Roger Warnock On How To Best Empower Communities Through Social Innovation


Roger Warnock is well known within the Irish social innovation scene and was awarded the Nesta/Observer New Radical Award in July 2016 for his research and design work for the Book Reserve supporting young ex-offenders in Belfast. He also has over 20 years’ hands-on business experience and a successful record in social innovation research and design work across all sectors and is both a Winston Churchill Fellow (2013) and Clore Social Fellow (2016).

Roger currently manages his professional time between Social Nybble and the Young Foundation, one of the world’s leading social innovation think-tanks where he is the Programme Lead for Ireland. Prior to
this he served in a variety of senior roles in business, government and social enterprise sectors.

Roger's key specialisms are corporate social innovation and research in entrepreneurship and innovation which he is recognised for internationally.


Roger shares key insights into effective social innovation processes, including The Young Foundation's 'tread lightly, listen deeply' model of engagement. He discusses shared value, important traits of inclusive leaders and talks about how cultures of fear within organisations can stop great innovation opportunities.


Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details)

[Tom Allen] - Could you please share a bit about your background and what led you to a career specialising in social innovation? [2:20]

[Roger Warnock] - People ask me this all the time, and I tell them I'm an accidental social innovator, because I'm actually a conservationist at heart. So, I have a degree in Zoology and Geography and since my university days, it kind of took a weird and wonderful turn. I was offered to go away to Tanzania to survey the reefs, because they were throwing sticks of dynamite and killing all the fish. But, I couldn't raise enough money, so I ended up going into a career within the corporate world and the standard life and big insurance company.

I'm actually a project manager by trade. But I've always had a real interest in fixing things and solving issues. My mum and dad come from farming backgrounds. I think that's always been in me, those sort of very deeply held values in innovation. So, I've always been involved in charities, in raising money for charities and helping people. And over the years, that's just built and built and built.

So, alongside working in corporate life, and then from my own businesses, I was also doing a lot of work with charities and social enterprises and then eventually, it just got me, and I said, "You know what? You've got to do this full time." And that's what I've been doing for the last seven or eight years now. So, it comes out of, ultimately, my mum and dad who I blame for getting me into this game.

As the Director of the specialist social innovation consultancy called Social Nybble, what sort of projects are you involved in, and how are creating positive social change? [3:43]

Well, from the Social Nybble point of view, as I say, I'm very much into design thinking and all the stuff that Ideo does. So, the job of Social Nybble is designing these projects. The one that you just mentioned earlier on, The Book Reserve is the one that I'm well-known for, which was specifically setting up a social enterprise that worked with ex-offenders. But, where it was globally unique was that they were all parents, as well.

So, what we were trying to do in that one was reduce the really, really high levels of re-offending here in the U.K., which is, for those 18-24 year-olds, about 70% - and in some parts of West Belfast it's 90% - but also the fact that 60% of those guys' kids will actually grow up to offend themselves. So, our long-term thing was trying to change that pace where the fathers would come and engage with their kids again and, try and stop that by giving them a positive future. So, that's kind of the big project I'm known for. I specialise in young people, on how to help marginalised young people, especially around entrepreneurship and looking at a socially innovative way to do that.

But also, the other key area that I'm really interested in is corporate social innovation. So, the stuff around shared value and a new framework that I designed called Social Jam, where, how do we get more businesses to be socially conscious? A lot of the focus is always on the big corporates, but what about all those smaller businesses underneath? Because, you know, in Europe alone, around 99% percent of all business in Europe are actually SME's. They're not corporates. So, imagine the power if we were able to get them to actively tackle social issues across Europe, and globally, it would be massive.

So, those are two key areas that Social Nybble works on. And now, also, I work for the Young Foundation. The Young Foundation is famous for its ethnographic research and participatory research. So, we do a lot of work in communities.

How do we empower communities to come up with those innovations, those ideas that can be transformative within them? We do a lot around understanding the issues within local communities, not going in and telling them what the problems are.

