Article , Blog / Policy Innovation
Published: 17.05.2023

We live in a system in which problems have more than one dimension. When all aspects of these problems interlock with each other, that results in issues that have a devastating impact on various communities. In face of such layered complexity, we could not hope for a singular, universally applicable solution to be our saving grace, nor can we move forward alone.

There are myriads of issues that require myriads of redress and perspectives. Chronic poverty, for example, is the hallmark of complex social inequality and problems. Let’s briefly zoom in on the situation in the United States and put on an analytical lens.

A case study from the US: homelessness and housing insecurity among queer youths

A 2021 public opinion research on homelessness in the US reveals that the mainstream narrative surrounding the issue historically lays the blame on unhoused people, framing housing insecurity as a private failure to attain homes as well as an individual responsibility to break free from their own misery. In reality, however, the root causes of homelessness are located at the structural levels, and they undoubtedly contain multitudes. True Colors United, a non-profit an organisation that address LGBTQ+ homelessness, explicitly note that there is not a single, totalising narrative that can capture all the causes and experiences of homelessness, For example, despite the widespread belief that family rejection is the main reason for homelessness among LGBTQ+ youths, other macro-level factors have historically undermined the prospect of housing security, too. Young members of the LGBTQ+ community risk facing the intersections of anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination as well as other types of systemic violence. This could range from:

  • Gentrification, primarily in the low-income communities, combined with the absence of affordable housing and rent-related policies (e.g. rent stabilisation)
  • Racism, which threatens all aspects of living
  • A dysfunctional foster care system, which routinely subjects minors to institutional racism, shelter abuse, faith-based discrimination, or non-affirming foster homes, failing to place them in a safe and stable environment that provides long-term housing.
  • A juvenile legal system that seeks to punish and confine instead of taking time to understand “adolescent misdemeanour” at the upstream level, or reflect on the ongoing criminalisation of poverty and survival activities. In addition, the stigma associated with incarceration effectively hinders chances for reintegration into the community.
  • The immigration system that puts undocumented young people in a precarious position
  • Lack of psychological and material support from public agencies that play a significant role in childhood and adolescence, such as schools

We can see that individual predicaments reflect many more structural factors which continually evolve over time, and that means many more challenges and leverage points to work on. Surely, this is not a feat that can be achieved by a single person nor an organisation.

Enable system change with collective efforts and dynamic problem-solving

For Joss Colchester, member of the System Innovation Network, these “wicked challenges” call for “ecosystem approach,” or the continuous application of collaboratively designed and innovative solutions through networks of stakeholders.  Let’s break this dense definition down one by one.

Innovation, in this sense, means a process that helps people achieve their goals by challenging the traditional ways of thinking and working.  It needs neither cutting-edge technology nor grand financial schemes. All you have to do is stay resourceful, open-minded, and creative – always examine the flaws in the existing method, always scanning the horizon with fresh eyes.

When you have to deal with a matter as complex as homelessness, which touches on the wide array of socio-economic issues and stakeholders – from the social service providers, lawmakers, to school staff – being innovative on your own hardly suffices. The innovation you design might not tackle the big issue in its entirety, nor is it guaranteed to speak to every party involved. In addition, by the time you manage to perfect your solution, the situation might develop into an unpredictable, beyond-help state of affairs.

To prevent current stakeholders from falling into the trap of “piecemeal competition,” or a scenario in which each organisation tries to individually solve the same problem, Colchester proposes an approach that is rooted in systemic collaboration:  the “innovation ecosystem.” This approach refers to networks of individuals and organisations that agree to create an infrastructural platform for sharing resources and knowledge, collectively building and expanding the capacity to address complex challenges. What comes out of this network is not a fixed and definitive solution. Rather, it is a dynamic process of problem-solving.  In order to keep up with the new phases of the problem, the community feeds the streams of ideas into the ecosystem without a specific endpoint. 

To form your own innovation ecosystem, you can begin by answering the following questions as recommended by Colchester…

Do you need an innovation ecosystem?
  1. If you aim to solve a highly specific, non-structural challenge, the answer is no. It’s better to save your resources for other missions.
  1. If you aim to change the big system by grabbing its roots, then the answer is yes.
The purpose of an innovation ecosystem 
  1. What is your intention? 
  2. What will be the narrative that describes your challenges as well as the necessity of your innovation ecosystem?
  3. What will your strategic messaging look like?
  1. Can you map out potential leverage points and factors that influence challenges?
  2. Where is the “low-hanging fruit” located on the map?
  1. Can you map out your key actors?
  2. How would you engage with them?
  3. What are the activities for strengthening connections, co-learning, and co-creating?
  1. What will our platform look like?
  2. How should we assess outcomes and development of our work?

Source: Systems Innovation Network

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