Why Political Innovation matters

Author: Josef Lentsch

Political Innovation is a term that still leads to misunderstandings. 

When I tell people what I do, they often ask: “Do you mean Policy Innovation?” That is because Policy Innovation is a well-established concept. It is about the revision of laws and regulations, and more recently also about changes to the policymaking process itself (eg. via experimental approaches like Randomised Controlled Trials).

Political Innovation is its lesser known cousin. As Johanna Mair, Josefa Kindt & Sébastien Mena note in a brand new article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, it is still an emerging field.

The article defines Political Innovation as “changes in how we practice democracy and in the infrastructure that operationalizes democracy. (…) an ongoing and collective effort to ensure that democracy remains an effective and suitable operating system to achieve social order and progress.”

Political Innovation is third wave-innovation

Innovation has not always been viewed in a positive light. As Emma Green notes in a classic article in the Atlantic, in the 17th century innovators did not get accolades, they got their ears cut off.

The term “innovation” in the modern sense became popular in the 1940s, when Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter coined the term in the context of the business world. 

The second innovation wave emerged in the 1980s, when organisations such as Ashoka championed the concept of “Social Innovation”. The term was to describe how they tackled social justice issues with entrepreneurial means–which was already in some ways political (with a small p).

In the 2000s, Political Innovation began its take off as the third wave of innovation, building on the successes and learnings in Social Innovation. The purpose was clear: political systems and democracies were in ever greater need of innovation.

This led also to the founding of The Innovation in Politics Institute in 2017 (by the way, you can pre-register for this year’s Innovation in Politics Award Convent and Gala on 11 May in Warsaw here).

A great variety of Political Innovators

Just as social innovators use entrepreneurial methods to innovate social systems, Political Innovators use an entrepreneurial approach to innovate political systems. And they come in an increasingly wide range of shapes and sizes.

One embodiment of Political Innovators are Political Entrepreneurs, who found new political parties, a topic on which I published a book in 2019

Political Intrapreneurs, on the other hand, work to innovate established political parties from within. (For insights on innovation in political parties, subscribe to our newsletter PartyParty.)

New organisations at the intersection of civil society and politics, such as JoinPolitics or BrandNewBundestag in Germany, aim to have an impact across the political spectrum.

Citizen-led movements like DemocracyNext in France or #FixPolitics in Nigeria want to innovate the political system as a whole.

Democracy Technologies offer data-driven ways forward, and initiatives like European Capital of Democracy provide a platform for innovation and experimentation.

A genuine culture shift is underway. 

As with any innovation, most attempted political innovations are bound to fail. But some will succeed. 

It is great to see that academia is increasingly interested in this growing field. Philanthropy is also beginning, albeit slowly, to understand this as an impact investment opportunity.

Why Political Innovation matters? The future of democracy depends on it.