Conversation #13 — Rowan Conway, Director of Innovation and Development, RSA

Photo by Slava Bowman on Unsplash

I joined the RSA a few years ago after I came across their work project on self-employment — as a recently self-employed professional, it made a big impact on my thinking about entrepreneurship, and I’ve followed the organisation’s work ever since. So it was a huge privilege to spend some time with Rowan and talk about her report on bringing about social change through design thinking.

Rowan’s career has taken her from training as a designer to working for LOCOG on the London 2012 Olympics, running enquiry by design projects with communities around the Olympic sites. She’s now bringing this experience in bringing people together around a challenge in an urban design context to bear on much larger social innovation challenges at the RSA: as she puts it, innovating for purpose.


Would you mind kicking us off by telling us what the word innovation means to you?

That’s a big question because innovation means many things to many people. What it doesn’t mean to us is new ideas for the sake of new ideas, we are far more interested in stimulating creativity.

At the RSA, innovation and entrepreneurship are very closely aligned, and we’re focused on social innovation. Innovation theorists like Clayton Christensen would say that there are different kinds of innovation: efficiency innovation, sustaining innovation and empowering innovation. We’re very much in the school of empowering innovation. How do we get beyond innovation for productivity, or for improved efficiency gains for business, and into the business of how we transform society through new ideas, invention and visions? Innovation is about thinking creatively and in a visionary way.

How do we get beyond innovation for productivity and into the business of how we transform society through new ideas?

So how does that work at the RSA?

The RSA is a complex beast and we come at it in multiple different ways. Within my team for example, we host the student design awards which are about enabling design students to think about social innovation. It’s sometimes the first time that people in universities have experienced the concept of social innovation, so the business of innovation in that context is about stimulating design thinking and new ideas that arise from that process.

In other parts of the organisation we’ve been developing out the thinking around how you think like a system and act like an entrepreneur. We have a policy thinktank at the RSA and we also have a 29,000-strong fellowship. We‘re looking at how the organisation works so that we can build on that best of the thinktank world, and understand how one takes the excellence in thinking and make it enhance the power of the entrepreneur to make change in the world.

It’s not an easy and simple model to try and unleash: it’s about empowering innovation to find ideas that solve social challenges, which is of course what the RSA has been in business to do for the last 260 years. Originally it was set up by reformers seeing that the industrial age was causing some problems and that there was a need to have good ideas to solve them, and that has evolved, but that narrative has always stayed very true to what the RSA is about.

It’s a very progressive organisation. I remember when I first joined, I was very impressed that it admitted women from its first days, which was unusual.

Yes, and it’s always been very self-reflective, it’s adapted to what progressive thinking is at any given time. The term sustainable development was first spoken in the RSA. We’ve moved from an era of great invention, where what the RSA was trying to do was create new things to build a new society — for example, Alexander Graham Bell tested the telephone in the Great Room at the RSA among people who were fellow creators. That set in train a whole telecoms revolution. Now it’s less about creating new things and more socially reformist, looking at public services, at how communities can be empowered, at social entrepreneurship. We’ve adapted and changed how we do it, but I think progressive is a thread that has flowed all the way through.

You’ve recently published a report — From Design Thinking to Systems Change, about directing design methodology towards social challenges. I’m interested to hear what the driver was for writing that report?

I’d been having conversations about design thinking and service design, and I think service design has been seen as a bit of a panacea and an alternative to old-school strategy setting. I’d noticed that we were moving or transitioning from an old hierarchical world to a new networks domain which would be far more efficient, far more tech savvy, digital by default. My role at the time was working on public services and communities in the research team here when I started spotting that there was a lot of investment in policy labs and innovation labs. An excellent example was Participle, a design thinking organisation that took another look at how we’re doing things now, and how might we do them differently.

I fundamentally believe that business, as much as government, should be investing in transformative innovation

I fundamentally believe that business, as much as this government, should be investing in transformative innovation, but so far almost everything has been in the efficiency innovation camp. Even most of the ideas coming out of service design have been about reducing nurse time, reducing beds, reducing pressure on NHS wards, and not what we are actually trying to achieve with the NHS itself.

Where are the big visionary ideas, beyond the disruptive innovation which just create a challenger business? A challenger business is really there to obsolesce the old business model, and that’s very win/lose. The problem with thinking that disruptive innovation is the be-all and end-all is that fundamentally you’re not going to get anywhere societally, you will just keep creating challengeable alternatives to existing businesses. You create what Douglas Rushkoff calls Digital Industrialism, faster mechanisms of the same thing, you’re not designing what you want to see in society.

It felt to me that much government investment in innovation was not landing beyond efficiency, was not thinking enough about what the change is that we want to see in the world, or commissioning good and well-designed innovation. We came up with the conceit of the system immune response, which is that it’s the reasons why not that prevent innovation coming through, not the reasons why. It’s not that the cream rises to the top and the best thing will scale, it’s that there are a whole host of immune response mechanisms that try and push back to the original position.

This system immune response has multiple layers. Some of them are hard layers: you can’t do things because they’re illegal, for example. You can’t be a positive deviant who is breaking the law, because then you’re just breaking the law. You can be a positive deviant because there is no law or regulatory framework for example, so there is no environment to create the immune response. Digital has had a free rein generally because the infrastructure for the system to have an immune response hasn’t been developed for digital in the way that it has for analogue technologies.

