Digging for ideas

I remember Charlie Leadbeater (@wethink) when I was at Demos. You’d hear he’d be making a visit sometime soon on the way back from his trips around the world — discovering and documenting innovation in the places other people didn’t go to — from the slums to the boardrooms. He hasn’t stopped doing that and I’m reading his pamphlet his new pamphlet “Digging for the Future” for the Young Foundation, where he takes us into the 17th century.

Although it sounds more like the motto behind a 1950s food growing programme, it is actually about how we can learn from the Diggers, the long lost cousin of the more famous Levellers. How they faced a similar depth of crisis, how they called for a fundamental transformation to the way we organise themselves, and how innovation and new technologies played a role…even back then.

What struck me more than anything else in the comparison is “the chasm between our need to have a sense of purpose and our incapacity to muster the collective commitment to do so”. Indeed, the same could be said of innovation. Many organisations — whether they’re councils, charities or businesses — profess the need for being more innovative, yet fall short of letting their staff, members or users develop new ideas, not so much because they might improve things but rather they might risk disrupting “the way it’s done around here”.

Some people believe that those who are innovative are just lucky to be in the right place at the right time, because they’ve not just been allowed but empowered to change the culture they work in by their next line of management. This is why often it is only really those who benefit in the rewards of innovation who really believe in it. Others might want to but either do not have the freedom to or may not believe in it because their organisations don’t practice what they preach. But this can become a circular argument — if everyone waited for the perfect place and time to start making their new ideas happen, then we’d still be waiting for innovation.

So let’s turn instead to the core tenet to the Digger’s plan; “groups would plant and tend crops, and feed and sustain themselves, by taking unused land into common ownership to boost food production and provide employment”.

Much has changed since the 17th century, but in many ways we are slowly returning to these practices, more urgently in some cases than others, although examples like People’s Supermarket, FARM:Shop and the Incredible Edible Todmorden prove that it can be done in a less…brutal way.

Leadbeater describes how collaborative innovation was just as much at the heart of the debate in the 17th century as it is now:

“The Levellers wanted to raise food production through mutual ownership of underused land that would allow new technologies like manuring to take hold. One of the key issues for our generation is how best to share socially useful knowledge, especially through digital technologies and the web.”

In fact, why not start thinking about ideas like allotments? In an allotment like with communities, the first thing you have to do is plant seeds. But should we carry on the analogy and argue that you need to wait for the right conditions to plant your idea — in the good times when everyone is up for a brainstorm or is it when there is a frosty crisis like we’re in at the moment that new ideas are most in need?

Ultimately what’s most important is to make sure your seeds turn into fruit or veg is to nurture them — to water them regularly, place them in the sun and protect them when the frost comes. The soil too needs to be nourished even after the crops have been dug up so next year they can have a fertile ground to grow. Just like a juicy tomato, you need to do the same with ideas. But to return to the initial argument of Digging for the Future in the context of innovation, you also need to do the same with people if they are to be confident and empowered to innovate.

What have we forgotten with this analogy? What’s unique with allotments is that they’re communal — people join one over a shared passion and come back regularly to gossip about how their crops are growing, share tips for newcomers and sometimes even compete for prizes, like who grows the biggest marrow.

It’s why people warm to networks like Our Society and why it’s so important particularly when it’s the institutions putting in new soil (like “community rights”) that there’s a need to see where people need help to learn how to nourish the soil to take advantage of the opportunities of the seeds they plant to be able to grow and not being killed off in the first frost. Which is why the work of Our Society Dudley and Urban Forum is also critical in involving people in “fact finding, planning, activity and reflection to identify problems and solutions, and a continuous process of feeding in learning into the shared activity…(building) confidence and capacity for future self organised social action…(and providing) the basis of an analysis, rooted in practical experience of community groups”.

How can we encourage this within organisations and maybe even more importantly between institutions and the people they’re designed to serve, so that institutions can act more like “gardeners” than “umpires”?

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