Rapid prototyping social change

“We have enough, and we can do better, so why is it so hard to cause social change? “

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I believe it’s because we wade through bureaucracy and stifling processes that take forever to be signed off and implemented. It’s no coincidence that I became fascinated with rapid prototyping, a process I’ve witnessed at Hackathons where participants have 48 hours to identify and develop a prototype and pitch it to an audience. I have seen the outcomes which are astounding, like one of the apps that came out of GovHack created by teenagers called Disaster Master to mitigate risks and provide safety tips and advice on dangerous zones based on past data and predictive analytics. It made me wonder how can we get results like that in other paradigms.I believe that rapid prototyping should be applied to urgent social problems, to systems change and reform, to service design and delivery. Because in our business, people’s lives are at stake and the faster we come up with innovative, adaptable solutions, the better it is for our community and our society.

This journey into disruptive social innovation (the proposed topic of my PhD) has been amazing, I am looking at the areas of design, technology and start up to see if there are methods that can be re-purposed for innovating our responses to social disadvantage. I do this because whatever we are doing is just not cutting it, more and more people are falling through the cracks of suicide, poverty, homelessness, domestic and family violence, unemployment and mental health (Poverty in NSW,  Council of Social Services, 2014).

I recently trialled a Social Innovation Pitch event in Broken Hill where we got communities to pitch an idea to an audience of business, government and NGOs. The result was a strong desire to continue running the event including inviting more pitches and community stakeholders. Simply the event created the space for greater collaboration across sectors and connecting people from parallel paradigms.  The result, new partnerships and a great deal of good will to help people make things happen for the social good of the community.

Last week I ran an Innovation workshop for Partners in Recovery (complex mental health services) where we went through an immersive process to understand how to innovate and apply innovation in our work. Another way of looking at it is creating the space to unleash the maverick in a group of people who work tirelessly to improve the lives of people with severe and persistent mental illness and complex needs. They are often dealing with the most vulnerable people in the community who have high support needs that cross many agencies health, housing, mental health, and employment.  When do we afford ourselves the time to dream and create, to be unencumbered by process and to have a limited time to produce a result, to be bold and not fear failure?  I decided to try something – Could we rapid prototype solutions to create better,more innovative and cost effective responses to complex mental health?

So I started to look into rapid prototyping and found Google’s Tom Chi who rapid prototyped Google Glass in one day and Gavin Heaton in Australia who runs a number of innovation projects, hubs, hackathons and workshops.

“Rapid prototyping is a time limited process to develop and idea or solution to a problem, it based on finding the quickest path to a direct experience and on the basis that doing or action is better than  thinking.”

Tom Chi

An Australian innovator and disruptor – Gavin Heaton (@servantofchaos) has been doing this through his Disruptor’s Handbook a painless guide on how to “thrive through change”. In a parallel universe, to me Gavin has been delivering innovation to corporates, government and NGOs  who have the chutspa to be disrupted.  He has been looking at the worlds of business and start up and seeing how they can learn off each other and extending these methods to government and NGOs. He is one of the people behind the recent QantasHackathon and VibeWire (nurturing young change makers and entrepreneurs). Gavin is passionate about the potential of start up and tech to transform the way we think and work in a number of paradigms.

Tom Chi has been trying an experiment (Fast solutions for a brighter future) “to see if the concept of rapid prototyping could be used to reinvent entrepreneurship and possibly all of business.” He applied this  concept of “reduce the time to try” to generate new ideas,  to four businesses where they reinvented their business, and increased their profits in one day, in what would have been achieved in three months under normal processes (meetings, working groups, processes that take months).

Tom Chi’s experiment was also applied to an impoverished community in Mexico, he took students to run a similar process adapted to a community. The students, in collaboration with the community centre, helped find new sources of employment to subsidize their meagre income.  In three hours they developed new streams of business that would treble incomes and filled unmet need in the community. Just by connecting people and finding the opportunities through networks.

