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Innovation in the world of Children's Services

Summary of my keynote talk delivered to Coram Innovation Incubator, 2nd February 2024 


Last week I was honoured to be asked to speak at the Coram Innovation Incubator on the broad topic of, well, innovation.  Coram is the UK’s oldest charity, and the world’s first charity focused exclusively on children’s welfare and wellbeing. Their incubator gathers professionals from Children’s Services across the public, private and charity sectors, from right across the UK.  I focused on sharing my learnings from 3o years working in, on or around children’s issues across each of the sectors represented by the delegates, by focusing on my entrepreneurial approach and experience with innovating.


My theme was built around addressing the challenge of how to innovate when governance of institutions is geared towards risk and financial management rather than being brave with big bets.  I set the context of my learnings as framed by what I had done at Nickelodeon and Ella’s Kitchen in the private sector, with London’s Child Obesity Taskforce and the University of Reading in the public sector, and from Robert F Kennedy Human Rights and Sesame Workshop (Street) in the charity/non-profit sector.


I shared that my two huge takeaways across those 30 years of innovating to help children better succeed are:


People matter. It’s people who have new ideas, take actions and inspire.  It’s people that create change and innovate. It isn’t governments, public services, businesses or charities. Nor is it strategies, budget frameworks or programme plans that deliver change. For each of these are ‘made up’ institutions or management constructs, each created by people, requiring people to deliver on aligned goals. I asked the delegates to look beyond the institutions they worked for, to people they work with and the curiosity they could unleash together with the motivations that influence their behaviours, culture, decisions and actions. 


Environment matters.  Our environment hugely influences our behaviour, just as Churchill noted that when we build ‘we shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us.’ Our environments: be they physical, virtual or cultural, are constantly changing, often at speed, so that if our approach to problems stands still it in fact moves backwards.  In times of transforming environments we must find innovative solutions to at least adapt to the transformation, or ideally actively change the environments themselves to adapt further to better support children’s welfare and wellbeing.


I therefore argued that to create transformational change, via innovation, we need: MACRO changes to the environment and MICRO changes to people’s behaviours.


I focused the rest of my talk on innovating to help people change their behaviours, sharing the model I have come to be heavily influenced by: COM=B.  To create changes in human behaviours (B) we need a combination of facilitators that give capabilities (C) - such as skills and resources, opportunities (O) -  such as spaces, places and time, and understand motivations (M) - such as internal and external rewards.


With this model to guide which aspect of behaviour change we are seeking to transform with innovation, I shared that my next step in thinking revolves around ‘3Rs’. I believe that successful transformational change requires:


    1. 1. Relationships:-  strong networks, that trust, share, invest and collaborate,
    2. 2. Resources:- often, but not always, cash - we can’t change the world without investing resources in the endeavour; and
    3. 3. Recognition:-  the power of communications is huge, it inspires, and helps belief -  celebrating small wins to build momentum in solving seemingly insurmountable challenges is powerful!

Innovation and transformation also requires disruption to the status quo, the established order and the conventional route.  This is so clearly articulated with the maxim: ‘if you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got.’ The bravery to disrupt is key to successful innovation.


My journeys to create disruption have always required an innovative mindset.  For me that mindset is framed by focusing on 3P’s: An innovative mindset requires:


  1. 1. Belief that the change is possible. I helps innovators and early followers think ‘I can’ act.
  2. 2. An evolution to believe that the change has become probable. More adopters join in and think ‘I will’ act.
  3. 3. A further evolution to believe that the change has finally become powerful. More people see the impact, the scales tip and innovation accelerates to become the norm. Most people believe ‘ I must’ act.

I continued to share that in my experience, although a disrupting, innovative mindset is vital, a framework to focus and deliver the impact of the potential innovation is also necessary. In this, the innovation framework I have followed around children’s issues has been:


  1. 1. Putting children at the centre of building the innovation, in including the awesome power of lived experience, co-design, user experience and testing and of children’s advocacy.
  2. 2. Realising that the whole system must change for innovation to be successful, not just a small, visible part, and solutions must be focused on creating systemic change.  This is the true outcome from disruptive innovation.
  3. 3. Being aware of the opportunities to always go bigger and bolder, by building evidence, finding stories and spreading awareness of small scale, but scalable, solutions.

I shared numerous examples of how I has been involved in successful innovation to help more children thrive - across each of the private, public and charity sectors.  Including:

 

At Ella’s Kitchen:- Radically changing ‘babyfood’ packaging (to use flexible pouches), recipes (to mix fruit and veggies together), branding (bright primary colours and an Ella’s lexicon, to connect with all the senses) and communications strategy (parent to parent rather than corporation to consumer).

 

In London:- with Sadiq Khan’s bravery to ban high salt, sugar and fat products from being advertised on the Transport for London network, restricting planning permission approvals for take aways within 400M of a school, freeing up budget to offer free school meals to all primary school children, and in building out the distribution and marketing on London’s free water.

 

In human rights:- by co-ordinating the Poet Laurette, Simon Armitage, to commission 30 global poets to create a poem for each of the 30 Articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and using these to inspire schoolchildren to write their own poems on their human rights.

 

In television:- Buy using entertainment through television to educate disadvantaged young children with literacy, numeracy and social-emotional learning - as Sesame Street has innovated for over 50 years.

 

Finally, I brought my talk together to leave the audience with five core take aways that I believe are the keys to successful innovation.  They apply at both the individual change maker and organisational level and need to be embedded in programmes’ development and culture, and are:


  1. 1. Be open to change
  2. 2. Embrace creativity
  3. 3. Think big
  4. 4. Show courage
  5. 5. Think and act fast

I began to conclude with the optimism I have that innovation CAN be successful in creating batter futures for all our children.  That optimism is grounded in the fact that, as I see it:


  1. 1. Society is increasingly listening to those with lived experience of issues.
  2. 2. The opportunities for, and numbers of, collaborations between organisations is increasing.
  3. 3. There are increasing opportunities to recognise and celebrate small wins.
  4. 4. Innovation and the human spirit are intertwined and eternal - we can imagine something that does not exist and create it. In this I quoted my sporting hero, Muhammad Ali.



I finally shared how I had taken all of these learnings from across my whole innovation journey, and had brought them together in writing my new book: Raising the Nation: How to Build a Better Future for Our Children (and Everyone Else) that was published in November.  The book challenges what success looks like for a society, and explores how we can together find a better future.  Its answer is in big public policy ideas that help all children thrive.  I complimented my decades of experience, with two years of solid research and the collaboration of 68 experts, who each wrote a short essay, sharing their experiences and expertise, and offering a policy idea for Government to adopt.  The book concludes with a call for a National Childrens Service - and has innovation and entrepreneurial thinking at its core.  


I hope I hit the brief, and left a mark of curiosity and bravery from which their day could build.