2018 SoCal Symposium Cohort

Social Innovation Blog: In the Long Arc of Change, People are the North Star of Social Innovation

faculty member of the Southern California Symposium (SCS) and Co-Founder & Partner of SidePorch

The USC Price Center for Social Innovation concluded a successful Southern California Symposium earlier this summer.

An inaugural executive education program, the Symposium drew an impressive cohort of leaders from across sectors and geographies. The three-month program sought to challenge these local leaders to think deeply and collaboratively about the region’s future and to develop long-term solutions.

Over the course of the program, participants engaged with world-class professionals working across sectors, systems and regions. They also formed into five groups, supported by a senior faculty member, to develop an innovative approach aimed at making a positive contribution towards a pressing challenge facing our SoCal community.

Each of the groups succeeded in defining a crucial problem in compelling detail, and in proposing a solution that would require creative, incentive-driven, and – importantly – realistic collaborations. In other words, the presentations available on this site are worth reviewing.

For an example, the group I worked with proposed the development of a Quality of Learning Index. Leveraging data and research already underway, this index would measure the inventory of non-school based, cross-sector community programs and activities aimed at improving student access to learning opportunities in Promise Zone designated neighborhoods across Southern California.

This social innovation approach intended to use a common tool to reveal gaps in a range of dissimilar communities. In this approach, the group hoped to create a methodology that would facilitate identification, funding and evaluation of a wide range of potential interventions that could be organized on a regional basis.

In other words, the participants certainly met the expressed goals laid out by the designers of the Symposium, Professor Roberto Suro and Sr. Visiting Fellow, David Morse.

But perhaps the most important thing we did is expose how tough this work of social innovation really is. Particularly when grappling with complex, adaptive systems teeming with organizations and individuals not accustomed to working together.

Rather than the strong final projects, the most important result from this Symposium hopefully emerges in the years to come through the experience and skills developed by the participants in working together in loosely aligned groups whose members are incentivized quite differently.

Dr. Gary Painter, team coach and Director of the Price Center for Social Innovation, highlights this point in a recent post: “it’s going to take a diverse portfolio of interventions that collectively operate in a broader, comprehensive ‘social innovation framework’ that can catalyze rapid change across multiple programs and policies affecting housing in the region.” Though Gary focuses this article on housing, the underlying observation holds true for any system operating across our region.

Indeed, there are many factors that make it difficult to develop effective social innovation approaches to challenging problems. But people – as individuals and in groups – play key roles in pretty much any example that we considered.

And most of us struggle to understand ourselves sufficiently to be as effective as possible, not to mention understanding ourselves when placed in high-pressure environments. Designing and leading social innovation approaches to address these complex challenges in unfamiliar groups calls for an even greater ability to understand ourselves and others!

The North Star emerged as a key metaphor that inspired, and then guided our work throughout the Symposium. David Morse drove this home most successfully when stressing the crucial importance of narrative and storytelling that underlies any successful, scaled intervention.

David’s reflections on this topic remind us that narrative must play a key role, not only for external audiences, but also to remind internal stakeholders of the actual change we want to achieve. In this way, the concept of a North Star represents a powerful image, both visible and consistent as we work to fashion aligned effort towards a common purpose.

But this Symposium kept returning over and again to the fact that we are operating in complex, adaptive and dynamic systems, typically needing a good amount of time to produce real change. No matter how nuanced and powerful the narrative constructed might be, or how compelling and apparent the guiding North Star, we learned that it is the people involved, and how they chose to work with others, that make the real difference.

The individuals involved in this first Symposium left me excited, hopeful, for the coming years in the Southern California area. This extends across the participants, through the USC faculty, and to the Price staff that brought the session to life – and we all look forward to welcoming a new cohort in the coming year!

Learn more about the Southern California Symposium