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Prompts and Inspirations

All innovations start with a central idea. But the idea itself is often prompted by an experience or event or new evidence which brings to light a social need or injustice. Some organisations initiate the prompts themselves - using feedback systems to identify possible problems. Creative leaders can use symbols and demonstrations to prompt social imagination. In many cases, research, mapping and data collection are used to uncover problems, as a first step to identifying solutions.

One of the critical challenges at this stage though is identifying the right problem. A good problem contains within it the seeds of the solution. The trick is in framing the question. Like medicine, the key issue in social policy is one of diagnosis, of going beyond the symptom to the cause. As Curitiba’s Jaime Lerner explains, a problem of parking is merely a reflection of a problem in the public transport system. In such a case seeking solutions to the wrong problem can often make them worse. In other cases, it is a matter of breaking down a general problem into manageable bits, of getting down to the actionable parts.

The prompts are triggers for action. They may take the form of imperatives; that some action is needed without specifying what that action is, for example a budget crisis or a natural disaster. Such prompts are closely linked to problem recognition, and the myriad ways in which a problem comes to light and commands attention. Once the problem is recognised, it needs to be interrogated, and contextualised. This is the process of re-formulating the problem in such a way as to stimulate workable solutions. Those running ideas competitions for the crowd sourcing of innovations say that it is the stage of framing a good question which is the key to the competition’s success.

All of the methods that follow are not only prompts, but also steps towards refining the question and generating a solution. 

Triggers and inspirations

Here we describe some of the triggers and inspirations that prompt innovation, that demand action on an issue, or that mobilise belief that action is possible.

Research and mapping

Problems need to be recognised. Too often they are hidden, or marginalised. Or there is a belief that nothing can be done about them. Much research is about bringing problems to light. Much politics is about getting problems a hearing.

Many innovations are triggered by new data and research. In recent years, there has been a rise in the use of mapping techniques to reveal hidden needs and unused assets. The Latin origin of the word evidence is to make clear and visible, and visibility generates ideas.

The circuit of information

New needs can also be brought to the fore through effective feedback systems. Such systems can help practitioners and front line staff understand the needs of users and better tailor services accordingly. In industry and commerce the capacity to collect and analyse large quantities of data has been the basis for the remarkable changes in flexible manufacturing for example, and in the practice of retailing. In Japanese factories data is collected by front line workers, and then discussed in quality circles that include technicians.

New perspectives

New ideas are often prompted by new ways of seeing, that put familiar things in a new light. These may be paradigms or models, and may be encouraged by formal roles that are designed to help organisations think in fresh ways.

Making problems visible and tangible

Social phenomena are not automatically visible. One of the crucial roles of social science, and of statistics, is to bring to the surface patterns that are otherwise invisible to people living within them, or governing them. Seeing an issue in a new way can then prompt more creative thinking about alternatives.

Commanding attention

In the media-intensive environment of today, one of the most valuable resources is attention. Without it social change is painfully slow. A key stage in many innovations is securing attention – particularly of people with power.

From symptom to cause

Diagnosing problems is a first step to developing solutions. A key challenge is to get to the underlying causes of a problem. To a hammer every problem looks like a nail. It’s always easier to deal with symptoms rather than causes. Some of the methods for digging deeper involve the analysis of systems; others involve mobilising people’s own experiences and perspectives.