Posted by kari.petroschmidt
t was already going to be a tight squeeze to meet Louis at our planned rendezvous time of 3 P.M, and when he texted me around noon asking to move it to 2 P.M I cringed, but agreed. There is something honest and delicate in his nature that one simply can’t refuse. I was ten minutes late. It was a rainy Wednesday afternoon and we met, at Louis’ suggestion, in the Good Earth Café by the University.
Nothing in his boyish demeanour or casual appearance intimates that Louis Brown, 28, is the founder and CEO of independent community development agency, Social Innovation. Alongside the University of Christchurch’s student army, Social Innovation helped organize and mobilize over 26,000 volunteers over six weeks in Christchurch’s February 22, 2011 earthquake. Several thousands of the people that most of NZ watched volunteering their time and energy on TV every night over that tragic period were brought together, unified and organized, by Louis Brown’s Social Innovation.
I asked Louis what exactly his vision for Social Innovation was. “When there is a clear social need, our goal is to define it, to articulate it to a group of people and provide them with the tools to take strategic action to effect real change. We’re all about delivering fantastic grass-roots community initiatives on the smell of an oily rag.”
These are phrases you will find frequently throughout Social Innovation’s website and ones that could be misinterpreted as vague and non-committal if it weren’t for the fact that Social Innovation does exactly what they say they do, to the point that Vodafone granted them $80,000 to continue their work after the earthquake. “It was a validation for the work and effort we had put in beforehand, to have someone else come along and say ‘we believe in what you’re doing.’ Someone who could provide us the opportunity to implement our ideas on a bigger scale and who could have resources ‘unlocked’. And that’s what we’re here to do, to unlock social resources that can provide real solutions to real social need.”
Volunteers for Christchurch mobilised by the Christchurch Student Army and Social Innovation
Before starting Social Innovation Louis was the Social Director of the University P.E department, his job was “organizing piss ups for Scarfies, basically. “ At the age of twenty, however, Louis’s father passed away, a loss that had a defining effect on his life. “It was as if I suddenly had 20/20 vision, like an epiphany that we are only here for the blink of an eye and every moment that we are alive matters, so we should do something with that time, something valuable.”
Following a UN Conference in Sydney, the burning drive to do something more worthwhile with his life grew. “They showed us a graph that was basically showing the current state of the world and where it was heading. It opened my eyes to the negative impact of things, things even as small and as local as the Dunedin drinking culture, which I had personally been fostering and encouraging. My idea was basically to find a way that we could use ourselves to make the world a better place. And to make the world a better place is a limitless agenda, and to dedicate your life to it…” Louis laughs wisely at the ceiling and unfolds his hands. “To dedicate your life to it, well, you are never short of goals.”
Other than the monumental efforts Social Innovation organized for the earthquake they are also heavily involved with NZ coastal beautification and conservation, organizing ‘A Day at the Beach’ cleanups all around the country, as well as holding the leadership development forum Youth Vision 2050, and partnering with agencies like UNESCO and CERA on youth consultation.
Petrina Chai, Youth Vision 2050 organiser Amanda Keefe, Joshua Kurene, former Mayor of San Francisco Art Agnos and Youth Vision 2050 organiser Louis Brown.
I ask Louis what’s next for Social Innovation and he responds quickly and without hesitation. “New Zealand had the lowest voter turnout in history last year, the lowest ever. There is a serious participation problem in the community, I want to promote the idea of mainstream citizenship, you know, promoting ways for everyday people to get involved with their country on a national level, to be pro-active as a nation.”
Louis’ days are a full load of caring for his daughter, writing, client work, administration duties and formulating a new research project to present to his board. His goal is not an easy one, a sustainable not-for-profit social enterprise that allows him to put food on his table and spend the time he needs to steer his ever-growing business. He is determined, however, and passionate about his causes, but also articulate and business minded; and he’s succeeding, at least for now. Louis vision for his business and his prediction for the new breed of businesses in the future is a daring one, but one that young entrepreneurs should take notice of. “I’m a philosopher. I love ideas. Ideas fascinate me. The next hundred years of innovation will not be business as we know it, the new ideas that will flourish will be ideas that service social problems. There is only so much ‘stuff’ that people can buy.”
I asked Louis what advice he would give to young people starting out with a new business venture of their own. “Ask for help. Set up meetings, go to the council, go see lecturers, go knock on doors, go to three people who know three times as much as you do and then ask yourself, ‘Do I really want to start this?’ And if the answer is yes, than let nothing hold you back.”
To find out more about Social Innovation visit www.socialinnovation.org.nz
Andrew Oliver is a Dunedin based writer.