The Flickering Light of Social Innovation

Without doubt one of the most exciting areas of innovation, social innovation, that is developing initiatives that are attempting to tackle the real societal issues, has had a very tough time in the last year or so.

The need for social innovation and where it is contributing and aspires to resolve, has not gone away but it does seem to me, some of the energy and passion seems to have drained away in this time. Perhaps, in recent weeks, there are some signs of some emerging initiatives that are beginning to be ‘rekindle’ this social innovation flame but it seems in such incremental ways. Surely what is needed, is making bold leaps at this time not token gestures? We need to mobilize with a real intensity around many of the present social ills we are facing.

Recent losses in the movement for social innovation

Firstly for those involved in the social innovation movement the sad loss of Diogo Vasconcelos, who tragically died last year took away the champion of social innovation. Equally the move of Geoff  Mulgan from being the CEO of the Young Foundation into a broader CEO’s role at Nesta, where they certainly have shifted their recent focus in helping people and organizations bring great innovation ideas to life has altered where the emphasis needs to be placed for innovation in general, less so for social innovation.

This focus has been through providing investments and grants to mobilize research, explored through networks and building the skills necessary as the UK’s innovation foundation.

My feeling is that the focused energy, commitment and passion both of these individuals brought to social innovation has not been replaced as yet. It seems both organizations (Nesta and the Young Foundation) are actively exploring novel ways to support social innovation. Yet in these tough economic circumstances, at the very time these really need accelerating at a pace, it must be very hard to deliver the level and depth of solutions society needs and is crying out for? What we do need is more champions to be visible to keep social innovation shining in the headlights for our leaders to see and support.

I’m certainly not so encouraged that a recent competition announced  greatly accelerates and meets today’s real, pressing social needs in the ways we should be doing. We need a lot more movement and commitment than this, when we are facing over 25 million people out of work across Europe and up to 50% of young people in Spain and Greece unemployed and large parts of Ireland, Italy, Portugal, France, the UK all struggling to hold the level of the young, unemployed below 30%. The constant closure of businesses, the hardships of millions all caught up in the economic distress is causing us to face some of the most  serious economic hardships across most of Europe in our lifetime.

Perhaps we have had a void in this time? Has it got harder or easier in the past 12 months?

As I have sensed the energy has been seemingly lost in social innovation. Its past ‘raw’ passion has been replaced with a very different type of animal. There has been a major event in this time, in that the EU commission has taken social innovation into the heart of its future programmes. It wants to make the fixing of society’s most severe problems as central.

This, they are suggesting, needs to become a people-centred movement, which aims to create a more participatory practice-based process to find sustainable strategies for a socially and sustainable future. This planned adoption, this shift in the emphasis point of being more open and participatory, is actually a really daunting task to achieve.

The EU by taking hold of social innovation, might actually be squeezing out the very forces, the passion, the individuals commitments to social issues at a grass root level and replacing this with “people power” might be more volatile than they think. The shift suggested is perhaps beyond bold but reckless, unless it has a clear model to replace the existing, as these existing models are breaking down under the strains being imposed by austerity cuts.

Is this EU adoption a possible distraction, deflecting vital resources and commitment from the issues needing to be resolved in the here and now and attracting the ‘organizing’ resources away at a vital time to work on alignment and policy forming issues. Those that have actual experience to resolve social issues themselves get distracted away in aligning with the EU on its application of taking on social innovation. Can we afford that in these times? Unless we have emerging a Social Innovation equivalent of a Marshall plan as a Social European Recovery Program, SERP.

A real concern is that Brussels, the centre for EU policies and planning, has even less in common with the very real people that are actively engaged in the social solutions needed today. They march to a very different ‘beat’. Social innovation is by its very nature and attempt at tackling complex social problems experimental, cross-cutting, highly collaborative and very dispersed into pockets of local need and application.

It is going to be a struggle to fit social innovators with the Bureaucratic nature of the EU, less than risk-embracing, grappling with the severe economic problems across the EU community. So far the EU or national governments are not finding easy solutions to complex economic issues, can they add even more to their crowded agenda of social innovation. There is just too many questions being asked of the existing success or failures around the EU as an economic and financial block ? Adding social innovation at this time when the EU is defensive and under increasing attack is questionable.

We are facing austere cuts across many European countries, social initiatives are being caught up within all these economic cuts demanded. How can social innovation help solve the very issues when it is equally being starved of money, resources and focus?

There are countless acute needs for solutions

There is a growing need across the EU for support, both in material ways (creation of jobs) and psychological needs (to manage in these austere times). Is social innovation rising to these twin challenges to help resolve these urgent needs of today?

Deep within this ‘catch all’ of social innovation we need to prepare many for the most difficult transitions they are facing within their lives:  in loss of jobs, in their self-esteem, in their future and in their rights of choice, as these are being taken away from them in so many different ways. The destiny of many is being pre-determined by so many events out of their control and when people feel powerless, they ‘react’. Perhaps a very different type of “people power” than those in power would desire.

The ability to build ‘resilience’ is currently heavily shackled by a lack of money entering the system; the debt burden at individual, state and EU level is restricting options. Hard choices are casting more out of the participants of wealth creation, into being dependants upon others. Many are spiralling down.

