9.0 – Johannesburg Societal Innovation Lab

After the challenging yet very rewarding trip to Cape Town, it was time to fly up to Johannesburg. I had some days in between to see Joburg better with a friend of mine who’s settled down there in the past years. I got to see parts of the city where I think rarely even the people living there have visited – Soweto, Tembisa and Hillbrow for example. I’m only telling this because I will probably reference these experiences in this post also. And have to say that Joburg is something else, again. But I’ll probably chat more about the overall impact it left on me in my upcoming conclusions from the whole trip.

The reason for me to fly up there and extend my stay was an intensive workshop, a legacy of Aalto Camp for Societal Innovation – called Societal Innovation Lab. The three days long SIL was organised in collaboration with Witwatersrand university from Johannesburg and University of Pretoria. Unlike previous ACSI’s, this camp had only two cases and thus two teams and altogether around 35 people – some familiar faces too like Ashraf Jamal and of course Eshan, Hank, Frank and Essi from ACSI.

The lab started with the official welcoming session at the enormous Wits university campus. We heard case setups from With university representative and Discovery staff – of whom I’ll tell more about later on. The other case owner was the two organising universities together, under the topic of “New Academia”. I’d like to tell you more about their case, but as always I think they would be better to do it – so as soon as they post something about the process to public domain, I’ll for sure link it to here as well.

The group that I was working with had a case around health-care and our case owner was from Discovery company’s – the market leader of insurance in South Africa – health program. Discovery is a really cool innovative company that has different schemes to promote healthy life and preventive health-care. For example with the Discovery Health -membership, you’ll also get discounts in gym memberships, buying a bike and apparently even when buying healthy foods. Our case was based on an idea our case owner, Craig once had – to build the environment so, that it promotes healthy lifestyle. This was to me a super interesting idea and in a way – truly novel in the context of private company joining public party to figure out something for the civic health – by built environment.

Craig’s initial idea was basically to put gyms to places where people might not be economically able to join a private gym – and thus I thought of parks. We went to visit one park that could have served as our case examples, the Joubert Park in Hillbrow. This park used to be one of the unsafest nastiest parks (I heard) downtown. I’m not fully sure what happened to the park to turn it around to be at least somewhat walkable at the moment  – other than of course people reclaiming it back to peaceful public use, instead of drug dealing and so on. But we went to see that park not only for its still a bit lousy shape, and I say lousy only because that’s honestly how I perceived it, and I’ll tell you why. After we had some get-to-know-each-other exercises at the With Uni premises we gathered our case group and headed to the park. On the way there a Joburg resident, who was one of our lab facilitators – the wonderful Athena Mazarakis, warned us to leave our belongings to the uni and walk in a group when we get there. And she was surely right to say so but also it does alter the way anyone experiences the space you go to breath in. To my surprise the park was really close to Park Station, where we had walked with a friend of mine few days earlier, so on the way I was more anxious to go there than in the actual park when I understood that I’ve been there already on my own terms. I remember asking my friend is it safe to walk there, to which he banally answered; as safe or unsafe as anywhere here. I digress. So how the people reclaimed the space probably happened incrementally and through activities – and these activities were the real reason for us to visit just this one, instead of some other Joburg’s hundred parks.

We were welcomed to the Joubert park by Johannesburg Art Gallery people, who run some programmes together with a NGO creche that’s also in the park – and this creche was just absolutely amazing! I’ve never seen such good comprehension and management of social complexity run from such humble grounds. This haven for neighbourhood kids, from the early years until they go to school, was started as a community project and for some time it received international funding – although not anymore, and frankly I have no idea why. The kindergarten has around 50 kids on the grounds, from families living close by. The area used to have a problem of people not being able to go outside, because of the imminent thread to their safety in the area. This often meant that the grandparents who took care of the kids, while the parents went to earn the living, just had to stay in and the kids had no fresh air, healthy play, exercise nor any interaction with other kids. This again lead to a huge problem when the same kids had to go to first grade – being socially undeveloped. Another problem in this modus operandi of childcare is that the parents spent almost no playtime with the kids. After the hard working day, no one probably argues that it isn’t easier to just sit the kids in front of the TV, and have some me-time, but of course for the relationship it’s less healthy. Because of these issues, and the economic status of many local resident, one way to pay for the kids stay in the creche is to participate in the activities. Every parent has to come down at some point to the grounds and play with the kids – not just let them play on their own but really take part, but if you want to settle a piece of your bill with putting down some time, you can come in and teach all the kids something you know: something from your work, from your background – a recipe from your home village for example.

