Evaluation – proving or improving?

Prompted by a great presentation from Jon Hugget, The Social Innovation Partnership hosted a lively discussion on Evaluation and Social Innovation this morning, organised in partnership with Impact Hub Westminster and °directional thinking.

Starting from the premise that too often evidence just gets in the way of innovation, Jon posited the view that the focus of social innovation should be on ‘Improving’ what we do, not trying to ‘Prove’ the validity of what we are doing.

There was broad agreement that the desire to demonstrate robust evidence can sometimes be a barrier to responsive and engaged social action and innovation – and a range of examples were cited of programmes which have succeeded through a commitment to agile and responsive methods of evaluation and learning while the project is progressing: from driving to primary healthcare, safe sex counselling to early years intervention.

Proving Improving
Slow Quick
Objective Subjective
Academic Practice-based
Laborious Responsive
Robust Useful
Longitudinal Immediate

However, all participants acknowledged the value and importance of evidence, and a strong case was made for investment in data-gathering and of understanding impact over the longer-term. Indeed, the point was made that, although funders and commissioners will often rely too heavily on evidence and data which appears detached from practice, this will assist them in being more adventurous and risk-tolerant than practitioners who might be too close to the action to take risks and countenance failure.

But there was remarkable agreement on the need for a more flexible approach, with a call for a broader, more diverse, approach to evaluation and measuring impact. There was a particular emphasis on the importance of drawing in users and practitioners – to be part of a more interactive evaluation process, based on live, ongoing, experience, rather than just longer-term research. A more radical approach was also suggested – one which might invite users and practitioners (rather than funders and commissioners) to drive the process, and shape the measures against which success is determined.

Ultimately, of course, everyone wants to contribute towards social programmes which are ‘proven’ to make things better for the people they’re trying to support, and no-one wants to waste resources on programmes which fail. But for TSIP, and for other partners, social innovation will always require a more agile and dynamic approach where getting things wrong might actually lead to improvement. Placing evaluation at the heart of that ‘improving’ mindset will ensure that those failures drive future change.

Perhaps characteristically, the group called for a ‘learning’ approach – one in which evaluators shared ideas, and were open about what works and what doesn’t. As the first of a series of breakfast sessions, this meeting provided the starting point for such a dialogue with other sessions to come.


London – a deliberate disaster

Guest post from Tom Campbell.  

It is more than seven years since Kate Oakley and John Knell were commissioned by Creative London at the London Development Agency to write a report on the capital’s creative industries, based on roundtable discussions hosted by the Work Foundation. Entitled London’s Creative Economy: An Accidental Success and published at a time when public agencies seemed to be constantly launching strategies, visions and mapping studies, this thoughtful, sober, unheralded report received less attention than most. But, as is the way with these things, it now stands out as one of the few documents from the period worth returning to.

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Tech City – the story so far

Ian Dowson shared his research on the Tech City cluster at a recent breakfast discussion, highlighting among other things:

  • The scale of new business growth in and around Tech City, nearly matching New York – although still dwarfed by Silicon Valley
  • The number of investment and exit deals in London compares well with both NY and Silicon Valley, but the amounts are tiny compared to both: angel investment deals average $1m in California but just a quarter of that in London
  • London start-ups illustrate a maturity of development and expertise – driven by multi-national, multi-disciplinary partnerships, with impressive educational and experience credentials
  • The Tech City business culture is also marked by strong creative businesses and experience, and a remarkably dynamic and open market-place of meet-ups and knowledge exchange.

This discussion followed the recent visit to Tech City which highlighted the notion of the ‘blended’ business (echoing the concept of the ‘fused’ or ‘superfused’ businesses found in Brighton), but also the pressures on workspace and the general problem around property prices in London.

The way in which creative businesses and others are moving out, on account of rising rents and other pressures, was identified as one of the inevitable by-products of a successful business cluster. Tom Campbell has blogged on that here, and the need for a more sophisticated approach to planning and housing policies was highlighted.

But in answer to the question ‘What have we learnt?’ (or better, ‘what are we learning?’ – since the transformation of the area hasn’t finished yet), a number of intriguing ideas and challenges emerged:

  • The relationship between corporate companies and investors and the start-ups and micro-businesses: In one sense, the big companies are key to fueling the profile and success of an area – but to what extent might they damage the energy and dynamism of a start-up culture? Are the corporates ‘providers or parasites’? How does the shift to a big-firm/uni/incubator model for start-ups affect the dynamics of the human capital networks?
  • Accelerating the inevitable: Has Government focus and investment on Tech City simply accelerated an inevitable transformation of an area which has been gentrifying over decades? Or has the injection of new money and profile created something more interesting – a unique combination of technology and creativity, which may not have evolved quite so successfully without that focus? Can it be replicated elsewhere in the UK, to catalyse investment and growth, without jeopardising the characteristics of the place which made it attractive to start-ups in the first place?
  • And what of cultural and creative institutions themselves? Rather than bemoan the fact that a creative ecology is turning into a tech-cluster – what can cultural and creative agencies and investors do to sustain the creative edge of places like Shoreditch, Hackney Wick, Manchester, Glasgow….?

