• Philip J Connolly

Thoughts from a Creative Disruptor

I was recently asked by one disability activist what do you do once you have told your story. Perhaps your own successful story of personal change. I would suggest the following learning points in moving from personal stories to stories of transformative societal change. These learning points will move us from the story of a person to the story of a people. These learning points are open to everyone and their supporters and can happen in just a few weeks. There are of course other learning points; I am simply offering the ones I have learnt myself or seen succeed.


Quite literally it is important to paint a bigger picture. When Picasso painted Guernica to reveal the horrors of the Spanish Civil war he took more space than time. He painted a canvas of 27.3 square metres. He needed to surpass the newspaper photographs of the bombing with a room sized mural. He needed to tell a bigger truth than General Franco’s propaganda. He even incorporated some of the newspapers. The environmental movement understood the importance of capturing the context for all debates when they defined sustainability in the work of the Brundtland Commission and now all development has to be sustainable.


Next trump scarcity with abundance. Scarcity makes stuff expensive, difficult to obtain, leads to it being hoarded, requires it being guarded, and often unavailable. The stuff becomes subject to tests for accessing it. Abundance increases availability, especially to those on low or no income. Look at how child minding or employment support used to be freely available as a resource produced or offered by the community but has since become professionalised, commoditised and scarce. Professor Mohammed Younis achieved a major breakthrough in poverty by using social enterprise to offer credit to communities of women previously excluded from credit for lack of collateral.


At this point we can then move the dialogue away from models of thinking or approaches based upon blame or coercion to approaches that win disabled people’s active support. Why waste time on ever more nuanced versions of labour market activation policies when its proponents cannot evidence it as an effective policy response to the number of disabled people on welfare. If there were standards in policy making e.g. published peer reviewed evidence we would have moved on years ago from labour market activation, the descriptors for the WCA, conditionality, the disability confident scheme and many other inadequate interventions. One problem of staying in the same debates for too long is that I ended up thinking it is simply about presenting ever more research to refute the Government’s case. I would argue that changing the power dynamic might yield more changes in Government policy. It is striking that Marcus Rashford brought about two significant changes in Government policy when he allied millions of supporters to a rash (rashie?) of volunteer small (and probably indebted) café owners prepared to step in and feed poor and hungry children. The Government may have had its reasons for its U turn but it is also likely that it didn’t want others taking the credit for solving the problem. In a similar way when Theresa May’s Government declared its wish to charge for settlement status it was forced to backtrack when Carluccio and other restaurant chains said they would pay it for their waiters and waitresses. In effect the charge would have become a tax on employers and as such was not palatable to the Government.


The next learning point is to make the so called problem actually the solution or more often the solution to other problems. This is happening in the environmental sphere. The focus is switching from just carbon sequestration that locks carbon dioxide away to carbon utilisation that utilises carbon dioxide in new products as diverse as drinks and building components. This approach is already creating new industries and new jobs. Supposed these jobs or some of them were taken by disabled people. The Conservative manifesto promises two million new jobs in green and clean technologies. Well that’s roughly the size of the disability employment gap. That’s a potential solution not a ongoing problem. Brexit induced skills shortages; we might have the answer to that too.


These learning points may then lead us to finding pull factors that make the push factors more likely to prevail. If we can build an evidence base for what works it should become easier to side line what doesn’t i.e. making disabled people poorer. If we can model this and add the visual metaphors that anchor new ideas we can have an irresistible theory of change. Finally we can join these theories together into whole system approaches of the type Ludwig von Bertalanffy postulated. But that’s for a future blog.


There are old case studies and new opportunities for transferring power to the margins of society, opening up the shop floor, the neighbourhood hub or the research facility or analytics of new businesses. In these margins it is often the most marginalised who have the most to contribute.


Several local authorities have piloted participatory budgeting whereby community groups bring forward proposals to forums of their peers and those present vote on their preferences. Participation is popular and it works.


Many of our leading business entrepreneurs are not trained in business studies but are creative disruptors, misfits or mavericks. Sometimes the clue is in the name of their business: Virgin, the Body Shop, etc. One such person was Ricardo Semler who inherited an engineering business from his father. In his famous book “Maverick” he described how he turned its fortunes round. In essence he reduced 75% of supervision costs through meaningful participation. Best practice examples are helpful but business models maybe even more so.


Several successful new business models such as Erik Ries “Lean start up” and Sanjeet Paul Choudary’s “digital business platforms” (see “Platform Revolution”) are motivated by the benefits of co-production with their users. These business models mean that the emerging products and services have an in built community of loyal users willing to support future iteration. These communities can also exercise influence in their own interests. Disabled people could take a leaf out of the recent example of “rtwallstreetbets” small investors, short squeeze on “Gamestop” and switch their consumer loyalty to businesses that offer the most participation for disabled people.


My concluding learning point is this, don’t just leave it to how much we can persuade other people but how much change we can create.

Join the Disability Resilience Network, experience at first hand the stories of misfits, disruptors and mavericks writ large. Write back with your stories of positive social disruption.

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