Frances Westley on Social Innovation

Yes. It’s been a while… but now I am in thesis-writing mode (well, that’s the idea) and the only way to become better at writing, is writing. So, I’m back! (And yes, I expect some positive reinforcement in the form of comments from my 2 readers).

On Tuesday September 18, Frances Westley gave a presentation at the University of Victoria. Her talk was based on what she learned after the publishing of the book Getting to Maybe. In her presentation, she focused on four areas:

1. Social innovation is about system transformation

In order to effect change we need to work across scales, the different levels within the system. She talked about the management up-down model. For example, middle management are in a key position because of their access to decision-makers and, say, clients. I think about the potential of being a ‘connector’, not to pass information along or to “sell” the top management ideas, but to be critical thinkers and doers and bring together the different interests among scales.

I sometimes get trapped in the idea that social innovation is about creating something new that will completely change the world, but Frances reminded us that social innovation is about system transformation, not novelty. We should ask ourselves if what we are doing is having a ‘disturbance’ in the system that created the problem. For instance, she talked about how Transition Towns build resilience and they intentionally are doing so ‘outside’ of the system. My understanding is that Transition is creating a new economic and community model that might will be already in place whenever our current economic system collapses. Well in any case, they are doing awesome work, but I’m digressing. Frances point is that Transition is not disturbing the system, the movement has not scaled up.  So the idea of top-down and bottom-up change is essential; she suggested to even experiment with policy making, always ensuring that there is follow up. She finalized this first point with an invitation “don’t let a crisis go to waste”.

2. Releasing the self-healing properties of systems

I loved this part, because it is basically what I would like to explore through my research. Basically she aks the question: How we can move away from the US Vs. THEM mental model? Fellow activists: If we think that the enemy is out there or if we feel anger, then, we can’t do the work.  So, we need to change the rules of how we relate to each other for things to change. For example, how does this video make us feel?

Wait, who is the enemy?  Check 1:05 and 1:07

Green Peace I love you but let’s not encourage linear thinking or the Us Vs. Them model. As Frances says, let’s recognize that the ‘enemy’ is inside us. Let’s move away from blame and emphasize learning!

3. Resilience

This is such an interesting term that does not have a translation in Spanish. So I didn’t know what the word meant for a long time but I’m starting to grasp this very interesting concept. It’s how living systems assimilate shock and bounce back or adapt.  Frances talked about general resilience, personal resilience and organizational resilience. The way you can build resilience in organizations is through consultations, social justice (I suppose values and actions), and decentralization. She also highlighted the need to avoid blame and how a flat hierarchy is conducive to equity and innovation. I love non-hierarchical structures!

4. Hearing the whole symphony all at once

Nice metaphor, eh? Well apparently that’s what happened in Mozart’s head, according to a letter he wrote to his father. Well really the conversation here is about complexity systems and, I believe, systems awareness. Frances briefly mentioned the potential of change labs, a space designed to encourage cooperation and creative experimentation to solve complex problems, as ways to learn more about complexity, the hopeful science.

She also mentioned that systems can not be controlled, but supported; and at some point said “How can we give access to policy makers to learn about complexity systems?

What I ask myself is “What can educators do to give access to students to learn about systems?

Ok, back to look for the answers to that question…


Published by Val Cortes

Join the Conversation


  1. I am wondering, what do you think how long will it take for the change of mind to take place? Can our generation change or is the only way to change the way we as a society think to educate the next generation to think differently?

  2. Adrian, I don’t know how long. We are used to engaging in ‘linear-thinking’ that moving to a new mindset requires intention and practice, lots of self-awareness, experience, and reflection. Definitely, educators need to educate in a more holistic way. In any case, I believe that change is possible and it is happening.

  3. Hi Val, I wanted to say thank you for helping organize my workshop at Volunteer Victoria. It was yesterday, and it went great! Thanks so much, and looking forward to seeing you again soon.

    Best wishes,

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