Social and environmental challenges are intensifying. Trust in government, business, even large civil society organisations, is declining. Meanwhile, the tools available to individuals are becoming more powerful – from crowdfunding and online collaboration to 3D printing and garage biotech. So it’s not surprising therefore that we are seeing an increase in citizens and communities responding to social and environmental challenges themselves, creating new organisations, networks, products and services.
In our latest Futures Webinar, Forum for the Future brought together researchers from the Sustainable Business Research Group at Aalto University, Finland, and other members of the European Commission-funded three-year project EU InnovatE, to ask what it will take to unleash the full potential of citizen innovation, and harness it for sustainability.
One clear insight from the project and our discussions (also explored here) is that citizen innovation takes two forms: on the one hand, there’s the involvement of citizens as co-creators in innovation processes devised by commercial or government bodies, and on the other there’s citizen-led innovation, in which the vision, process and action comes from the ground.
A second important observation is that the distinction between the organisational realm and the realm of citizens is increasingly blurred. How we go about tackling problems as a society is changing rapidly, and how we organise to do this is a significant field for innovation in itself.
The walls of organisations are increasingly permeable, and the grey area between our agency as professionals and as citizens is growing.
This is affecting how organisations see their social role, and how they interact with individuals. They are behaving in more ‘human’ ways: engagement has moved from broadcast and sales to co-creation and listening. Value transfer is becoming less transactional and more of an open exchange. This represents a huge cultural shift, supporting the shift from ‘consumer’ to ‘prosumer’ and from ‘stakeholder’ to ‘co-creator’.
Where citizens are leading the charge, there is still a need for wider support - to help initiatives reach scale and to help individuals avoid dangers such as burnout, for instance. Here, self-organising hubs for innovation - such as co-working spaces - could play a crucial role.
Another significant challenge for citizen-led innovation is reaching beyond those who are intrinsically motivated to bring on board a larger cross-section of society. Without this engagement, fast-moving projects could leave individuals and communities feeling left out - a risk to social cohesion, as well as a barrier to effective and sustainable change.