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Re-inventing models of social change: 15 minutes with Helen Goulden

Helen Goulden became CEO of the Young Foundation in 2017. She talked to New Start about challenging the venture capital model of innovation and amplifying the voices of the marginalised.

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On re-reading The Rise of The Meritocracy: When the role of chief executive at The Young Foundation was advertised, my first thought was to re-read The Rise of Meritocracy, written by Michael Young in 1958. It’s a satire, plotting the transition from an aristocracy to a meritocracy – where those at the top were enabled to thrive and progress in society through a combination of IQ and effort. Young predicted this would lead to those at the top believing they deserved to be there because of the effort they had put in; resulting in a hereditary elite more harmful than the aristocracy. Namely, if social esteem and economic rewards come from putting your natural talent to hard work; then if you ‘fail’ to reap those rewards – it must be your own fault, regardless. In the book, this leads to rising nationalism, populism, a rebellion against the elites and an uprising of women. It’s also remarkably prescient of the rise of automation and the gig economy. Where we found ourselves in 2017 was predicted back then by Michael Young and, while the ‘The Rise’ takes you to the edge of the end of the meritocratic ‘ideal’, Young kills off the narrator of the book before we get a sense of what lies beyond it. But what lies beyond it is what interests me, and why I wanted to work for the Young Foundation.

On amplifying the voices of the marginalised: One thing we want to grow at the Young Foundation is our work to better understand the lived realities of people who are isolated, excluded or not being served well by a particular system or practice. We’re interested in finding ways to tell and amplify these stories in such a way that they will be really heard by people in positions of power at the same time as spurring local, community-led action. So much of where we find ourselves now in the UK is a result of not readily understanding and empathising with others different to us. If policy makers and others can genuinely feel and experience what people have to contend with, then change can happen. But it’s only by walking alongside those people experiencing the issue that it can happen. There’s no substitute for experience in opening up the mind. I’m intent of finding ways to acknowledge the uniqueness of all those stories, but at the same time identifying patterns of experiences that prompt better solutions and innovations at a more national level.

On moving away from individualistic models of social innovation: We can’t expect the state to solve all of the challenges we face and getting beyond those challenges is about many different people, across different sectors changing what they do. But much of the funding and support infrastructure for this (grants, accelerators, social finance etc) is built around support for individuals, or individual organisations. If we buy into the idea that change happens when many people and organisations need to act to genuinely tackle an issue at a system level, then what does that mean for the support and investment infrastructure that has built up around a more individualistic approach to social enterprise? Have we been right in porting what is essentially a Venture Capital approach into the social sector? If we increasingly sense change as needing to be systemic, where is the infrastructure to support that? Where can we see people looking beyond their organisational boundaries and egos to work on shared challenged together? These are questions we’ll be exploring in the months and years to come.

On changing the language of innovation: Innovation is an over-used word. When you’re working with people in communities wanting to make things better, they don’t tend to talk about ‘innovation’ – they talk and doing things differently in their neighbourhoods to make them better places to live.

On changing systems: One of our current projects is the Reimagining Rent Accelerator which supports organisations and start-ups that want to improve the private rental sector. Outside London the housing crisis is not so much a problem of supply but one of quality and security – an issue felt particularly keenly by those who are vulnerable or on low incomes. We also have a very un-professionalised market – 99% of landlords own one property, which is a part-time occupation. Our Reimagining Rent Accelerator will be supporting up to 30 ventures over the next two years, and there are some genuinely impactful and scalable ventures in the first cohort. The next step is to use these innovative responses to find a way to bring others (local authorities, housing associations, SMEs, regulators and renters) into the programme, to create more sustained change.

On trailing basic income in Barcelona: We are partnering with Barcelona City Council to test a radical approach to tackling poverty in Barcelona’s poorest neighbourhoods. Some of its residents will receive guaranteed minimum income, which is a version of Universal Basic Income, combined with a range of innovative support programmes including housing, education, social enterprise and community engagement. Our role is to understand the community’s experiences of this initiative and the impact it has on their lives.

We’re keen to become more of a movement and to keep ensuring we are honest about the decisions being made.

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