Unlocking systems change and innovation in housing

UnLtd Award Manager Louise Cannon is a Churchill fellow. Here she outlines how social entrepreneurs can unlock systems change and innovation in housing.

In 2016 I published Square Peg in a Round Hole and began a Churchill Fellowship, an initiative which helps citizens from all backgrounds to travel in pursuit of new and better ways of tackling a wide range of the current challenges facing the UK. From my travels, I noticed an opportunity for social entrepreneurs to apply their entrepreneurial talents in the field of housing. In just one of many examples, a village I visited near Freiburg is pioneering citizen-led green solutions through its built environment: 200% of their electricity needs come from renewable energies financed by private individuals, while a nearby farm has been turned into a biogas plant which heats 14 local apartments and a local school. Could the spaces in the UK equally enable families to contribute to civic society, giving people agency to act?

From this thinking came Building Futures, an UnLtd programme which supported a small number of social entrepreneurs with radical, citizen-led approaches to solving the housing crisis. Social entrepreneurs have been tackling issues around housing for some time, but many were responding to the impact of the market such as dealing with rising homelessness, private rental insecurity and do so in isolation. At the time, there was no specialist support or shared network for the breadth and depth of ideas that I knew were out there. It was an experiment, to test how to surface and support people with ambitious ideas, and to understand the unique challenges to social entrepreneurs operating in this space.

“If you always do, what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got”

Over the past two years I have developed an interest in systems thinking, complexity, collective impact and design thinking approaches, both through my travels and seeing practice in action here in the UK. I have benefited greatly from the generosity of practitioners who share openly such as CoLab Dudley, Waag, Impact Hub Brum, Dark Matter Labs, Open Systems Lab and Participatory City. These groups are tackling vicious cycles at their root cause and sharing their output openly.  

I have learned that by bringing together a thematically connected group of social entrepreneurs, you can move beyond isolated intervention to collaborative practice. It has shown me the potential to use systems thinking to unlock more ambitious social change through collective impact.

To unleash this potential, we need better support systems for entrepreneurs, platform builders and those exploring alternative financial models that create and share value rather than extract it.

As a sector we must be braver. We need to explore how to back bigger, long-term solutions. This means avoiding falling into the trap of backing hero entrepreneurs with linear solutions, with an unconscious bias for clear metrics. We must become more comfortable with outcomes that are emerging and highly experimental. We need to utilise systems approaches, understanding social problems as deeply connected and highly complex. We must champion networks and collaboration to create the space entrepreneurs need to scale and amplify their impact.

To leave out the ideas, voice and solutions held in the communities in which we work, is to build in dysfunction. So how do we achieve systems change in partnership with social entrepreneurs and in collaboration with others?

Firstly, we need to take some time to understand systems thinking and collective impact. We should worry less about terminology and do more. A linear model of problem solving for simplicity stops us from embracing complexity and leaves room for ‘we tried this before’ ‘this won’t work’ ‘can you simplify this’ responses.

To be able to embrace the potential I have developed a series of underpinning ‘Home Principles’ for housing, but which could shape our approach in tackling other complex and entrenched social issues;  

Practice open architecture: It is important to create spaces, places and processes that are open, accessible and shared. Therefore, easy to understand and question. 

Build capacity: We should recognise our structure and advantage and use our resources to strengthen people and the organisations we work with and their capacity to innovate and influence.

Increase participation and network connectivity: We need a higher level of focus on creating genuine invitations for dialogue and connection. 

Create an opportunity-rich environment: Diversity and inclusion are key.  

Promote access over ownership: Finding ways to give people a stake in the process, outcome, or material good at every opportunity is important. Equally, we must not build in a rhetoric that progress equals physical ownership.    

Chart the course: The use of the commons, shared learning and collaboration which underpin the organisations I mention above demonstrate a pressing urgency to tackle issues of sustainability and future-proofing communities.  They advocate for action now, charting the course, but not sticking to rigidly to it.

Systems thinking is not new, but the application in the social sector is becoming more commonplace and is building our understanding of complex issues. To really leverage this knowledge, I have explored systems practice and new models of housing and innovation in Europe.  As part of the Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship I have released Unlocking systems change and innovation in Housing’ a paper exploring how systems thinking can unlock change and how the social and housing sector need to work to support innovation. I’d like to thank the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, Winston Churchill Charitable Foundation and the National Housing Federation for their support and the organisations I visited for their insight and generosity.

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