In 1727 a young Benjamin Franklin stepped ashore in Philadelphia. Freshly returned from London, Franklin’s return to the colonies heralded the beginning of thirty years of social and technological innovation. While Franklin is remembered in his role as an elder statesman, founding father, scientist, and technical innovator, his numerous social innovations are often overlooked. Between 1727 and 1757 Franklin championed no less than seven major social innovations that change the nature of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania. This paper focuses on those seven major innovations.
Evertt Rogers, considered the dean of innovation, offered a relatively concise definition of innovation. Rogers (2003) defined innovation as:
an idea, practice, or object that is perceived as new by an individual or other unit of adoption. It matters little, so far as human behavior is concerned, whether or not an idea is “objectively” new as measured by the lapse of time since its first use or discovery. (p. 12)
Rogers’s definition is useful for many reasons. First, it matters little what the unit is. Rogers allows room for individuals or organizations as the adopting unit. Second, Rogers is not overly concerned with “newness.” It only matters that the adopting unit perceive the change to be new. Third, Rogers is concerned with the diffusion of the innovation across organizations. Fourth, Rogers reduces innovation to its component parts. Innovation involves creativity, perceived newness, and diffusion set against the broader context of a social system.
Mumford (2002) is even more specific when it comes to social innovation. Social Innovation is defined as: “the generation and implementation of new ideas about how people should organize interpersonal activities, or social interactions, to meet one or more common goals” (Mumford, 2002, p. 253). While Mumford is concise in defining social innovation is, he is not concerned at all about how the innovation is transmitted. He does recognize the role of that leadership plays in fostering or discouraging social innovation. Yet one of Mumford’s weaknesses is not taking into account the social context of innovation.
Innovation does not occur in a vacuum. All innovation occurs against a social context or social system (Csikszentmihalyi, 1999, p. 315; Rogers, 2003, p. 23). As Csikszentmihalyi writes “‘new’ is meaningful only in reference to the ‘old’” (1999, pp. 314-315). For Franklin, the old was 18th century Philadelphia and Pennsylvania. Both Philadelphia and Pennsylvania provide an important backdrop for Franklin’s efforts at social innovation.
In order to understand Franklin’s success as a social innovator, it is important to understand the context against which he was innovating. Two salient aspects of 18th century Philadelphia that contributed to Franklin’s success as a social innovator included an ineffectual city and provincial government and a tremendous population boom. Both of these factors helped to create an environment that was receptive to social innovation.
2.1 Pennsylvanian & Philadelphian Governments
During the first half of the 18th century, ineffectual institutions governed both the city of Philadelphia and the province of Pennsylvania. As Morgan (2003) noted “if that government is best that governs least, Philadelphians and Pennsylvanians were well off…” (p. 54). The Pennsylvanian government was hopeless mired in conflict between the assembly and the proprietors. Legislation to improve or met the needs of the colony needed agreement between the Assembly and the Proprietors. The Assembly was popularly elected and represented the needs of the mercantile, and thus, Quaker interests. The Proprietors were large absentee landholders, often living in London. The Proprietors appointed a Governor as their representative to protect their interest in the colony. The Governor’s ability to reach consensus with the Assembly was severely limited due to the instructions given to him by the proprietors. Likewise the city of Philadelphia was governed by a self-perpetuating oligarchy that had little interest or need to be responsive to the needs of the citizenry.
2.2 Mass Migration
Due to its religious tolerance, Pennsylvania experienced a massive population boom in the mid 18th century. From the 1720’s to approximately 1759 Pennsylvania grew by some 77,000 people (Morgan, 2003, p. 50). Most of them were German, Scotts and Irish (p. 50). The impact of this influx of immigrates was tremendous. The colony’s population nearly tripled, while the population of Philadelphia exploded from 7,000 residents to approximately 17,000 residents (p. 50). Franklin’s timing was impeccable. His return to Philadelphia in 1727 placed him at the forefront of this massive influx of immigration.
3. Franklin’s Social Innovations
It is against this backdrop of ineffectual governments and massive population boom that Franklin began his efforts at innovation. The thirty-year period between 1727 and 1757 represents Franklin’s prime period of innovation. Not only was he conducting scientific experiments in electricity, and developing numerous technological innovations including the Pennsylvania Stove, bifocals, gas lamps, and improved street gutters, he also was concerned with improving the overall welfare of society. Of chief import for this paper are Franklin’s seven contributions that changed how society organized social interactions, to meet its common goals.
