social issues facing London and/or England from ‘users’, from housing advocacy groups, cultural communities, anti-poverty groups, and others. The absence of these voices raised questions about what kind of social change was really possible.  Also in short supply were participants from the engaged higher education community, the folks found at the NCCPE conferences each year for example.

The Ugly: I was very disturbed by the content and assumptions that were put forward in the only session that I attended that represented work based on collaboration between a University (London Metropolitan) and The Social Innovation Partnership to create an ‘evidence hub’ for children and youth work.  The premise was that better evidence of social change would lead to more funding and better decision-making. Organisations were free to apply for a 1-5 ranking system, a sort of Michelin Star approach to good evidence. The criteria for moving up the rankings meant increasingly more robust forms of evidence, a framework called ‘Standards of Evidence’.  The most powerful evidence that all organisations are supposed to move towards would be randomised trials where interventions with one group of people would be measured against no interventions or different interventions for others!  This is a trend to keep ones eyes out for. The presenters when asked about ‘user-led’ evaluation or research design noted that ‘it was hard enough to get all the other players around the table without having to deal with those for whom the interventions were designed’. 

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