Conversation #13 — Rowan Conway, Director of Innovation and Development, RSA

Conversation #13 — Rowan Conway, Director of Innovation and Development, RSAI joined the RSA a few years ago after I came across their work project on self-employment — as a recently self-employed professional, it made a big impact on my thinking about entrepreneurship, and I’ve followed the organisation’s work ever since. So it was a huge privilege to spend some time with Rowan and talk about her report on bringing about social change through design thinking.

Rowan’s career has taken her from training as a designer to working for LOCOG on the London 2012 Olympics, running enquiry by design projects with communities around the Olympic sites. She’s now bringing this experience in bringing people together around a challenge in an urban design context to bear on much larger social innovation challenges at the RSA: as she puts it, innovating for purpose.


Would you mind kicking us off by telling us what the word innovation means to you?

That’s a big question because innovation means many things to many people. What it doesn’t mean to us is new ideas for the sake of new ideas, we are far more interested in stimulating creativity.

At the RSA, innovation and entrepreneurship are very closely aligned, and we’re focused on social innovation. Innovation theorists like Clayton Christensen would say that there are different kinds of innovation: efficiency innovation, sustaining innovation and empowering innovation. We’re very much in the school of empowering innovation. How do we get beyond innovation for productivity, or for improved efficiency gains for business, and into the business of how we transform society through new ideas, invention and visions? Innovation is about thinking creatively and in a visionary way.


So how does that work at the RSA?

The RSA is a complex beast and we come at it in multiple different ways. Within my team for example, we host the student design awards which are about enabling design students to think about social innovation. It’s sometimes the first time that people in universities have experienced the concept of social innovation, so the business of innovation in that context is about stimulating design thinking and new ideas that arise from that process.

In other parts of the organisation we’ve been developing out the thinking around how you think like a system and act like an entrepreneur. We have a policy thinktank at the RSA and we also have a 29,000-strong fellowship. We‘re looking at how the organisation works so that we can build on that best of the thinktank world, and understand how one takes the excellence in thinking and make it enhance the power of the entrepreneur to make change in the world.

It’s not an easy and simple model to try and unleash: it’s about empowering innovation to find ideas that solve social challenges, which is of course what the RSA has been in business to do for the last 260 years. Originally it was set up by reformers seeing that the industrial age was causing some problems and that there was a need to have good ideas to solve them, and that has evolved, but that narrative has always stayed very true to what the RSA is about.


It’s a very progressive organisation. I remember when I first joined, I was very impressed that it admitted women from its first days, which was unusual.

Yes, and it’s always been very self-reflective, it’s adapted to what progressive thinking is at any given time. The term sustainable development was first spoken in the RSA. We’ve moved from an era of great invention, where what the RSA was trying to do was create new things to build a new society — for example, Alexander Graham Bell tested the telephone in the Great Room at the RSA among people who were fellow creators. That set in train a whole telecoms revolution. Now it’s less about creating new things and more socially reformist, looking at public services, at how communities can be empowered, at social entrepreneurship. We’ve adapted and changed how we do it, but I think progressive is a thread that has flowed all the way through.


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