Testing the idea of rapid prototyping for mental health support solutions with Partners in Recovery was insightful. The workshop outlined the foundation of disruptive social innovation 1. Flip the problem – don’t try to improve what is, find the gaps in the system 2. User centred – think of the end user 3. Collaborate Widely – leverage the untapped resources and social capital in the community 4.Be bold – embrace failure as learning and improvement. Participants were also asked to think of the features of innovation as resourceful, reflective, creative, collaborative and disruptive. We often think innovation as costly, it doesn’t need to be if you leverage the time, talent and resources of your stakeholders and community.

The teams collaborated for under 2 hours to produce four innovative projects that could change the face of mental health support. They then presented their ideas in the form of a pitch 1. What problem I am trying to solve 2. The solution that will fill that need 3. Ask for what is needed to kick start the project. All pitches were refreshing and innovative, as in any pitch event there could only be one winner and that was J.O.B an employment project that focuses on repackaging skills, ability and aspirations of people with mental health and enrolls employers to support mentoring, career and employment opportunities for people with complex mental health. The project will leverage other community, government, NGO and private sector partnerships in order to provide holistic services to support placements. The project will also leverage the ideas in the other pitches (the veterans and ex-soldiers as trainers) to further develop the prototype.

Rapid prototyping innovation in mental health

Rapid prototyping innovation in mental health

The feedback was very promising, participants loved the process and found it inspiring, the teams had a skip in their step in realising their capacity to cause social change in such a short time frame. You see their have the expertise and the knowledge, they just needed the opportunity to innovate.

This is proves the power of collaboration and rapid prototyping – the same machine that drives hackathons. When you think about it hackers try to solve a problem through rapid brainstorming, prototyping, testing, refining in 48 hours.

The idea of rapid prototyping and pitching for social change really excites me, these methods work and given the state of emergency on disadvantage in this country, they are desperately needed to transform the way government and NGOs design and deliver services. Let’s rapid prototype for DV, unemployment, inclusion, housing affordability, homelessness and any other social issue that we need responsive, reflective and innovative solutions.

Follow my journey on Twitter @ChiefDisrupter

Anne-Marie is a consultant in innovation for social change, Honorary Associate of the Design Innovation Research Centre and the Centre for Local Government at UTS.


Sparking social change

Don’t you just love a crazy idea? It takes a lot of courage to try something new, especially something that you don’t know will work, yet entrepreneurs and start ups pursue crazy ideas every day and thank heavens they do. How else would the likes of Apple, Uber or AirBnB come about? I love and admire the hunger of start ups, the pure unadulterated desire to make shit happen, because their life depends on it. Their belief in an idea that overrides all the set backs and even failures that pummel them, their ability to experience this yet keep their eye on the outcome enables them to adapt and do whatever it takes to make it happen.


I have worked in the field of social disadvantage for three decades – I started at the age of 16 as youth advocate, every job I have had was about finding a place to make a difference – journalism, policy, ministerial, state and federal government and NGO. While every one of those roles have a realm of influence to do good, I was always left wanting and believing that bureaucracy kills innovation and that we can do better.

I learnt long ago that in our ‘business’ , peoples lives are at stake and that means we’ve got to get moving to do all we can to innovate solutions to social disadvantage. I feel a sense of urgency with the state of social disadvantage in Australia, things a re getting worse not better and it seems despite the hundreds of billions of dollars and efforts we are not winning any ‘battles” against drugs, family and domestic violence, recidivism, suicide, child protection, poverty, homelessness and on and on. According to the Australian Council of Social Services “Poverty is on the rise in Australia, with more than 2.5 million people – and one in six children – struggling to fulfil their daily basic needs…” ACOSS, Poverty in Australia, 2014

I’ve seen it first hand in the state of NSW where remote communities are living in abject poverty, I’ve seen it in Sydney where thousands of passers by walk past a central park dotted with tents and a community of homeless, the people that have fallen through the cracks of a system that has failed its duty of care.