3.1 The Junto or Leather-Apron Club (1727)
Founded in 1727, the Leather-Apron club, or Junto, consisted of a club for mutual improvement (Franklin, 1959, p. 255). The club consisted of up and coming tradesmen, interested not only in intellectual advancement but also monetary advancement (Seavey, 1988, p. 151; Wright, 1986, p. 37). Franklin’s (1959, p. 257) standing queries to all Junto members reveal a emphasis on gathering and relating information on business success and failure; social gossip; and political issues around Philadelphia.
3.2 The Subscription Library (1731)
Recognizing the need for source material for self-improvement, Franklin and nine associates formed the Library Company. Franklin considered this his first public effort at innovation. By all accounts it was an innovation that was well received, selling fifty subscriptions in the course of four months (Franklin, 1959, p. 209). The Library Company became the first public lending library in the United States.
3.3 Fire Fighting Clubs (1734/5)
Franklin published his essay “On Protection of Towns from Fire” in The Pennsylvania Gazette in February of 1734/5. The essay encouraged people to carry out ashes in shut warming pan, to establish building codes, regulation of the sweeping industry, and the creation of a volunteer fire club, emulated off of one in Boston. Members of the volunteer club department would agree to “handle the firehooks, and others the Axes” (Franklin, 1960, p. 13). A year later Franklin went on to form the Union Fire Company – modeled on the organization he outlined in the essay. Members were required to “provide to leathern buckets, and four bags of good oznabrigs or wider linen, whereof each bag shall contain four yards at least, and shall have a running cord near the mouth” (Franklin, 1960, p. 150).
3.4 The American Philosophical Society (1743)
John Bartram approached Franklin about the creation of academy where the scientist and intellectuals at the time could share information (Franklin, 1960, p. 379). Franklin whole heartily agreed, and penned an essay proposing a society for promoting useful knowledge in the British Plantations. Originally envisioned as a monthly meeting, the subject mater included botany, medicine, chemistry, biology, geography, mechanical engineering, agriculture, animal husbandry and “all philosophical experiments that let light into the nature of things, tend to increase the power of man over matter, and multiply the conveniences of pleasures of life” (Franklin, 1960, p. 382).
3.5 The Pennsylvanian Volunteer Militia (1747)
At the start of the French- Indian war Pennsylvanians found themselves in an awkward situation. French and Spanish privateers has been increasing off the Delaware capes (Franklin, 1961a, p. 180) culminating in a landing and pillaging of several plantations on the lower Delaware river. Simultaneously the colony Governor had embarked for England due to health concerns (Franklin, 1961a, p. 183). The resulting power vacuum prevented the Assembly from taking any real action to defend the city. In November of 1747, Franklin authored Plain Truth – a call for the organization of a militia to defend Philadelphia.
Franklin (2001) noted with some surprise the results of this pamphlet in his autobiography: “The pamphlet had a sudden and surprising effect. I was called upon for the instrument of association; and having settled the draft of it with a few friends, I appointed a meeting of the citizens” (p. 121). Franklin followed his essay a week later with a proposed from of association. The Pennsylvania militia quickly snowballed and involved lotteries for to fund the purchase of cannons and small arms, and the construction of fortifications. The militia was a response to a perceived threat, as the threat gave way to peace, the militia slowly dissipated.
3.6 The Pennsylvania Academy (1749)
Franklin has originally tried to found an academy for the education of Pennsylvania’s youth in 1743. His proposal was met with little response and Franklin let the matter lie dormant for sometime.(Franklin, 1961a, p. 325). Franklin publicized the need for academy by anonymously reprinting the Pliny’s letter on education in the Pennsylvania Gazette. This was followed a short time later by the Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania (Franklin, 1961a, p. 397) and the Constitution of the Academy of Philadelphia (Franklin, 1961a, p. 421). No long after the Academy found a home in a public meeting hall.
3.7 The Philadelphia Hospital (1751)
As early as 1750 Dr. Thomas Bond had realized that Philadelphia’s almshouses and lazaretto were insufficient to meet the needs of the sick and poor (Franklin, 1961b, p. 108). Bond tried to raise a subscription to start a hospital, but was unsuccessful. Bond approached Franklin on the merits of the idea and Franklin “not only subscribed to it myself, but engaged heartily in the design of procuring subscriptions from others” (Franklin, 1961b, p. 109). Franklin was ultimately able to secure matching funds from the state assembly for the creation of the hospital. Writing some three years later, and in the context of trying to justify continued funding from the assembly, Franklin noted that in just over two years, the hospital admitted 117 individuals, curing 60 of those patients (Franklin, 1962, p. 324). Of interest, the second largest patient population consisted of lunatics – accounting for 18 cases during the two-year period. Franklin, ever astute, provided a note benne “the majority of the lunatics taken in had been many years disordered, and their disease become too habitual to admit of relief…” (Franklin, 1962, p. 324)
4. Franklin’s Methodology
Franklin employed a common methodology in his efforts at social innovation. His methodology allowed him to leverage his strengths in organization, communication, and fund raising while simultaneously handing over the day-to-day operation of his organizations to those he trusted. Franklin’s methodology revolved around identifying a solution to a common problem, testing the solution on trusted colleague, laying a foundation by articulating the problem and solution to the public, developing a funding mechanism, and then delegating the day-to-day operation of the institution to some one else.
