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Inverting Thoughts on Thinking

Friday, October 18, 2013
by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

Last week I quickly threw down a video from Geoff Mulgan at Nesta in the hopes that you'd watch it (See: Thoughts on Thinking).  At the time I had a bunch of notes sketched out on a pad of paper (yes I still use those!) but didn't have time to pull them together into something coherent.

This week I wanted to share what I took away from the video because, as I indicated previously, there are some great nuggets of information in there. Mulgan divides up policy process into three parts:

1) Creating Mutation

Mulgan starts his presentation by arguing that novelty is the purview of iconoclasts and radicals; it's an explanation that conjures up support for the innovator as trickster hypothesis (See: Book Review: Trickster Makes This World, Innovation is Tricky, Literally and Finding Innovation) given that, tricksters seem well positioned to:
  • Reassert old ideas and infuse them with new ones 
  • Apply a different lens altogether (e.g. carbon)
  • Ask new types of questions (e.g. can it be a market?)
Whereas, as Mulgan argues, conformist institutions aren't a good source of creative mutation given that new ideas, by their very nature, have no evidence to support them.


2) Selection Principles

Mulgan goes on to outline a number of selection principles that determine which ideas tend to make the cut and which ones don't. It's likely not a coincidence that he starts his exploration by naming political convenience and ends it with evidence and reasoning. While I'm not trying to situate the two on a dichotomous spectrum I did get the sense that his ordering is purposeful and informed by his experience.

In an ideal world there is obviously at least some synergy between these and the other factors coherence, 'appealingness', and the failure of alternatives that Mulgan names. He goes on to explain that one of the core challenges of the selection phase is the tendency to promote a particular narrative structure (that which fits the mould, sustaining, do more with less innovation) rather than on what evidence supports (that which breaks the mould, disruptive, do different with different innovation).


3) Replication  and Spread

According to Mulgan, policy ideas that make it through the selection process require translation by intermediary bodies to enter into the policy bloodstream and that alternative approaches more easily replicate in the wake of failure created by an excess of orthodoxy. In other words, a history of failure creates a climate more ripe for disruptive innovation rather than one that has even a modest history of successful incremental innovation.

What if we reversed their order?

While Mulgan presents the above as sequential stages (e.g. moving from creative mutation, to selection principals, to replication), I wonder what would happen if we simply reversed their order? If we stand Mulgan's explanation on its head, the path to policy innovation seems to be:
  1. Look for a policy area with a deep history of failure (because the ground is fertile) 
  2. Identify intermediaries with a vested interest in the solution (because they will help you)
  3. Identify solutions that meet selection principals (because decision makers will support it)
  4. Apply a new lens that creates the mutation (because it leads to innovation)

Flipping the process putting support first and ideation last looks like a faster track for policy ideas and I'm interested in hearing if anyone has any tangible examples that I can learn from that have put this type of approach into practice.



Note: I've decided to re-embed the video below in case you missed it.