So rather than dwell on the system failures or limitations I want to give my heart and soul to finding solutions and showing government and NGOs a new way of working, empowering communities to collaborate for social change. For the past few years I have been developing a new way of working and I’m calling it Disruptive Social Innovation, a blend of social innovation, rapid prototyping and digital disruption. The status quo is unacceptable and I believe cross sector and discipline collaboration is the only way we can really make a difference to peoples lives.

“A social innovation is a novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just than present solutions and for which the value created accrues primarily to society as a whole rather than private individuals.” (source Stanford, Centre for Social Innovation.) 

On the 7th of July 2015 in Broken Hill NSW we tested a new way of working with social disadvantage, Kathryn Greiner AO facilitated and chaired the first Social Innovation Pitch Event.

The event was shift in usual practice of forums and consultations that repeat a status quo approach of talking about the problems leaving little room for solutions. The concept drawn from start up pitch events where new business ideas are generated and pitched to venture capital and angel investors. The format of these pitches are simple and clear – they start with a problem, and idea that is a solution and a clear ask of resources.

The event replicated this and tested the method in community setting where people from three communities were invited to pitch to local stakeholders (business, NGOs and government). Those pitching were briefed on framing their pitch and stakeholders were asked to be generous in offering time, talent and resources to support the local projects. The key to the event was shared understanding of local needs and a desire to collaborate for social change.

Each pitch focused on improving communities, in particular employment opportunities and young people. Maari Ma focused on digital inclusion and education of children and young people. Menindee Central School focused on vocational and training opportunities for young people. Out back Astronomy focused on Astro tourism, Aboriginal cultural tourism development and social enterprise in arts and local produce.

The social innovation pitch event covered three footprints – Wilcannia, Menindee and Broken Hill. This initiative has set a new benchmark to support community aspirations and change the way we manage and address social disadvantage in the region

.Social Innovation Pitch Event Format

The design of the social innovation pitch event is disrupting the way communities drive change, it disrupts funding cycles and the notion that government is the only answer. My hope is that we encourage this type of disruptive  social innovation because it innovates the way we create social change and it flips the top down to bottom up – so the community decides what to support as a whole and government can get on with providing the right conditions for people to help themselves.

PITCH 1: Maari Ma – Wings Youth Centre Wilcannia

Wings Youth Centre provides an important service for children and young people in Wilcannia, a safe haven and a hive of educational activity. The young people love using the computers but they are old and there aren’t enough. The Centre has a mix of primary and high school aged children and expressed a desire to get tablets for the older children for privacy. They need programs and apps that support nutrition, health, well being, cyber safety and sex education.

shout out Maari Ma

We designed the pitches in a way that only asked time, talent or resources to help achieve a goal. People are willing to give in kind, participants were surprised how easy it was to help a project get off the ground, assist with writing proposals or sourcing the right avenue. As always when you bring people from different areas together, new partnerships and alliances emerged  and even those pitching could help each other. For example Outback Astronomy is now going to take the kids from Menindee and Wilcannia on a tour, Family and Community Services will purchase the periscopes so the kids have them to use when on excursion; the PCYC has offered accommodation for the kids whilst in Broken Hill.

The pitch event was incredibly well received, initially with a healthy dose of skepticism, but with a determination to continue to the conversations with the whole community. The event brought a renewed sense of common purpose and collaboration and unlikely alliances and partnerships. It gave those pitching an opportunity to gain a wider audience and it gave the businesses, NGOs and government the opportunity to support community initiative. It expanded every person’s view of their community and the untapped social capital around them.

I love bringing together people from different paradigms – the Mayor, the chamber of commerce, all levels of government and NGOs, the corporate sector rarely get the opportunity to mix it up and exchange ideas – this is the alchemy of collaboration and it inspires innovation and it works when applied to social disadvantage.

I’d love to hear your feedback. I hope you will continue on this journey of disruptive social innovation, follow me on Twitter @ChiefDisrupter