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Josiane Smith manages the Strategic Partnerships and Growth at the Social Innovation Exchange (SIX), a global, cross-sector network of institutions and individuals committed to social and systems change. She agreed to share some thoughts about her experience of the recent think Future in South Africa in October 2019.

During a work trip to South Africa, to participate in the final symposium of the Erasmus+ funded Common Good First project, I arranged a meeting with Sonja Giese to learn about the work of Innovation Edge. I had heard about them from a former colleague who participated in a funders roundtable several years earlier and I had been curious about this company’s efforts to shift the dial on early years development across the nation.

Sonja had known about the work of SIX for several years and was pleased to make time to meet just days before the conference launch. And I’m glad she could as our meeting lived up to expectations. Across a portfolio of nearly 40 innovations including an evidence-based assessment tool on childhood outcomes which will be used to report on SDGs for South Africa, the question that Innovation Edge keeps coming back to is this:

How do we build an innovation pipeline around a growing evidence base in early years development?

To answer that, they brought certain nuances to the table. For instance, impact at scale doesn’t just mean a revenue-generating business. It can mean scaling through government integration or integrating with a bigger platform, or it can mean using insights from data to influence and impact the ECD landscape in systemic places (i.e. doing more with less or better with more). It also meant that they challenged themselves to think beyond sectors and topical silos.

Then Sonja mentioned the Think Future conference. For us at SIX, what really resonated was how Sonja described Think Future as an initiative to make unlikely connections. It made us think of our own Unusual Suspects Festival, which has taken place across the UK and in Seoul City, with a similar purpose to make social innovation less elite by interweaving ordinary people, places and stories for social change.

“It’s not your typical ECD conference”

“It’s not your typical ECD conference,” Sonja smiled. And indeed, the journey into and around Think Future felt fully immersive and highly curated. They had paid attention to the details. So it got me thinking about what matters when designing an event for and about innovation, and I landed on three key takeaways:

Format Matters

Think Future is an event which was formatted perfectly against the idea that innovation requires new thinking and new forms of interaction. People must leave changed, challenged, and ignited, but also thoroughly braver and tangibly lighter. The Reflection Companion notebook which prompted us to capture our questions and learning, challenge our thinking, as well as jot down notes and small pieces of inspiration was a lovely addition to the event. The prompts for reflection and conversation throughout the breaks were also expertly executed and lent a sense of magic to the space.

Words Matter

From land acknowledgement at the start of one session to different experts interrogating their own jargon at the lunch table, words frame our spaces and need to be attended to carefully to ensure new kinds of questions and conversations can be surfaced.

People Matter

Questions that were lived out through Think Future: who’s in the room? what knowledge do they hold? how can participants drive the agenda? what does it mean to be inspired?

And the answers showed up in the diversity of speaker and facilitator selection. I particularly enjoyed Nicky Abdinor who has triumphed with and despite a physical disability, Bonnie Chiu who challenged the patriarchy on stage, and Mushambi Mutuma who gave his platform to otherwise under-acknowledged African inventors and innovators. But also the workshop topics, e.g. “Challenging Perspectives: How Do You Know What You Don’t Know?”.

It was an honour to witness the unfolding and delivery of Think Future and I hope to take part in the event again.

About the Author

You may contact Josiane by email (josiane@socialinnovationexchange.org) or on Twitter @JosianeSmith. Or follow SIX across our social media channels.