When I first met Michael Young, I thought he was slightly crazy – but in just the right way. It was a meeting with a very pompous group of grandees, and he used a lovely mix of humour, self-deprecation and seriousness to persuade them to back something new.  

I had been very nervous about meeting this iconic figure, who I expected to be grand and remote. Instead, he was shy and engaging, laughing a lot and quirkily diffident. I later learned about his unhappy childhood. It’s possible he never lost his fear of being abandoned, which contributed both to his shyness and to his remarkable drive. 

I later got to know him well, and he tried to persuade me to join him at the Institute of Community Studies, which he wanted to turn into social innovation hub. In the end, I joined the board, but only later went to work there after his death. 

By then, a spell in government had convinced me that many of Young’s ideas and instincts were right: the idea that we can achieve as much from outside the system as inside; that innovations needs to grow out of social practice and lived experience, not just from experts; and that the best way to develop an idea is to try it out, rather than spending years seeking to perfect it on paper. 

Michael had some saintly qualities, though he wasn’t a saint, and beneath the diffidence there was an evident steel. I like to quote his comment that you should always take ‘no’ as a question not an answer, since any new idea is bound to meet resistance. Use that as a prompt to energise you, not to demoralise you.

His interest in learning was also evident in another comment I remember – that you should seek out your severest critics because they may be the most useful people for you, not because you’ll be persuaded by them, but because they help you sharpen up your arguments. 

One of the earliest topics I talked to him about was his plan to create the School for Social Entrepreneurs. His initial aim, I think, was to clone himself and potentially generate a stream of people to take over his projects. The great Daniel Bell had called Michael the greatest entrepreneur of social enterprises in the world. But, like him, most social entrepreneurs want to do their own projects, and the many people who came out of the SSE and around the world were hugely diverse in their interests and motivations. 

The other topic of early conversations was ageing, and death. He was one of the pioneers of thinking about how to be active in ageing, and embodied his ideas by getting married, having a child, and selling businesses to venture capital in his 80s.

But his ideas remain ahead of their time. I recently took part in several events in this space, which reminded me just how far we have to go: that care remains low-status, low-paid, supported by nothing remotely like the infrastructures that support medicine, with very little of the systematic innovation that Michael would have supported, and far too little of the mutual support he would have wanted to encourage. 

In some respects, Michael had the attributes of a 19th century Victorian social reformer, striding out across the East End to do good. But in other respects, his approach prefigured much that has become mainstream in the 21st century. 

Photo by Nathan Lemon on Unsplash

Learning from a great listener

Seven of Michael’s qualities seem particularly relevant to the world more than a century after his birth, and may be more obviously mainstream qualities now than they were a generation ago.  They are habits that any change-maker might want to adopt.

1. Move between the macro and micro

This approach to change combines the top-down and the bottom-up. Michael’s own life followed an arc that took him from the grandest of grand projects – the creation of a new welfare state after the war – to the most micro projects in Bethnal Green, and all points in between.    

He embodied the spirit of social entrepreneurship; that if you see a problem, you should attempt to create the solution rather than tell others to act – and, ideally, embody that solution in a social enterprise. And in his life he embodied the idea that you can best achieve change if you are able to work at multiple levels simultaneously, rather than just dreaming up paper policies.   

Iterating between the macro and micro may seem obvious. But it’s opposite to the approach of universities, think-tanks, and of one strand of social entrepreneurship, which only focused on micro solutions rather than the need to influence the environment in which these may flourish.

2. Listen to experience, not just numbers

Michael was a great listener – on buses, in cemeteries, and in interviews in people’s homes. His own vulnerabilities gave him the empathy and awareness to care about lived experience of family, community and love. This has generally been a blind spot for states, that tend to see people as abstractions, or only as statistics. Yet many hundreds of firms and governments now employ ethnographers and recognise that they need insights that only observation and conversation can bring.

3. Build institutions

Michael believed that ideas often grow best through taking institutional form. These then become pressure groups, champions and attractors. His own creations were, of course, very diverse – some dependent on governments, some on philanthropy, and a few on commercial investment. I took some time to understand the power of the point. 

But I’ve tried to follow it more recently and, through The Young Foundation, helped give birth to many new institutions. I’m now taking this further with a new venture, TIAL – The Institutional Architecture Lab – specifically focused on designing new public institutions.    

Building new institutions takes time, just as it took a dozen years for the Open University to get from the drawing board to launch. But this method can be far more powerful in the long-term, and in retrospect, it was a major blind spot of the last Labour government, which greatly underestimated the importance of leaving behind legacy institutions.

4. Grow people

Michael recognised that change ultimately depends on people, and so paid great attention to how people could be nurtured and grown. The Open University, Open College of the Arts and University of the Third Age are well-known examples, as is the School for Social Entrepreneurs. More recently, other creations of The Young Foundation kept that spirit alive – including the Social Innovation Exchange, which now links thousands of social innovators around the world, and Uprising, which is cultivating young leaders from diverse backgrounds in many of Britain’s big cities.   

All try to grow some of the qualities so essential to change: the persistence that carries you through inevitable setbacks; and the vital importance of self-awareness and ethics, as well as practical skills.

5. Feed the spirit

Michael was from a secular background. But his background in the arts and music, and his upbringing at Dartington, a progressive school, meant that he always had a feel for the role of the spirit. Late in life, he became more interested in the insights of other traditions.    

A photograph of him with his dead wife Sasha consciously adapts Buddhist ideas, and his work on what constitutes a good death – prompted by his own nearly fatal illness – brought questions of spirit back to institutions and even policy.   

I hope he would approve of one of the other offshoots of The Young Foundation – Action for Happiness – which has the Dalai Lama as a patron and hundreds of thousands of supporters around the world, and has attempted to fuse a mix of spiritual and secular traditions along with evidence about what makes people happy.

6. Cultivate breadth

Michael had very broad interests. He read widely and wrote in many different forms, from novels to government reports, manifestos to social science books. 

A good example was a discussion he organised, far from his own comfort zone, on the implications of evolutionary biology that brought together psychologists and social scientists. He commented that he was an eternal student, and when appointed Chancellor of Birkbeck College almost immediately enrolled as a student.   

There are many pressures to narrowness nowadays, particularly in academic life.  But creativity and innovation thrive on cross-pollination which is why we need people with breadth. 

7. Have fun

I will never forget being driven home by Michael. He was a terrifying driver. He took corners as if they were curves, and drove the narrow streets of London as if he was on a race track. But there was a certain joie de vie in his driving style, which was characteristic. Even though many people found him maddening and stubborn, they also found him fun to be with. Even when pitching a proposal to some po-faced foundations, there would always be jokes and lightness amidst the serious substance. 

These seven habits and approaches are, to my mind, pretty good ones. He lived them out. But he would never have wanted to become a statue, an edifice, or to be remembered as a saint. Instead, he was a rare example of someone who transformed his fears and vulnerabilities into strengths – and that enabled him to sow innumerable seeds, which will continue to blossom long into the future. 


Explore our Forever Young hub
Even though many people found him maddening and stubborn, they also found him fun to be with. Even when pitching a proposal to some po-faced foundations, there would always be jokes and lightness amidst the serious substance. Sir Geoff Mulgan

Community research

We are a not-for-profit tackling societal issues with a collaborative, multi-disciplinary approach.

Contact our team

Social innovation

Involving people from diverse sectors to shape game-changing initiatives.

Find out more