Meet the Innovators- John Peto, Nerve Centre

We sat down with some of the people who are working with innovative companies across Northern Ireland and further afield. The latest in this series is John Peto, Director of Education at the Nerve Centre. John

Tell us a little about yourself and your work in support tech for good and social innovation in education?

I’m in charge of the Education Programmes at the Nerve Centre and we’ve really been a Tech for Good organisation since the late 1980’s – before the term was even thought of. We provide access to technology, and the skills to use it creatively, for communities and individuals that may not otherwise have the opportunity to do so. We’ve always sought to add purpose to the mix so that people are using technology for a reason that engages them and, ideally, impacts either upon them in terms of learning and upon the wider community in terms of a benefit. That may mean making films or computer games that explore our history of conflict, taking a training course in Music Technology that can lead to a job, or digitally fabricating furniture for a youth club or school.

How did you first get involved in ‘social good’ work and why is it so important to you?

I moved to Derry in 1996 to do a postgrad at Magee and was hooked straight away on the spirit and energy of the place – the ‘can do’ nature and the desire to make things better in a place that had really suffered. The community and voluntary sector was where that was most obvious and the impacts were greatest. I started off working with the Inner City Trust in regeneration projects before moving to the Nerve Centre where we were really using creativity as a weapon to attack poverty, lack of opportunity and division here. It’s the most rewarding area of work I can think of – I get to do really interesting stuff with really interesting people and the end goal is not about making money, but helping people to help themselves. What more could you want from a job?

How do you think Social Innovation can help Northern Irish generations?

We’ve always been a place of real innovation in the Third sector – there’s a strong history here of people just getting on and doing stuff for their communities because of the failure of the state to do so throughout the conflict. Social Innovation is just a natural progression of this, but its important in strengthening some of the business principles around social impact work. Social impacts do have economic value to society and to individuals and social innovation recognises this and challenges us to do the same in our work.

Do you think cross sector collaboration is important to the social innovation agenda? If so, why?

Of course. One person or organisation draws on their knowledge and experience but if you can multiply that through collaboration then your work gets better and your impacts are stronger. There are difficult conversations around funding and finance to be had, and smaller organisations may feel disadvantaged so it does have to be managed carefully, but the opportunity outweighs the cost almost every time.

FuSIon Fest is a festival of Social Innovation – how do you define social innovation and how can we apply it to address some of our most pressing social and economic challenges?

For me, social innovation is about new mechanisms to deliver services of social benefit. Those services may not be new in themselves (i.e. job skills, education, healthcare etc) but the mechanism of delivery and support will draw upon collaboration between organisations and sectors and is likely to embrace some private sector principles, even if it is not part of the private sector. Sustainability is key to Social Innovation as the means of delivering really transformative impacts, that is really the key rationale for it.

In your view, does the private sector engage enough in corporate social innovation activities and what more can they do?

I’m uneasy at times about the private sector’s role in socially focused work. With the best will in the world, the core goal of a private company is to generate a profit. If Social Innovation is a space where that can happen in a sweet spot where social impact and profitability collide then that that’s great, but I still have a nagging worry that profit is often still the key driver. I’ve seen fantastic work but I’ve also seen social impact used as a fig leaf for companies to generate PR whilst focusing on the profit margin. I suppose it comes down to the definition of Social Innovation – many large private companies make products that have a very positive social impact, but may have no ethos or culture of social good in their work beyond that. To really be Tech for Good or Social Innovation work, then sustained social impact has to be the key focus and the ethos that drives the entire project or organisation. I’m not sure that this is the case for many in the private sector.

What interests/ excites you about FuSIon Fest?
Whenever I meet people from other places with similar goals I come away with new ideas that can benefit my work. Events like FuSIon Fest are crucial in idea generation and relationship building. I have no doubt that there will be concrete projects delivering benefit here within the next two years that would not have happened without the catalyst of FF. That’s the reality of these events and why they are critical. You can never really predict exactly which projects and relationships will be sparked, but you can be certain that it will happen.
Fusion Fest is brought to you by Social Innovation NI in association with the Building Change Trust, supported by the Department for Communities and managed by Innovate-NI.
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