There are people from all over Africa in the neighbourhood, thus there are kids from all over playing together on the creche grounds as well. The staff told us that basically when the kids “graduate” and move to primary schools at the age of six, they will probably know around 5 different languages because they’ve been playing and interacting with other kids from different backgrounds. Also they’ve learned new things from visiting parents and so the whole community around. This betters the relationships between families, neighbours and probably has an huge impact in the future attitudes of these children towards others and the community. This also gives the less fortunate parents a possibility to bring their kids to good safe care and at the same time better their self-worth by teaching something valuable. Kids from the creche also get to do projects with the Art Gallery at the other end of the park, and with the near by Green House project. This project studies and showcases how to build sustainably, using only recycled or earth materials with minimum resource and energy usage. They started from one hut that they have rebuild due the philosophy but are now building Green Offices to the same lot. This is also a place for the creche kids to come and learn. Learn about healthy food – and even better where does it come from and how to grow it yourself. The creche itself had basically nothing to do with our project but it just floored me how much of an impact one small cradle of good will can bring to the whole community. Visiting these people in their day to day struggle and joy just raised tears in my eyes and left me in awe.

The park itself wasn’t that nice – I mean as nice as the initiatives on its grounds. But still, it was peaceful. People playing park chess with broken pieces. Loads of people sleeping, or sleeping off their buzz. Homeless people and a free clinic bus treating people less well off. Reclaiming a space like this – and probably by the same people who were there initially but were able to reclaim their attitude towards the space – does come down to the usage of the space. A common cognitive atmosphere has clearly settled down and when that kind 0f relaxed and less anxious behaviour settles in, it becomes the social norm. I myself could feel, after the initial uncomfortableness – being in that space for awhile – it started to settle. I understood what the space is for; as for the kids the creche is a haven, and now it seemed to me to be a haven for all. You could come, and sleep it off, safely. Like I wrote in my previous blogs, and in this example again I can see it, I do firmly believe that one way to bring two social extremes of at least separate groups together is to let and make them mutually manage the resource they share. And in this case it was the Joubert Park. Now, back to the case and lab.

After seeing the real life context we were about to work with, we went back to Wits and saw a presentation from Streets Alive initiative. This initiative is operated by the city of Johannesburg and is sort of a pledge to join together with the residents to better the streets; whether it is for the pedestrians, drivers or public transport representatives. And I really liked their tag-line, which is Safety 1st. And in any other context this might sound patronising but safety in any mode of transportation is a big issue in South Africa It seems to be one of their core guides in all areas of life. Safety is a double edged sword, when used in such a way, but again more about this in the upcoming conclusions. Through co-creation the initiative is aiming to redesign or re-plan the streets to be more complete – for all users of the streets. This, I thought, was somewhat the right way to go if we talk about redesigning the living environment, or the urban plan in a way that it promotes healthy behaviour and an active life. Although there is a saying that you can’t bow to every direction without mooning to some – and this became my small critique towards the project – if it really was trying to do everything right, having the cake and eating it too… and so on. But again, and I am probably starting to sound like a broken record, this project is about shared resources management. I like the project though, it has a good operational method and it is written between the rows that misbehaving is to be replaced by behaving – but somehow, the concrete actions were a bit lacking. This said, of course Streets Alive is the umbrella that will cover many smaller projects. You should check it out and I will link the project at the end of the blog. Well, after the presentation we were finally off to the workshop.

