The Key Word for Social Innovation is not New, but Renewal

| 1 response | Posted by: Guest Blogger | Theme: Social Innovation & Investment

Guest blog by Ed Mayo

“If you want to do something that is new, it is sometimes better to suggest that it is not.” This was the advice to me by Michael Young, in my early days as a social entrepreneur.

In part, he was advising about how to position change in a cautious country. But he was also pointing me to the learning and links that innovation can make with existing endeavours. Michael Young was a great believer in the co-operative and mutual model, and many of his initiatives aimed to draw on and refresh the same well springs of reciprocity.

Over the last decade, his advice has been lost. Social innovation has become a fetish of the novel, encouraged by the new opportunities of technology, awed by the new sway of financial investors. There is nothing more orthodox now than social innovation pilots, even if few turn out to fly. The future is coming rapidly and with little to learn from a slower past.

But what if we looked not just at the new, but at renewal more widely? Are there ways of embedding change in a context not of small-scale new projects but of larger scale, renewed institutions?

The Co-operative Advantage is a new book out and the result of work over three years to explore that question. Out of dialogue and engagement with entrepreneurs in fifteen sectors of the economy, covering around two thirds of UK GDP and employment, the book analyses growth sectors and develop a map of potential innovation, around which the co-operative and mutual model, of up-close ownership by those involved in the business, has an edge and a fit that offers a competitive advantage. The sectors include ones with a significant, existing co-operative presence, such as agriculture, energy, retail and insurance, as well as innovation in sectors, such as housing, education, tourism, sport and transport, where new co-operative solutions are possible.

The model of sector development is one that has a long history in economic policy making. Often these would stem from public policy decisions and be supported by the state. A sector strategy, though, is also about enabling existing enterprises to understand the trends that are shaping the markets that they operate in.

Work in specific sectors such as social care (which, led by Pat Conaty, Associate of Co-operatives UK, identified the extraordinary success of businesses co-owned by users and carers in Italy compared to the UK’s investor-led model) was developed in patient dialogue with people within the sector looking at opportunities and boot-strapping communities for social innovation.

What emerges is a grounded series of over fifty potential co-operative innovations that dovetail with innovation trends more widely and offer a competitive advantage in line with these through their model of business ownership.

Interest in economic co-operation has never been higher. Kai Engel, Partner and Global Coordinator of A. T. Kearney’s Innovation and Research and Development Practice, reported to the World Economic Forum in the Swiss mountain resort of Davos earlier this year that 71% of businesses across Europe predict that, in the coming decades, co-operative innovation will account for over a quarter of their total revenues. Such collaboration will take many forms, from joint ventures and partnerships to business co-operatives and open innovation.

The social innovation agenda is in its teenage years in terms of conceptual frameworks and practical tools, much of it pioneered in a collaborative way by teams at the Young Foundation, the organisation founded by and, latterly, named after Michael Young. The strength is social innovation is its practical ambition, but its weakness is its attachment to investor-led innovation, importing the values of creative destruction and, often, heroic lone entrepreneurs, rather than those of collaboration and social organisation.

What is driving innovation, though, is not always new, and high on the list, as it has been before, are the instincts, the joys and the rewards of co-operation.

Ed Mayo

Ed Mayo is Secretary General of Co-operatives UK. He is Chair of the democracy charity, Involve, and is a former Director of the New Economics Foundation. Ed tweets on @edmayo1 and blogs on

Co-operative Advantage: innovation, co-operation and why sharing business ownership is good for Britain is edited by Ed Mayo and published by New Internationalist.

Hard copies are available on


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