So how does the report address the issue?

We were interested in the reasons why innovations that were high quality, design led, and commissioned well, were failing to scale, and we came to this idea of think like a system and act like an entrepreneur.

Effectively there are two different things that needed to happen to enable change. One is to understand the system around what you’re trying to change. Mapping the system, the actors and how the system behaves now and then imagining how you want the system to behave is a very useful exercise in developing a brief.

The second thing was recognising that problems are not markets. We expect things to scale like the old school innovation curve, but change doesn’t operate like markets and no one has really thought about that too much. All the thinking has gone into idea creation and ideation, but the interesting place is in diffusion and the reasons why initiatives fail. If you create competition demand, you’re enabling businesses to grow, but you’re not trying to solve the world problem. If you really want purpose driven enterprises, you need to think differently.

You talk about how innovators must use systems analysis as a platform for action and then act entrepreneurially. Are those people necessarily the same people? Does everyone have to act like an entrepreneur? Or is it a question of assembling the right team?

I think it’s a bit of both. It’s more about knowing how you assemble the right group. I like to have my team get comfortable with being uncomfortable, so I do like them to do things outside of their expertise and that’s been my biggest challenge in shifting my team to something that is collaborative and innovative and entrepreneurial in their behaviour. If you are too much of an expert or you understand your role too well, it’s in the breaking of your boundary into someone else’s boundary that you get creative stuff going on.

That trade-off between deep expertise and everyone feeling able to contribute in an unbounded way.

Frederic Laloux looks at innovative organisations that are self-organising and calls them teal organisations. He ranks organisations, where orange is hierarchical, and all the decisions are concentrated at the top, and green is very collaborative, your traditional co-operative where everyone has an equal say. The interesting thing about teal is that not everyone is equal in a teal organisation. You are self-organising, so you understand how to use hierarchies appropriately, you understand how to get decisions made.

Sometimes in the more youthful design thinking organisations that have popped up all over the place they don’t see the difference. If you have a very network driven organisation and you don’t see the value, or indeed the importance of getting the hierarchy on side, when you try make change in the end, it won’t work. To make a change happen you might need to have a self-organising assembly of people who are all willing to make a change. I think willingness is an important part of making any mission driven innovation happen.

Willingness is an important part of making any mission driven innovation happen

But it is challenging to be continuously experimental, constantly to look at problems and see if we’re shooting towards impact. And when you start to understand complex systems, you realise how powerless we can be to make major changes, and that can feel very disempowering, especially to someone who is entrepreneurial. I think that’s one of the most important things for social entrepreneurs, and they haven’t quite got that yet.

What struck me reading the report is the scale of it, because you’re dealing with massively complex systems. You’re looking at the whole of society or you’re looking at something like the NHS. Do you think it’s that scale that makes it particularly interesting? Or do you think these principles can be applied at every level?

I’m interested in how much you can take a big chunk out of society’s problems and fix them through ideas and innovation. Understanding the problem is a big part of systems mapping, because some problems are quite simple, and some problems are gigantically big, and we mix them up. If you asked yourself why you’re trying to solve the problem of childhood obesity with a design thinking sprint, you’d realise it’s impossible so you wouldn’t do it.

I don’t think that we want to take complex problems off the table, but we may not be solving them just with innovation. Some of this is going to have to be about culture building, culture innovation, how we think differently about how we are. We have to change our fundamental operating systems in order to enable systems change, but everyone will be deeply uncomfortable with that. As a society, are we able to do that? I would say we can’t not.

It feels like there’s a bit of clash between how fast we are able, as human beings, to adapt — how long we can exist in that uncomfortable state of change. Human beings used to evolve generationally, each generation was a bit different from the one before, and we’re now seeing huge change.

It is a step change. There are people who say we are in the great acceleration and I have been musing on the concept of the speed of life and the speed of tech. The Aldous Huxley idea that we would all work 15 hours a week and that technology would free us up hasn’t really come to pass, we are still acting as robots in so far as we still see ourselves as the primary labour source. As modern human beings we see work and our contribution to life as essential — in western ideas of achievement, work is primacy and innovation within that is about speed, acceleration, but that’s not always good.

What does life look like when when our identities aren’t entirely wrapped up with work?

What does life look like when work is different, when our identities aren’t entirely wrapped up with work? That’s the next emerging creative age and that’s where we have to start looking. We’re also going to be 9 billion people, and we want to be able to have a society. We are having to understand who we are as humans quite differently in the next generation. We have to create strong networks where people know how to engage with each other in a positive way.

If there’s one thing you want people to take away from this report, what would it be? Is there a final thought that you’d like to leave us with?

It’s been quite revolutionary for me to marry the two concepts of thinking systemically and acting entrepreneurially together, because I think if you get stuck in systems analysis, you can get into analysis paralysis, you can get lost in complexity and how big challenges are, and you just fail to act.

To shift towards experimenting with confidence but also with competence is what I’m hoping we build out of this, so that you get people who can experiment with legitimacy on really important world problems, recognising that these are attempts at change, experiments. We won’t be able to say we’ve changed the world, but we would be endeavouring to do good.


This article was supported by idea management platform Solverboard. Do check out Solverboard Work, their suite of idea management tools that help organisations inspire, capture, measure and reward the collective intelligence of their people.