We arrived to the lavishing Valley lodge in Magaliesburg. It felt a bit odd to go see the real-life context we were about to work with and in that sense also “in” and then escape the reality 2 hours away to a blue lagoon pool, 24h room service and non-stop buffets – but I understand – for the sake of the work itself it probably was a better choice to somewhat exclude us to have that intensity to carry us through the three day workshop. A quick check in and then to work. As almost any workshop, ours also begun with a round of introductions and from the spot I saw that this really was a diverse and impressive group to work with. We had a marketing specialist, a medical doctor, an urban planner, a designer, an industrial psychologist, a community health incubator and such plus a proper spread of few out of the group of ten coming from South Africa. The first day all in all was just much about setting the base right – a lot of talk about the aims of the project, why was Discovery into it and feeling around how people perceived the problem at hand. And the problem at hand is that in Johannesburg (or probably every where in South Africa) people aren’t in general physically active enough. South Africa is becoming one of the most obese countries in the world and, although nutrition is a big part of it, our case formed the boundaries to stick to the physical activity. The main causes of death are related with poor health and could be prevented if the precautions are taken into consideration in all areas of life.

There was a division to be made still, to better contextualise what we were tackling, and the scope needed to be narrowed down. Were we talking about physical activity as a part of daily routines, i.e. taking the stairs instead of an elevator and biking or walking instead of driving and so on? Or were we talking about physical exercise like going to a gym, for a jog or to play badminton? Of course these things are related and probably go hand in hand but, as an initial starting point, it is better to define which angle to approach the problem. I learned that “useful exercise” is somehow a concept coined in Finland while I thought it to be universal. The idea behind it is simply that rather than spending your time on a gym you can do something useful, like walking to work and getting the exercise at the same time. Anyway, I saw this to be both a bigger problem and thus a bigger opportunity too. Rarely people just simply do any kind of useful exercise in South Africa, at least from what I saw, and one reason behind it is that it is not safe. The group talked surprisingly much about race as a definitive way to live and, although everyone tiptoed around the issue (and I honestly don’t believe there were any racist thoughts in the room), much of it was still, had to be, based on racial stereotypes. The commonly accepted notion of black people living in a distinctive way and circumstances made me think of Finland and our context of people being separated to different living areas and life-styles based on their economic background more than their racial one – and I would think same goes in Joburg. So why talk about race, and I do mean in this context, rather than economic classes of the modern society. If one race would be a majority in one group or another it still shouldn’t be the main vocabulary when talking about the issue. Another notion, which in a small way started to look like a slight pattern to me, was that the tentative suspicion towards everyone’s motivation was to be there and give their best. I’m not saying people don’t believe in good will, but just like I said the initial reaction seemed to be in some of the workshops to rather suspect until proven to be trusted.

Again, the first day was the get-to-know, not only the group but the problem, problem context and the way we talk about it. The day ended with a group discussion exercise on the front lawn of the lodge. This exercise, although lasted long was probably useful to both of the groups. As I know a bit about the other groups “New Academia” case and knew that race played a part in their case too, so I do believe it to be an issue on their table too during that day, and this exercise made the iterative talk peak so it could be released for the next day to be more forward driven. We got over the talk about the tensions behind the issue – so we could talk about the issue, and the issue only, the next day.

The next day started with a heap of fresh air in the room – everyone focused in making it work. Everyone in the group wrote down few main aims they felt like to be the best descriptions of our task. From these few sentences we spread the key words to separate post-its and then grouped them to three logical groups. These three groups were to serve as the division between us, to form subgroups to work in, based on personal interests. For a while we couldn’t really name the keyword groups distinctivel but our super-skilled facilitator Frank opened the discussion of talking about societal change in scales: one on very local scale that is a specific park, one on community level that is basically all the communities, living around specific parks, and the third was the national big picture level that includes all the communities around all the parks. We had a really interesting intervention to our group work when Athena invited us all to meet her at the riverbank. Athena is a performer so she took us inside one of her interactive performances. We walked to the shore and she was sitting in a small rowing boat ten meter from the dock. She kept calling us to come to the boat, just jump in and she’ll take us to a perfect place behind the corner. Just come in! Come in, come and join me and Ill take you there. It’s perfect, even though you can’t see it! Of course we couldn’t jump in, there was 10 meters of water between us and on the dock you could see warning signs no to. This frustrating back and forth between Athena asking us to join and us being mistrusting and not able to jump on board went on for a good while until she drifted away and the boat had sailed away – literally. The point in this performance, to me, was of course that we talk about change but forget our subject. Often the change itself becomes the subject, even though the focus should be on people. The three topic groups formed were all talking about making a change to promote healthy behaviour, active life-style and so on but lacked to talk about them through a person – to have that person we were doing this all for in the middle of all actions. We planned for someone elses’ good – but actually forgot to include them, and the plans were becoming top-down by nature. Another lesson from this performance was that not only the plan itself was becoming top-down the way we talked about the whole project made a distinction between us talking to them from a different level. Like us being mistrusting toward Athena in her fancy boat, just asking us to trust her that the unseen perfect place was just behind the corner, we talk about better life basically – just behind the corner, unseen.

The group I was most interested in was working on the meso-level, on the communal level. We came up with a whole cycle of actions to embed physical activities into existing community structures. These structures could be different community groups like PTAs, clubs, business hotels etc. This step of the process we called “Select”. After selecting the community groups and their key personnel, they would be approached first by an the first incubator group but later on, peer people from the initiative and this would start the dialogue to co-create the kinds of actions that would be needed and would work in that specific community – so the process is co-creative, and not top-down. Together planned intervention would happen then that would be manifested in different activities that are accessible, fun, safe, useful and feasible to organise and good enough to be repeated. From the community group now owning the process and people taking part in the interventions the initiative would form the permanent action group that will keep building it in the community. The incubator level of the initiative would through this iterative process gain more access to conceptualise the whole scheme. This would then again add to the brand itself that can then be replicated in different communities and communicated on and on. It was important to us to understand the difference of up-scaling and replication in an initiative like this. Scaling up would make the whole scheme hierarchic and complicated – when these kind of peer-to-peer or level-to-level activities need to stay on their grass roots, that can be achieved by replication – so, the scale we work on doesn’t change – all the actions are still on the community level, even though they might be happening nation wide. The scheme we came up with was a sketch for the whole plan to be put in action and although linear, also self-referential as the process goes one way the feed back from each step can be taken back to every other step in the next run of the process. Because at the same time a massive amount of knowledge is gained about how to make communities move and how communities create movement we also thought that a knowledge bank should be created. This bank would serve of course the upcoming communities that wants to join but also it could be serving different research bodies like universities or Discovery in their quests for better life to all.

We also thought that the movement could join the forces with local schools that have the premises for different sport activities. Schools could this way reach out to the community at large but also educate their own students about active life and thus make a big difference in the preventive field of health-care. We branded the initiative as Community -> Moving -> Community and thought it to be almost as a certificate that different schools or community centres could live up to earn. Certificate would be a promise of different activities and level of skills that can be found from that instance. This could work for the benefit of the schools too, that the ones with the CMC would be more coveted.

We had a mutual deal within the whole group that subgroups could lend people to their groups for consultation, so I was pulled to the micro-level group that was working with a park concept. Their idea was to use the space in the way that it would let people do something useful but in a fun playful way. One of their ideas was to use stationery bikes to create electricity by pedalling, we brainstormed and came up with the idea of an outdoors movie theatre where the whole audience needs to pedal to keep the projector and audio system powered. We also came up with concepts of different amusement equipment for kids, like a seesaw that would play a violin like sound, a merry go round that would be like a huge musical box that would play piano and jumping ground that would play the drum sounds – this way if a bunch of kids would play together they’d also play in a band.  Some of the useful activities were – of course on top of healthy physical activity – were the idea of a railed bike you could cycle around, while the bike would gather trash from the ground and a pathway that would be constructed of pedals that are hooked to pumps and on each step you could see a squirt of water coming up to water the plants and the park lawn. The park concept was called “Kinetic Park” – awesome idea. I really hope to see these equipments to be built. And we thought that probably the Green House initiative, which has a lot of know-how in building stuff could help us get the things there. And of course in a sustainable manner.

