Spark some innovation

Recently I attended an informal discussion with David Bornstein (author of How To Change The World), after also having listened to him present the night before at the ASHOKA Induction ceremony held at MaRS. In David’s discussion, I was struck by the relationship between his mantra of storytelling as an effective way of promoting and inspiring social change, and the book, Exploiting Chaos: 150 Ways to Spark Innovation during Times of Change, by Jeremy Gutsche (2009). Exploiting Chaos is a collection of 150 upbeat, inspirational short stories, relating to innovation in a bleak economic climate such as that which surrounds us at the moment.

Initially, I was attracted by the book’s child-like appeal: its fresh, colourful, interesting pictures and also the user-friendly introduction (complete with instructions on how the book should be read and directions on capturing the gist of the book without reading the majority of it!). Could reading this book actually be less like a task and more of an enjoyable experience? Funny enough, this innovative approach had me reading each story word for word.

Each story is headed by a catch slogan and ends with a moral (reminiscent of a children’s fable), drawing on what the story teaches us. One of the stories that I found particularly remarkable was “Build a Creative Work Environment”. It tells of the serious crime problem in New York City in the 1980s. The mayor at the time dealt with the problem by tackling petty crime instead of murder and more serious crimes. Simultaneously, he ordered the daily clearing of litter and graffiti around the city. In a matter of years, New York City was transformed into one of the safest cities in America. He discusses the various psychological theories that could explain this outcome, such as the negative environment influencing the persons committing the crimes. The moral of the story is,  “Creating an environment of innovation can encourage people to break routine and pursue revolutionary ideas.”

The New York City story focuses on humanizing the act of social change. Storytelling, as Bornstein describes it, is bringing back the uniquely human side to knowledge transfer: people talking about the changes they wanted to bring about, the mistakes they have made and the lessons they have learned. I found that the stories in Exploiting Chaos resonated with me because I reflected on the innovators’ approaches in each story. This stimulated ideas about the innovative ways that I could approach situations in my own life. What I find interesting about the focus on humanization is that it is clearly essential to understand the basic human psyche if we want to bring about social change. It is an understanding of the human psyche in the New York City story that helped to pinpoint the cause of crime. It is also through an understanding of our psyche that we understand that storytelling appeals to us, thereby making it such an effective method of inspiring social change.

For all you aspiring social entrepreneurs, innovators and changemakers out there (which, according to ASHOKA and David Bornstein, is everyone), Exploiting Chaos informs on the ways that change has been thought about and approached in the past. It inspires us to learn from our history, by employing the morals of each story and applying them to issues in our world today.

Danielle Johnson

Danielle is an Associate working with the Social Innovation Generation at MaRS. See more…