And, from that, through storytelling and lived experiences, we can start to draw out what the common purpose within that community is. And then we can start to develop their ideas.

So those are three or four key projects I've been working on. But, those are the three that are most important at the minute in my day-to-day work.


You wrote a paper on sustainable shared value, which our listeners can download from your LinkedIn profile. And, this was a topic that we also recently discussed with Danielle Duell. So, how can corporates best implement strategies that create shared value, and how does it differ from Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)? [6:16]

Well, the first thing is to look at CSR.

CSR is normally just bolted on.

The corporates, they find somebody... I'm not being critical here, but a lot of companies, a charity will approach them and say, "Hey, do a pitch," and "We've got this great charity. Can you help us?" And they will, and that looks good on the company doing that. Or, alternatively, a company needs to do something good. So, they set up a CSR wing and they do that. But, that's a broad-brush description of CSR to me, because there's a lot of really great companies out there doing really, really good CSR.

But, where companies need to... the game-changer, some companies are now turning to is certainly shared value, and similar sort of stuff is:

how do you actually bring that piece back over into business strategy so that it becomes day-to-day to the operations? That's critical.

To me, we won't be able to solve a lot of social issues without doing that, because businesses have these massive resources, massive skills, everything else. If we can harness that, then we can tackle some of these real wicked problems we have.

So, that's what I've been focusing on for the last couple of years. But, key to me about the corporates is that they still... The CEO might pick a charity or something that he wants to support. To me, companies need to look more local. They need to look at the communities that are surrounding them, and try and align those communities with their business. And, by doing that, they can find those with a common purpose. And once they find that common purpose, I think they can really knuckle down and solve a lot of these problems that are more local. Some of the big corporates maybe look further afield to solve some of the big global issues in Africa or somewhere like that. I'm more interested in what we can do locally, so, across Australia, across the U.K., wherever it might be.

there's a lot of problems at home, and we need to tackle those. And I think that's where we need to focus the corporates, or the SME's below them.


What have you seen as some of the most common traits of an inclusive leader, and what advice would you give to leaders who are unfamiliar with this style? [8:31]

I did a presentation recently to the British Council on this, to all of the Diversity and Inclusion heads across Europe.

I came up with eight traits that I think are essential in inclusive leadership:

The first one was awareness. Knowledge is power. Constantly keep learning, keep reading, keep looking at a lot of things that are going on.

Curiosity, as well, which kinds of leads on from that.

Passion: if you're not passionate about what you do, people will see right through you.

Also, you've got to be courageous. Be able to put your head above the parapet.

Collaboration, which is key.

Perseverance. Never quit, keep going. That was one of the things with The Book Reserve, something we had to keep doing, and many challenging things we did.

Then, values and authenticity.

But out of those eight, the most important ones, to me, really, are passion... As I say: 

if you're not passionate about what you do, why bother doing it? People will see through you.

And that leads directly into authenticity. If you aren't passionate about what you do, you're not going to be authentic. So, you need to do that.

And the other one; values is very important. There's been a couple of occasions over the past few years where people have questioned my values, and you have to be brave enough to stick to those values no matter what. Because, in the end, they will stand in good stead further down the line, as opposed to changing your opinions.

And, finally, collaboration. A lot of people talk about collaboration. But, to me, it's not. It's more just cooperation. We live in a world where a lot of organisations are very siloed, and have a siloed mentality. They don't want to collaborate. They just want to cooperate. They want to find out what you're doing, and then probably use that on you. It's certainly a problem in the U.K. in the third sector. Here, it happens a lot, because people are struggling to find money and funding and stuff like that.

How do we do true collaboration? How do you truly open the doors so that you can effectively work more closely together, without those hidden agendas?


As Programme Lead at the Young Foundation in Ireland, what have you found to be some of the fundamental ingredients of the most effective programmes that you've been involved in? [10:58]

Well, our signature programme here is Amplify, which is a big lottery-funded programme that we're halfway through, two years in. The ingredient ... It's more a way of how we do the work. We go by a phrase called "tread lightly, listen deeply." Because, the nature of Amplify is about transforming communities, empowering communities to bring out their voices, and finding what those narratives are for change.