The third, macro-level group that was working on a national level came up with a whole campaign called “What moves you”. Their ideas were quite comprehensible from different media activities to consumer challenges to urban areas joining for different interventions and so on. Truly educational too and would by it’s scale already involve a massive amount of people. But as a self-criticism to this concept and the whole groups work I had the need to ask what is societal innovation? Could a nation wide awareness campaign be considered one or should it be something truly novel? As we’ve seen in many cases awareness alone won’t bring the change, but then again is societal innovation something that requires a social change? Probably a basic breakdown of the works societal innovation would be simply something new for the society. And an idea that will be embraced by the society that leads to bigger action than just the social level thumbs up – then it must be the need to lead to change. And change for better that is. From the last 2012 ACSI I learned from Lennart that an idea becomes an innovation only when it is given value from the outside audience – I like this notion because it works as an assessment tool for the solution and also as a guideline to keep one focused on their subject while planning something new. And to comment the truly novel and new – a formula of 80% old used in 20% new way is already at a good level of innovation rating to me. If that amount is achieved the solution would bring people in just by curiosity and probably be suitable enough to offer a new kind of solution to an old problem – and in a way that’s what societal innovation should aim to; a new solution to existing problem.

Another criticism I’d give to my own group would be that many of the solutions ended up being sort of ad hoc. We took in a massive problem to tackle with – how to make people healthy by offering them more chances to have physical exercise and somewhat in an early stage decided to keep that activity separate from everyday activities. We approached physical activity from the perspective of “for its own sake” and then tried to involve the real-life aspects to it. This probably threw us off a bit from the beginning and every solution ended up being lucid. I’m not saying any of the ideas our group came up with were poor of infeasible but that the overall schemes ended up having a lot of “and then – and then…” elements. I somewhat also believe that innovation is at its best something small that has a big effect. It is that one piece that makes the puzzle – it’s not adding millions of pieces to create a new picture but having a small solution that fits the equation just right and makes the picture complete. I kept thinking about the Streets Alive initiative and what I had seen and experienced in Joburg and thought that, while safety is one of the biggest core values in this society, we should have probably looked into that more, and this being said, into all the existing values. Because through them we should find a way to leverage new activities around. And even though we would create more venues of initiatives for particular physical activities, the active-life style, which to me, means that it should happen in all areas of life – we couldn’t affect the useful part of every day routines kind of activities. For example why people don’t walk or bike to work of to the close by shops comes down to safety issues again. At some point I had a discussion with Craig about this, and we talked how the solution could be a social movement to make the streets safer to be active in.. or on. And how the concept of the initiative could be virtual in the sense that it wouldn’t require anything more than let’s say a T-shirt that says “I’m walking to work – keep me safe”. The idea of course being that people would reclaim the streets for walking and biking – safely, instead of driving. The change would happen incrementally and by the first few braves the initiative could grow to be a nationwide agreement among all that the people who want to live healthier – and environmentally friendly – would be left in peace and kept safe on their activities.

I was still very proud of what we could achieve in such a short time. The thing with this kind of workshops is that the end result rarely reflects the whole process. That way it’s also darn nearly impossible to report the meaningful things from the lab since, in a way, almost every word said was meaningful. Every word probably nudged us a bit towards another direction. To throw 10 people from allover the world together to work with a complex problem is a delicate thing and the interpersonal relationships and interaction is under an equation I don’t fully comprehend. I did learn again a lot during these three days and of course, all from the other participants. I understood that societal change has to happen with the value-boundaries existing in the society. I learned that initiatives should be empowered and maybe even kept in the societal level they aim to move – I mean the change that the movement creates should aim for whole society to change (for better) but as the initiative is either a one-off project or an ongoing living process the lifeline of it can only come from the level that feels the ownership of it. I kept thinking that any kind of planning that is done with the vocabulary of us and them is going to be cross-levelled – not necessarily top-down nor even bottom up across two or more and it is hard to say about initiatives like these that are they sustainable or ethical – at least always. Does better for all mean one size fits all – I love the saying one size fits no one, because I believe it to be true. Uni-level social planning wouldn’t again probably meet the requirements of societal change as such but if the movement happens on the nationwide level I think it would work perfectly. Reclaiming the streets for healthy activities, person by person and street by street. The power is once again in numbers. And the key is mutual management.

Thank you very much SIL staff, Wits, Discovery – and big cheers to my peers! I sincerely hope to see you at the next Societal Innovation Lab.


SowetoTembisa and Hillbrow

ACSI page about SIL

Witwatersrand University

University of Pretoria

Discovery Health

Johannesburg Art Gallery

Streets Alive

Athena Mazarakis