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‘And… and… and’

Jean Horgues-Debat © Cristian Castelnuovo

Jean Horgues-Debat reserves the right to get it wrong. ‘There is no norm,’ says the 60-year-old engineer. ‘We’re allowed to give it a go, develop, and reject.’

As Director of the Adrets Association, he spent years studying the question of how to secure basic public services in rural regions. His conclusion: get people together, connect, and consolidate. They were an innovation in the 1990s, but after twenty years of ‘experimenting’ (as he calls it), there are now eighty so-called maisons des services publics in the French Alps. These centres combine municipal administrations, health care, trade, and lots more, all under the one roof. His vision is to transfer what’s on offer from the countryside to the cities. ‘It’s low-threshold and designed with people in mind.’

With his chiselled features reminiscent of a mountain farmer, his craftsman’s hands, and his philosopher’s mind, the graduate engineer personifies much of what social innovation is all about. ‘We live in a traditional system that separates, segregates, and pits us against one another.’ He would like to see a change of perspective. A complex system that does not say ‘either … or’, but ‘and… and… and’.

Jean Horgues-Debat was born in the town of Gap in the French département of the Hautes-Alpes, and since summer 2017 he has been offering his expertise as President of CIPRA France, the ‘head of a network’. ‘But is it even a network?’ he asks himself. It only works if everyone is networked, also among themselves.

So what does it take for social innovations to prosper? ‘I don’t know,’ he answers. ‘There is no recipe,’ he says, adding, ‘a modicum of diversity in terms of people, skills, and backgrounds’. He believes the processes themselves are as important as the outcomes. All resources are welcome, even computer-aided ones. ‘We need to utilise whatever there is, in the sense of better co-operation.’ If everyone is to benefit, people need to intervene and mediate. After all, ‘the internet does not listen’.