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Innovation intermediaries

Intermediaries are individuals, organisations, networks or spaces which connect people, ideas and resources. They can take a variety of forms – some incubate innovations by providing a ‘safe’ space for collaboration and experimentation; some connect entrepreneurs with the supports they need to grow their innovations; and others help to spread innovations by developing networks and collaborations.

We’ve suggested that much social innovation comes from linking up the ‘bees’ – the individuals and small organisations that are buzzing with ideas and imagination – and the ‘trees’, the bigger institutions that have power and money but are usually not so good at thinking creatively. On their own the bees can’t achieve impact. On their own the trees find it hard to adapt.

Intermediaries can help to link them up. To be effective they need to reach across the boundaries that divide sectors, disciplines and fields. They need to attract innovative, entrepreneurial people: the job of intermediation needs to be highly creative. And they need to be fluent in many languages – able to translate from the language of everyday needs to the very different languages of policy makers or investors for example. 


Individual roles can be created to scout out, highlight and disseminate innovations. These individuals can work within or across organisations. They can be involved in adopting or adapting existing innovations. Or, they can be responsible for embedding processes within an organisation to enable innovation to flourish. These kinds of role are increasingly popular within the public sector.


There are a wide range of innovation teams. Some work within organisations, either within or across departments, some are set up to encourage collaboration across organisations and some are designed to focus on particular issues or use a particular approach. The best innovation teams are multidisciplinary and able to engage a wide range of stakeholders in the design, development and evaluation of innovation.


Innovation hubs are spaces and places which bring people together to learn, share and collaborate. They are much more than shared work spaces. They are places where social entrepreneurs, community activists, non-profits and others can come together to share ideas, insights and experiences. In this way, hubs provide mutual support. They also provide economies of scale and scope – as hub members share associated costs (overheads, meeting rooms, connectivity and so on).


The absence of institutions devoted to social innovation means that too often it is a matter of luck whether ideas come to fruition. Institutions play a critical role in mobilising energies and orchestrating more systemic change in fields such as climate change and welfare by linking small scale social enterprises and projects to big institutions, laws and regulations (for example, shifting a city’s transport system over to plug-in hybrids).


Networks can serve as alternatives to formal organisational structures. The very nature of networks bring a range of benefits that are particularly important within the social economy.


There are different types and forms of platforms, but in the main, they involve giving people the tools and resources they need to organise themselves. In the case of Meetup, for example, this means enabling people to connect and come together to discuss and act on issues of their choice. There are countless other examples.