Tech City – rhetoric and romance

Digging beneath the rhetoric

There’s plenty of rhetoric about the strength of Tech City and, actually, no shortage of data: Graeme Evans, now a Professor of Design at Brunel, kicked-off the recent Creative Breakfast session on Tech City, giving an overview of data he collected while Director of the Cities Institute at London Metropolitan University. Graeme’s data highlighted the fact that the growth of digital businesses in and around Shoreditch and Old Street was part of a growing trend – both geographical and industrial. The industrial trend was towards a new kind of business, blending ‘creative’ and ‘technology’ businesses which are not easily quantified using traditional data-collection methods, but where data does suggest a very strong agglomeration in East London – a phenomenon which has been progressing over recent years. The geographical element is twofold: a drift east from Soho and Clerkenwell towards cheaper properties in the City Fringe; and the fact that this ‘agglomeration’ is part of a bigger London creative and digital cluster which has a strong focus centrally and west of London, as well as here in the East.

The Breakfast Group spent the morning doing its own fieldwork, visiting a number of businesses and agencies, traversing east to west – from Mother and Ostmodern in Redchurch Street to Mother at the Trampery and City University in St John Street, via Berg, MakeShift, Google Campus and TechHub in Bonhill Street: a triangular journey which took in around 10 businesses. A snapshot, but a fairly full and intensive one.

It’s real

It’s clear that the Tech City rhetoric is not just hot air. As one of the participants put it: “Clearly there is something real happening, neither just hype nor a flash in the pan. Undeniably impressive.”

The agglomeration of businesses represents a significant new cluster. And the new blend of creative and technical was very evident – sometimes in the form of collaborations across sectors – for example Mother, an established advertising agency, hosting the MiniBar meet up of small digital businesses and ‘geeks’; or, more frequently, start-ups and some established businesses deliberately exploiting the mix of skills from different sectors, to create new cross-over businesses with new, sometimes as-yet unclear, business models. It was notable for example, that businesses talked about the need for a combination of design and making skills, drawing on London’s strength in both. And, as another participant put it, drawing on “London’s pre-existing status as a global leader in sectors including advertising, TV & film, publishing etc – a leadership which provides a foundation, along with plentiful supply of graduates from art colleges as well as more conventional graduates, to mix into the cement.”

That mix of skills is one of a number of factors which have helped to fuel this growth:

  • New technology providing new working models, the need for new applications, economies of scale.
  • Cheap, open, office-space
  • Shoreditch at the heart of an buzzing East (and North, and South) London.
  • There has also been a lot of money coming from China and India, despite the economic slow-down in the West.

What of the challenges?

We identified a few:
* Getting products to what feels like it is a buyer’s market, with thousands, millions of applications and ideas to choose from. The risks are they fail, or sell out to somebody with a pre-existing brand/distribution channel, and it gets smothered…..
* Business model:  It was not always clear what the new business model for many of these start-ups would be. And the tendency towards complacency was very noticeable: “there was an was an odd unwillingness among the funky start-ups, and start-up-site managers, to acknowledge the major role of corporate ‘welfare’ as well as public sector support… There is already a new techcity ‘mythology’ – we must have heard at least 3 times that they were ‘the first to offer space here to digital start-ups’”
* Workspace: not enough and, inevitably, getting more expensive.

Richard Holt summed it up thus:
“There will be a range of outcomes, from the very successful at one end to those who fail and end up doing something very different. The danger is that too high a proportion are too ruthlessly weeded out.  The point here is that the sector depends on a critical mass of companies and players, sufficiently numerous to provide the networks and connections and innovations. Most of these, by definition, won’t do hugely well, but they will still be important to the success of the whole project. So most (not all) of the less successful enterprises need to be able to tick along, earning enough to make it worth the effort, to act as sub-contractors to the others, to inject ideas into the mix, to offer specialist skills, and also to keep the coffee shops and bars buzzing and the romances blooming.”

For Tech City to survive, thrive and grow, it will require the support and intervention of a range of partners – public and private. As Stian Westlake has noted recently, there has already been a move against complete de-regulation of the market, with local authorities successfully resisting Government attempts to loosen planning regulations which would encourage more residential property in an area crying out for cheap studio and work space.

At the same time, others have noted the need for a smart approach to planning – which retains some of the distinctiveness of the current environment – with its mix of uses and activities, rather than lots of shiny new office space. And it’s also worth placing residential property into this mix (notwithstanding the point made above), given the often prohibitive cost of housing in London. As one of the group put it: “What’s the point in working in Shoreditch if you have to commute to the last stop on the tube and then take a bus to get home to an overpriced bedsit?”

Where’s the romance in that?


The economic case for the arts

It seems somehow ironic that 25 years after the publication of the first serious study of the economic importance of the arts in the UK, that the Secretary of State for Culture should call on the sector to make a stronger economic case. Continue reading “The economic case for the arts”

Localism and leadership

Tristram Hunt led off the most recent Culture and Creative Industries breakfast session, bemoaning the lack of clarity in government policy on localism and democratic renewal.

He wasn’t against much of what is being developed – and, indeed, the Local Economic Partnership (LEP) model was identified as a potentially ground-breaking way of focusing energy and resources around industrial and demographic requirements, rather than arbitrary borough or regional boundaries – bringing together public and private sector to develop long-term programmes for growth. Continue reading “Localism and leadership”

Virtual government

It seems ironic that within the same week that David Cameron was announcing that East London is to be the UK’s ‘Silicon Valley’, three quarters of staff at the London Development Agency were given notice of redundancy.

East London has, or had, been a priority for the LDA for a number of years, and huge effort has gone into fostering business growth and, not at all unconnected, investing in regeneration and local skills projects. If East London is now a place where business wants to move, then due recognition needs to be placed at the door of the LDA, and other public sector partners who – in various different ways – have helped to make London east of Old Street Roundabout a good place to live and do business. Continue reading “Virtual government”