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Social innovation, risk & change: OBV at Wilton Park

Ashok Viswanathan speaking at Wilton Park

Over three years ago I had the privilege of visiting Wilton Park, a conference centre supported by the UK Foreign Office.

A crown estate property surrounded by woodlands and greenery where over five days bright minds from the UK and abroad debated with one another and got to hear from leading thinkers, social commentators and activists about the pressing social and political issues of the day.

Two aspects of the 2007 Anglo German conference stood out for me: the first was the eight-a-side football match between German and English participants. Believe it or not, the match went to penalties, and the Germans actually lost!

Second most in my mind, is the relationships I developed with delegates beyond the conference, and how my involvement in it acted as a springboard to me being selected for another opportunity – an American Embassy/US State department four-week programme that allowed me to travel the US exchanging information and learning from experiences with similar minded organisations to OBV.

Both were great platforms for my personal development, and to advance the objectives of OBV. One led to the other and is a sure testament to the claim ‘You have to make your luck’.

Delegates at Wilton Park

So it gave me immense pride to enthusiastically respond to Wilton Park’s request to return there last week, not as a delegate, but as a speaker. Being asked to speak on a plenary ‘Social Innovation, risk and change?’ alongside Martina King and Manouchehr Shamsrizi, and chaired by the Wilton Park CEO Richard Burge.

My contribution focused on three areas:

1) “Social innovation is a necessary and constant in political life and social activism. In the words of Einstein: ‘To do the same thing and expect different outcomes is a form of madness’. Organisations like OBV exist to achieve noble aims that have been with us for decades, for example, the need for social justice, but it is necessary to form new approaches to fulfilling these aims”.

2) Risk is a necessary and constant in political life and social activism because if you believe in something you are compelled to act because of your faith in its intended delivery and outcome. Your hypothesis may be wrong , but you and your organisation believe it to be right. I, for example, resolutely believe in OBV and its aims, and its capacity to make positive social change. Politics is all about this; McCain, Obama, Nick Clegg, the Labour party with Brown as leader are examples. Some win, some lose. ‘You pays your money and you makes your choices’.

3) Without social innovation we perish. In a world where national is international, and global is local, the UK, North America and Europe need to find more inventive ways to understand our world, exchange information and relate experiences. We must as Wilton Park demonstrates engage in the world, and with each other on issues whether big or small. Prime Minister Cameron is right to assert that our status in the world is diminishing, but that our currency regarding our political and social worth remains great. We must not fail in our quest to be inclusive, and integrate those most weak and disenfranchised, particularly BME communities. It is the right thing to do, and also the smart thing to do economically, in order to compete with the growing might of countries such as China and India.

BME communities in the UK and in other parts of the world depend on OBV and others to highlight perennial problems of inequality through a different lens by using innovative and new approaches. In fact they demand it. It’s the reason OBV came to exist.

Wilton Park, Richard Burge, and his staff are an illustration in themselves of social innovation. Without their support, organisations like ours would not have the platform and reach that we need to communicate, influence and lobby for change, and to move our society and the world forward.

By Ashok Viswanathan

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