You have to go in - treading lightly is going in and not coming up with a solution straightaway. It could take you several months just to talk to people and listen to people, and that's what the "listen deeply" is. You've got to listen deeply to really, truly understand what the issues are in those communities.

Too many other organisations or government will go in and say, "Okay, the unemployment rate is 25%. We need to do something." But, you've got to actually understand what the reason for the unemployment is in the first place. It may be that - there may be plenty of jobs, but they may be the wrong jobs. Or, people are disengaged for other reasons or whatever.

So, to me, it's those two things, to tread lightly when you go into a community or a group or residence. And then, to listen deeply with them, to really engage with them. And that can take time.

A lot of times, a lot of organisations aren't prepared to take that time, whereas the Young Foundation, we are, because we really do want to find what the solutions are, the right solutions, the right ideas that we can support them with.


It sounds to me like a very common ingredient that many would argue is the core of an effective design thinking process... [12:36]

Yeah, absolutely. Yeah.

You've got to listen, you've got to do empathy mapping and all that sort of stuff, because, if you don't, you're not going to truly understand what those peoples' lived experiences and stuff are.

There's so many experiences. You're probably gonna ask me about government later on, but it's a classic fail in government: "We've got unemployment. There's our solution." You can't do it that way.

Having spent a number of years now working in the social innovation sector, how have you seen it transform and change over the last five-odd years, and where do you see it heading? [13:08]

I think the main thing with social innovation is, people are now getting it. They're understanding it. So, going back to the piece of work on the corporates, CSR came through in the late 90's and became the leading thing. Companies are now looking at that. Companies are now understanding, actually, there's more to this. This is about social innovation. This is about being innovative.

Shared value is very timely with what Michael Porter's done there. But also, it's broken away.

Up until a few years ago, certainly in the U.K., people thought social innovation and social enterprise are the same thing. They're not.

Social enterprise is a very small part of innovation. Social innovation is the fact that corporates now are involved, as well. So I think that's where the sector is transforming. There's a better understanding, and it's opening up.

I think, going forward, that will only increase. I think the big part, to me, the big opportunity is in the business side, because of those skills and resources. And also, the impact of millennials coming through, as well. I grew up in the 80's in the U.K. That was Thatcher. It was all about loads of money and "Make as much money as possible." That was what was bred into you. Whereas, now, (and this is coming through in all the Deloitte's questionnaires and surveys)...

Young people coming out of university want more. They want purpose within a company as well. It's not just about making a lot of money. And, I think that's going to have a significant impact on companies.

And they need to start looking at social innovation, various things, as well, for talent retention, if nothing else.

Roger, just earlier you started to mention a little bit about government. So, what do you believe are the key steps that government need to take to help foster and support an innovative social sector? [14:53]

You got a couple of hours to talk about that?

The first thing's attitude to risk. We all talk about it. Any government in the developed world... is risk.

Government doesn't do risk. Also, accountability to failure. Government will dole out a lot of money, and if it doesn't work, they'll blame somebody else. They very rarely blame themselves.

So, a big part of it is - I don't know if you've ever come across what they call psychological safety, what Google talks about? This is not just government, but also right across social innovation.

People within organisations need to be able to stick their head above the parapet, and not fear that it's gonna get shot off. This fear of failure and recrimination of failure, and blaming everybody else has to go.

There's lot of that in government today, and a lot of it is very much about, "Let's just change a policy or put a different support package in place." They've got to be more truly innovative. They've got to be more inclusive, certainly with leadership and right across the board, which will then lead to more creativity and more innovation. And, you'll create the culture, that internal culture, where everybody does want to stick their hand up and do stuff. So, I think we need to take a leaf out from what Google is doing, and what other similar organisations are on, this whole psychological safety, and take a few leaves out of the IDEO handbook, of how to innovate.

Just hearing you now reminds me of what a lot of Seth Godin talks about, with this lizard brain. And the fear to move forward and how that can effectively shut down innovation... [16:26]

Yeah, absolutely!