4.1 Identify a solution to a common problem.
Mumford (2002) noted that “problem definition, or problem identification, in social innovation seems to be experientially based …. social innovation requires ideas and solutions that are based on identifying a limited number of manageable key causes” (p. 263). Franklin’s desire to improve his social and business standing lead him to found the Junto. Franklin’s personal experience with a lack of reading material caused him to start the lending library. His experience with the city’s lack of defense, lack of facilities for caring for the sick and poor, and lack of educational opportunities all lead him to act or get involved and start the militia, hospital, and academy respectively. All of the social innovations that Franklin championed were the result of experiencing the problem and identifying a solution.
4.2 Test the solution on trusted colleagues
Franklin repeatedly leveraged his network of contacts in the Junto to test his ideas on. As he noted: “about this time I wrote a paper (first to be read in Junto, but was afterwards published) on the different accident and carelessness by which houses were set on fire…” (Franklin, 2001, p. 115). Likewise “The first step I took was to associate in the design a number of active friends, of whom the Junto furnished a good part…” (Franklin, 2001, p. 128). In each case testing the proposed solution on the trusted colleagues gave Franklin immediate feedback and an opportunity to refine his argument.
4.3 Laying the foundation: articulate the problem to the public
Franklin was quite succinct in his effort to “lay the groundwork” for his social innovations. He notes that “previous, however, to the solicitation, I endeavored to prepare the minds of he people by writing on the subject in the newspapers, which was my usual custom in such cases…” (Franklin, 2001, p. 133). In fact the initial essays on fire prevention and the education of the youth of Pennsylvania employed a tactic that Franklin used repeatedly; he published his writing anonymously as letters addressed to the editor of the Pennsylvania Gazette. A case in point is the essay on prevention of fires. It is addressed to “Mr. Franklin” by a fictitious “A.A.” (Franklin, 1960, pp. 12-15). Like wise the essay laying the groundwork for the establishment of a university was addressed to the editor, and published anonymously (Franklin, 1961a, p. 325).
As noted in the case of the Academy, Franklin was patient. Having met with little initial public enthusiasm in 1743, he waited another six years until the social environment was conducive to the founding of the Pennsylvania’s first institution of higher learning. The Academy is an excellent example of how Franklin used the Gazette as a means of communicating both the problem and solution to the public. Franklin’s ownership of the Pennsylvania Gazette provided him a privileged spot to both collect and disseminate information. As Morgan noted:
Philadelphia was not without government, but the ineffectiveness of it gave a special importance to newspapers, as Franklin gradually discovered after he began publishing the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1729. In its pages he furnished Philadelphians and other Pennsylvanians with a common fund of knowledge about themselves and about what went on in the rest of the world….Franklin also told people what was happening to them at home—fires, floods, lightning strikes, accidents, marriages, deaths, meetings, celebrations, robberies—and as time went on he included more and more about politics….As a printer and publisher Franklin had his finger on the pulse of life in Philadelphia, and he was continually bringing companies of people together in associations to improve it. (Morgan, 2002 pp. 54-55)
Thus Franklin could not only shape public opinion, he was in a unique position to measure the responses to his proposals as well.
4.4 Develop a Funding Mechanism
Franklin was ingenious in finding ways to fund his organizations. For the fire fighting club and the library Franklin (2001) stipulated that fee be used as a funding mechanism (pp. 115, 200). For the hospital, Franklin secured a matching grant from the colonial assembly (p. 133). Franklin undertook two lotteries to fund the Pennsylvania Militia (p. 122). The academy, library, and hospital were all initially funded by subscriptions (pp. 128, 133). Franklin’s ability at fund raising was matched only by his ability to extricate himself from the day to day operation of the organizations he founded.
4.5 Delegate Running to Others
While Franklin retained membership in all the organizations that he founded, he limited his role to that of governance. From this position he could influence the goal and mission of the organization, while avoiding getting bog down in the day-to-day operation of organization. Franklin was not indiscriminate in who or how he handed off control of his organizations too. In the case of the library, its operation was delegated to a trusted member of the Junto. The Hospital was run by Dr. Thomas Bond. In both instances, Franklin retained a position of influence on the board of governors.
