Charles Leadbeater: How the web can create social innovation

Social Innovation Camp guest blogger and author of the book We Think, Charles Leadbeater writes on how the mass circulation of ideas supported by the web holds the potential to create social innovation from the bottom-up.

An idea is set in motion by being shared. The scope available to use for pooling, exchanging and developing ideas determines the extent of our innovation and creativity and so fundamentally our prosperity, well-being and hope for the future. Ideas grow by being articulated, tested, refined, borrowed, amended, adapted and extended, activities that can rarely take place entirely in the head of an individual; but which invariably they involve many people sharing different insights and criticisms. The web allows shared creativity of this kind to involve more people, discussing more questions from more angles with more ideas in play, at least it does as long as people organise themselves in the right way. We have only just started to explore how we could apply this collaborative, participative culture to social challenges.

The idea that sharing might become the economy’s motive force is deeply unsettling because it turns conventional wisdom on its head. From Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations written in 1749 through to Hernando de Soto’s recent The Mystery of Capital, economists have argued that private property provides the basis for capital, that is the elixir at the heart of capitalism, which propels its constant growth and renewal. But in an economy of ideas most of the animating capital is shared.

The web’s significance is that it makes sharing central to the dynamism of economies that have hitherto been built on private ownership.

That is why the new organisational models being generated by the web are so unsettling for traditional corporations created in an industrial model of private ownership. Traditionally organised and owned corporations are seeking to exploit a platform that animates ideas and markets by allowing sharing on an unprecedented scale.

That is why potentially the web reconnects us with a different story about the rise of the West: one that gives a central role to the way ideas are aired and shared rather than focussing on how land and buildings are locked down into property. Much of what we most value – in culture, language, art, science and learning – comes from a kind of gift exchange, in which ideas are passed from person to person, and accumulate over long periods.

As Lewis Hyde puts it in his history The Gift :

“When gifts circulate within a group their commerce leaves a series of interconnected relationships in its wake and a kind of decentralised cohesiveness emerges.”

The more we value activities that depend on the gift of ideas – science, culture, art, learning and innovation – the more we will need non-market institutions to support them. In the past, the church, monarchy, aristocracy and more recently, the state have supported these non-market activities of shared inquiry, expression and experimentation. We Think creates a new basis for the gift economy, in which thanks to decentralised and distributed technologies gifts of knowledge and ideas can circulate from and to many people. That circulation will sustain the mass, digital folk culture that will be the most powerful cultural force of the first decades of the century. Global public banks of knowledge, Wikipedia, the Encyclopedia of Life, the Human Genome, the outputs of the International Polar Year, the free content on The Sims all belong in part to this new commons.

That is why social innovation stemming from the web will be one of the most vital and most disruptive forces of the next few years, opening up the possibility that we could create entirely new ways to organise social endeavour.

Charles Leadbeater is a member of the Social Innovation Camp advisory board. His new book We Think is published by Profile and available from Amazon. The first three chapters can be downloaded free from

Comments 4 Responses to Charles Leadbeater: How the web can create social innovation

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>