If you're scared to stick your hand up and do something, you're not gonna do it. There's already a proportion of all companies in the world where the talented people, if there's culture of fear, they'll not stick their hand up.

And then there's another number of people in the company who are really just there to do their 9-5 and punch their card. So if you're gonna kill it all off, we're just not going to innovate into the future.

And civil service is a classic area where that needs to change.

It doesn't matter what country you're in.

What countries then, do you believe are really leading the charge when it comes to social innovation, and what are they doing that we can adopt here in Australia, or there in Ireland, or elsewhere around the world? [17:15]

I was thinking about that earlier on and wondering, 'is anyone really leading the charge?' I would say, basically, all countries are really leading the charge, because they're realising the importance of it. There's some great examples out there. I love what Life Hack are doing in Auckland, good stuff for mental health, getting the New Zealand government involved in that. I think that's a really, really good example of stuff that's going on.

And then what's going on in Cape Town; RLabs are harnessing technology and young people. I think it's a cracking example of social innovation that's gone out there. Then, more laterally, a lot of the work that I've done recently has been in the United States. I'm bringing a lot of that back. So there's some really, really good stuff.

I love what Kiva are doing with microfinance and how that's empowering young people, giving them loans. I think the whole Kiva zip model is one that, certainly, we should look at. I think it's been going a couple of years now.

Young people don't necessarily have access to guarantors. But, if they can get a local minister in a community, or somebody who's important, they can get those people to vouch for them, which then gives them a bunch of cash to set up business. And that starts to tackle wellbeing and employability, entrepreneurship.

So, I think there's a number of really good examples out there, but it's not necessarily any one country who is leading the charge. I think you've got to really hunt around. There's so many really good, good projects going out there.


How do you think that councils and governments might most effectively engage the citizens in order to co-design effective responses to complex problems like the ones you're talking about? [18:55]

I think we're actually in the middle of doing that with the Young Foundation here in Belfast, with Belfast City Council. They've taken a decision the last year to work with us to say, "Okay, well, here's four key areas across Belfast, high levels of deprivation. How do we actually get right down to that grassroots, residence level to work with them, to understand the key issues in those areas?"

The Council itself was having real difficulty. There's a thing called locality planning, where they're looking at what they have to do in those areas. They were really struggling, so they asked the Young Foundation to come in, and, through that "tread lightly, listen deeply" view that we take, we've worked with these four parts of Belfast. And Belfast, as you know, is pretty complex. So, two of the areas will be very Catholic, nationalist areas, and two are very Protestant, loyalist areas. So, we had to do that. So, there were those issues to start with.

But, it's amazing, once you actually do that piece, and you start working with them, and Council starts to understand the process as well, and they see the value in that deep ethnographic research, participatory research, peer learning piece, that actually you can transform local areas.

And it's an ongoing process, but we've had some real highlights in there. For example, one project, which is called the Diamond Ladies, which is a bunch of local ladies ranging from 16 years of age up to close to 70 or plus - and what they've done is, they've transformed a small area within East Belfast. They have transformed a couple of buildings into a local centre, and they've called it the Diamond Hub. And they're just really engaging with everybody in that whole community to really transform it. Everything from the traditional issues that we have around here around sectarianism and bonfires around the 12th of July, to, okay, well how do we get young people into jobs? How do we tackle wellbeing and health, mental illness?

We've engaged a bunch of young ladies who are not specialists in any way. They're just fully engaged in the community, and they want to see change in that community. So we've seen the power of that coming through, and Council is now taking that forward as a model that they can use in the future. So, I think other councils could do that, as well. And then that obviously hopefully transfers up into more regional and national government to see that those processes work and you're getting a more inclusive economy.

To finish off, what books would you recommend to our listeners?

[Roger discusses in further detail the books listed below.]


Initiatives, resources and people mentioned on the podcast

Recommended books


You can contact Roger on LinkedIn or Twitter. Please feel free to leave comments below.

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