Parkrun - bigger than the yearly London Marathon, every week - is an example of people's innovation

Aditya Chakrabortty's brilliant Alternatives column in the Guardian shows what UK news can be like when its agenda is focussed on local solutions; on people's capabilities rather than their limitations and failures; on when great ideas get brewed up in communities, and then become models to be emulated far and wide.

This week's article is about Parkrun, a charity that's started from one man's enthusiasm for organising runs in his local park, and has become a global phenomenon - with 5 times what the London Marathon manages once a year, running every week in parks around the world (that's 250,000). The founder had to write his own software, do his own negotiations with parks, and relies on thousands of hours of volunteer labour. But he's created a bottom-up culture of enthusiastic running in communities across the UK and beyond - with, as the article shows, a lot of joy and tears involved. 

The most interesting point in Chakrabortty's piece is what Parkrun (and other volunteer-run enterprises like Wikipedia) tell us about where innovation is to come from in the future. When the machines are taking over humans' physical and cognitive routines, will our best ideas come from the social, cultural and emotional domains?

Chakrabortty develops the point:

Parkrun is an example of “people’s innovation”, according to Steve Flowers at the University of Kent’s business school. They’re driven by users rather than producers, by volunteers rather than professionals; they’re horizontal rather than hierarchical, and they’re not primarily about making money. What drives these citizen innovators isn’t pay, but purpose: to have fun, gain work experience or just help others. This is an inversion of how we have come to think of work – it is more the gentle anarchism that you see in your local park every Saturday.

Flowers sees examples of this spirit everywhere, from open-source software to the reviews posted on TripAdvisor to the way games-maker Valve encourages users to modify its software. “It’s the invisible industrial revolution,” he says. “It’s hiding in plain sight, and once you see it, it totally changes the way you look at innovation today.”

People’s innovation may even be bigger than the formal innovation economy. At Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Eric von Hippel carried out surveys in six developed countries, from the UK and US to South Korea and Finland. He found a total of 24.4 million “consumer innovators”, doing everything from modifying their coats to carry their babies securely, to establishing a GPS system to recover lost house keys. The UK has the single largest proportion of consumer innovators: more than 6% of all adults, or nearly 3 million people.

In his book Postcapitalism, Paul Mason writes with persuasive urgency about how this bottom-up economics could topple our existing order. Yet in the shorter run it may not challenge capitalism, but sit alongside it. You wouldn’t want a bunch of enthusiasts to design your local nuclear power station – but you might welcome their thoughts on how to reform social care reform.

At Sheffield University, Richard Jones points out that drug companies have spent tens of billions over decades on a cure for Alzheimer’s. The success rate so far has been zero. “For at least the next decade or two, practical advances to mitigate the condition are as likely to come from the informal innovation of patients and their carers and we ought to be doing much more to support that.”

More here. (And just to say that this echoes the Mark Carney point about a general shift from "head" to "hand" and "heart" jobs that we covered a few months ago). There has been a great run of these Alternatives columns recently - with titles like: