Crossing Social Frontiers

social frontiers conference
social frontiers conference

Director of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (UK Branch), Andrew Barnett, reflects on his experience at the Social Frontiers conference in Canada held earlier in May 2014.

This May, I was pleased to close the Social Frontiers conference in Vancouver – a meeting of academics focused on the study of, and research into, social innovation.

As evidenced by the gathering of so many people from all over the world, this is a growing field attracting increased attention. The event was a perfect conclusion to two others: one bringing together practitioners managing what have become known as ‘social laboratories’ (it’s clear that these take different forms); and the other, a gathering of social innovators of many different kinds, and from all parts of the globe, at the SIX Summer School which lso took place in Vancouver this year.

In my closing comments, I remarked on the discussion of terms – and the barriers these sometimes set up between practitioners, academics, policy makers and funders – urging greater collaboration.  The boundaries need bridging: the valuable work of academic researchers in their analyses of different approaches – framing and assessment of different methodologies, determining what works in different circumstances, and the conditions required for success – is important but it’s only as valuable if it helps improve the practice of those working to address real issues of social concern, by transforming services or developing new social ventures.

The language we use should inform and not create false divisions between those who study and those who act: collaboration across these divides is essential if we are to release essential creativity and reach across sectors in a way that the complex social issues of the day demand.

Crossing boundaries and navigating cultures is essential and it’s often where the value lies. Take, for instance, the organisation for which I’m privileged to be director of its UK Branch. We are a large, European foundation hybrid in our activities which include grant-making and the direct provision of two museums, an orchestra and conference facilities. Think Rockefeller meets Guggenheim (on a slightly smaller scale).

With our headquarters in Portugal where we occupy a historic and dominant position in the cultural, social and political landscape, subject to considerable scrutiny, we are of the establishment and generally conservative in our outlook. Yet trustees have been wise in allowing the UK Branch to act with a level of relative autonomy – perhaps because we are a small ‘offshore’ branch – enabling us to be more experimental with our (relatively smaller) investments and behave at times like the sort of ‘social innovation laboratory’ of the kind I encountered in Vancouver.

Yet our distinctive quality – our ability to catalyse innovation and enable it to be more widely felt – lies in the nexus between these two apparently different cultures. Managing that effectively is where the real value lies and that requires a level of multilingualism and multiculturalism. How we hold together, and navigate, what are two parallel cultures within one institution is a subject worthy of academic study.

Reaching out beyond our comfort zones and crossing boundaries is an essential ingredient for all those engaged in social innovation. So, we should beware the curse of the cult and embrace collaboration speaking multi-lingually, in a way that is meaningful to all.

I was pleased that this ‘outsider’ – a non-academic – was allowed ‘inside’ and to join the day’s discussions. And it’s these sorts of encounters – incidental or more intense – that can improve our ability to work across the boundaries.

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