5. Assessment and Insights into Leadership
Franklin’s success as a social innovator provides many lessons and insights for leaders. First, Franklin built and utilized a lasting social network that supported him in his effort of social innovation. Second, Franklin often used an obsequious means of approaching innovation. Finally, Franklin often concerned himself with higher-level change.
While academic literature on the Junto and its role as a social network is scarce, it clearly played a major role in Franklin’s success. On two occasions in his autobiography he makes reference to using the Junto as a means of testing ideas and enlisted the aid of the Junto members in pursuing projects for the public good. For Franklin, the Junto provided a social network that bridged the social boundaries of colonial Philadelphia and it served as the catalyst for society wide improvements. As Wright notes “ self-improvement led inevitably to the improvement of city and state. What the Philadelphia Junto inculcated was the art of civic virtue, a code of municipal improvement for Philadelphia.” (Wright, 1986, p. 39)
Franklin’s use of the Junto is consistent with the literature on the role of social networks and innovation. Gladwell (2002) stressed the importance of super-connected individuals to provide connections across social boundaries, and transfer ideas. Policastro & Gardner noted that “given the importance of experience, one might expect social innovation to arise from the efforts of talented, marginal individuals’ pursuing somewhat unique paths through life and thus having unique patterns of experience” (as cited in Mumford, 2002, p. 263). Likewise Daloz (1996) noted that it is often those at the margins that are called to leadership. Daloz wrote “the central gift of marginality, however, is its power to promote both empathy with the other and a critical perspective on one one’s tribe” (p. 76).
Franklin utilized aspects of servant leadership to support his efforts at social innovation. Greenleaf (2002) uses the metaphor of Herman Hesses’ journey to the east to illustrate the concept of servant leadership. The expedition falls apart upon the disappearance of the servant Leo. For Greenleaf the servant leadership is embodied by “the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first” (Greenleaf & Spears, 2002, p. 27). Interestingly, Franklin took care when leading a social change initiative. He tended to avoid publicly being identified as the origin of the innovation, distancing himself from the idea. As he noted in his autobiography
In the introduction of these proposals, I stated their publication not as an act of mine, but of some ‘public spirited gentlemen’; avoiding as much as I could, according to my usual rule, the presenting myself to the public as the author of any scheme for the their benefit.(Franklin, 2001, p. 128)
Franklin’s concern was that the innovation occur, rather than he himself be ascribed the role of leader. In this way Franklin’s desire to improve the city reflects Greenleaf’s concept of service.
One of Franklin’s strengths was noticing a problem, and applying successful change strategies to remedy the problem. As Hiefetz (1994) observed: “Leadership is both active and reflective. One has to alternate between participating and observing” (p. 252). Hiefetz argued that to be successful at leadership, one needs to be able to ask the right questions – to see key patterns (p. 253). Franklin’s success in social innovation may be in asking the right questions, at the right time. In the instance of the Pennsylvania Militia, Franklin was not so much pointing fingers, but asking a series of questions to lead people to the logical conclusion of creating a mechanism for the defense of Philadelphia. Franklin professed to using didactic questioning, rather than head on confrontation, as a means of winning arguments. It is both possible and probable that one of Franklin’s greatest leadership gifts was in asking the correct questions, and using those questions as a means of shift public discourse.
While Franklin’s social innovations are often overlooked, his legacy is a lasting one. Of the seven major social innovations, five are still in existence in one form or another. It is a testament to Franklin’s methodology and leadership skills that almost 200 years following his death, five institutions exist that still bear his imprint. To this day the American Philosophical Society, the lending library, the volunteer fire fighting department and fire insurance, the Philadelphia hospital and the University of Pennsylvania all survive.
Franklin’s methodology is as salient today as it was 200 years ago. While Franklin’s methodology might seem deceptively simple, it is enduringly successful. It provides lessons for leaders that are simple and clear: identify the problem, test the solution on trusted colleagues, articulate the problem and solution to the public, develop a funding mechanism, and finally, delegate the day to day operation to those you trust. This methodology not only proved successful in the short term, but it also proved successful in the long term, generating enduring institutions.
Franklin’s leadership style was one that combined a variety of positive traits. Franklin was not only successful at shifting his perspective between the floor and the balcony he was also adroit at asking compelling questions. Franklin’s skill at communication allowed him to frame not only the discourse around the problem, but also the dialogue surrounding the proposed social innovation. Franklin was also relatively talented at kept himself out of the lime light. Finally, Franklin’s service towards Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and ultimately the United State of American are a testimony to his leadership ability.
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