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Council on Foundations 2010: Networks, Not Ideas, Drive Innovation

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Despite popular perception, it's not one single product, epiphany or "a-ha" moment that drives innovation. From Thomas Edison's light bulb to Apple's multi-functional personal devices, innovation happens when a network adapts and executes a new approach or technology.

Those were key lessons imparted by Andrew Hargadon of the University of California, Davis, speaking on April 25 at a mini-plenary session on social innovation and philanthropy at the start of the Council on Foundations' 2010 Annual Conference. This was the kickoff to the conference's social innovation track, which also included sessions with Chip Heath, co-author of the book Switch, and Gabriel Kasper of the Monitor Institute.

Also at the conference, Kasper, co-author of the 2008 Kellogg Foundation report Intentional Innovation: How Getting More Systematic about Innovation Could Improve Philanthropy and Increase Social Impact, noted that there are five steps to getting to innovation: from establishing a culture that embraces it, to identifying opportunities for focus, to diffusing and sharing with others in the field. Both Hargadon and Judith Rodin of the Rockefeller Foundation shared specific ideas for and examples of foundations advancing innovation. So did one audience member, who volunteered that philanthropy can be the driver to lead innovations in fields struggling to adapt to a rapidly changing world, most notably K-12 education and print journalism.

More generally, though, Hargadon said foundations should take advantage of their already established networks and connections to look for and advance innovations. They should also invest in individuals and organizations with the potential to build or expand a network around new ideas, helping them to take root.

Rodin said that philanthropy, long a field focused on innovation, needs to re-imagine its approach in the 21st Century, focusing as much on innovations in organizations, markets and processes as on ideas or individuals. In this century, innovators don't need a laboratory, according to Rodin: Everywhere is and can be a laboratory for innovation. She also noted that the best innovative ideas are to be found as a result of collaboration and partnership -- in other words, networks of foundations, as well as partners in other sectors, working together.