Disruptive influence

February 9, 2011 by
Filed under: Social Economy 

Apparently the Chief Executive of Nokia has written an internal memo to his staff likening his firm to a “burning platform”. He argues that the introduction of the iPhone and Google’s own mobile phone platform has had such an impact on his industry that Nokia must adapt or die.

For me the key quote is

“Apple disrupted the market”

The idea of “disrupting the market” is at the core of Apple’s approach to developing new technology. Steve Jobs once said that his purpose was to put a dent in the universe.

Within business and technology literature the idea of a “disruptive technology” (when a new and unexpected technology arrives on the scene and changes everything) is well established. So too is the idea of “creative destruction”. It would be fair to say that this approach has not been tried or particularly welcomed within government, which has often proved to be ‘path dependent’.

But is this all changing?

Some have argued that the current government are undertaking such a broad reform of public services that they can be described as “Maoists”. Steve Hilton, the government’s Director of Strategy has said he wants to “change everything”. I think that the government’s approach to changing things borrows quite a lot from the idea of disruption.

Everyone knows that the government is cutting funding to public services and reforming them at the same time. The way they are reforming them is, I would argue, an attempt to add disruptive elements into communities to shake up the way public services are delivered. They are adding elected police commissioners, GP consortia, and giving community groups the ‘right’ to bid to run services. All of these reforms, and many more, can be seen as adding assertive, challenging new presences that will be fighting their own corner.

This is quite a contrast to the previous government’s approach, which was typified by (forced) partnership working whereby a range of different local agencies had to sign up to grand plans and strategies for their area.

There would be very few people who would march to save Local Strategic Partnerships. You can hardly imagine people chanting “What do we want? A Sustainable Communities Strategy! When do we want it? After the statutory consultation has been undertaken!”

However, the question does spring to mind, who will bring a diverse range of neighbours, businesses, government agencies and charities together to agree a common vision for an area?

Perhaps you think that this will be a role for the government’s new ‘army’ of community organisers. However, as Toby Blume has persuasively argued, the community organisers will in fact be another disruptive element. They will “offer a challenge to all those who hold power, whether in local government, the private sector or the voluntary and community sector”.

The gains from having “disruptive technologies” introduced into communities include; innovation, challenging old and tired ways of doing things and, potentially, a better service for users.

However, there are downsides. Unlike in the private sector, people are loath to allow public services to fail and disappear. Nothing brings a community together better than a campaign to save a hospital which is threatened with closure. The possibility of organisations failing is an essential part of creative destruction.

From a communities perspective it is vital to recognise that certain issues can only be solved by bring people together. If we want to improve race relations, reduce isolation, or promote more trust between generations then we need to bring people together.

The Prime Minister has made it clear that his vision of the Big Society is one whereby “neighbourhoods who are in charge of their own destiny, who feel if they club together and get involved they can shape the world around them”. In this description, clubbing together is clearly a precursor to getting involved. The concern must be that rather than clubbing together, people will splinter into competing groups.

Tessy Britton has written of her worries that community organisers might be one degree of disruption too much. Instead she calls for “people that bring people together in positive ways that change and improve their communities”. The key point that she makes is that these “social artists” seek to create emergence, when new and coherent structures come out of complex systems.

If we accept that there will, in the future, be a lot more disruptive elements acting in communities, then there is a strong case to be made for the need for organisations and individuals that can act as conveners; bringing people together and facilitating cooperation and mutual action. This convening role should not be bureaucratic or controlling. It should be creative and fun and allow for the possibility of emergent phenomena.