In a world of networks and instant connections we are witnessing a growing sense of isolation, physical isolation. There are fewer people to turn too and ask for advice, for help, for recognizing their needs for support, because these people are becoming more hidden from plain view. They are increasingly on the margins, caused by policy revision, austerity cuts and become increasingly small in scale as they can’t find the voice of the past, that would stand up for them.

Social innovation is complex and challenging but it needs to deliver solutions today.

There are many ways to sketch an increasingly complex picture of social ills. There is a vicious spiral, turning to greater tensions and increased pressure points. There are moments of transition and social innovation needs to respond and respond quickly to these pressures.

We are facing growing health issues, ageing challenges, youth disenfranchisement, and communities breaking down, a growing sense of injustice, and lowering of well-being.

The social innovation light needs turning on brightly, it can’t simply flicker like it is now. There is no future if we can’t find pathways and real solutions to the problems we are facing today. Society needs to engage before it is “too little too late” and I fear we are far too close to the social equivalent of the doomsday clock of midnight.

Renewing Innovation through the Social Innovation Agenda

The challenges are growing in their social dimension across Europe, the United States and a host of other countries, both developed and developing, that are needing new fresh responses. Social demands will inevitably increase as nations are being confronted with budgetary constraints, increased deficits and mounting debts to resolve. Social needs will become more pressing and innovation, social innovation, will increasingly explore opportunities to extract ‘more from less’. Innovation can play an increasing part in resolving social challenges that are increasingly confronting us.

Starting a new movement on social innovation in Europe

Recently I became a member of www.socialinnovationeurope.eu . I certainly  feel this is going to offer something exciting and vibrant. It is a growing community of thinkers, creators and innovators with the knowledge and skills to change the way we face Europe’s most pressing issues. Contributors to the site will take a strong hand in shaping the direction of social innovation across Europe, breaking down silos and raising a unified voice. I need to find my own part in this, as there are multiple ways for contribution, which I’m still presently figuring out.

Social Innovation Europe (SIE)’s online hub present aims are to become an indispensable resource providing the latest information on European social innovation. It will feature interviews with prominent innovators, case studies of successful ventures, the latest research, and in-depth analysis from the leading thinkers in the field.

Why do we want to address social innovation even more now?

Social needs are now more pressing than ever, they will regretfully get worse before they get better. The combinations of the recent global crisis, the economic shifts from the West to the East will increasingly reduce opportunities and increase the social dimensions that will need to be dealt with. We are in social strife with unemployment challenges, ageing and climate change that all have growing stress on declining revenues in the West.

As our financial resources are getting more limited, new solutions must be found. The short term fiscal stimulus packages and bailouts have alleviated the short term but we do need to provide new innovation solutions to pressing social demands that will occur in increasing ‘waves’ over both the short, medium and long term perspective.

Social challenges are actually innovation opportunities

The challenges are tough but should be viewed as potentially new opportunities for economic and social innovations to take place. Providing solutions that are high in quality (or high enough), beneficial and affordable to the needs of the users requiring these, and that can add hope and provide value to improving their daily lives. These can offer different combinations of business, government, and entrepreneurs different avenues to explore, that are both worthwhile and contribute to society but can offer valuable job and yes, profitable enterprises, and returns for investments made.

Social innovation means what?

Social innovation is innovation that is social in approach, in both the end result and the means of getting there. It offers new products, services and business model opportunities that simultaneously meet social need, that deliver more effectively than alternatives,(if there are ones) and most importantly, it create and builds new social relationships, communities and collaborations to achieve these ends. They can make ‘us’ feel good by our direct contribution to enhancing society’s capabilities to act together to resolve part of the challenges we need to confront. Social interactions and vested interests need to be combined and as a direct result it generates a ‘social capital’ that builds in value by its activity and by its increasing movement up the experience curve.

There are barriers that will need to be knocked down to accelerate social innovation.

Like any innovation, social innovation has risks. It offers all the usual ‘suspects’ associated with innocation of good imagination, perseverance, overcoming adversity, shortage of funds and a continued optimism that your idea to create a product or service and its implementation, can and will happen.

There are some important differences for social innovation though.

Social innovation is far more a participative process, partnership forming, constantly identification seeking, that has more ‘scaling-up’ problems than business innovation and that is hard enough! You are confronted by more society barriers, which is often at odds with what you are trying to resolve. Sometimes you meet a totally incompatible barrier that need that extraordinary leap of creative design to navigate around and that is where the model (social against business model) comes into play in analysing and resolving to overcome this. Social innovation does needs its own tools, techniques and models that today are somewhat lacking.

Equally, when you step more into the social innovation space you come up against a more traditional risk-adverse and cautious mindset unless the crisis is dire. The culture of administrators, their wish to stay with closed systems and often fragmented systems are tough to overcome. The skills of many around you, wanting to help, can be more limiting in experience but often can make up this ‘deficit’ through their enthusiasm. There is also the constant battle for funding through the scaling up from pilot or experimentation to larger scale (the social innovation life cycle) which can be demanding and often distracting, often taking you away from your primary task of resolving the social problem.

Scaling up seems a huge obstacle to overcome

In all I read and understand, the scaling up from that perfect local project into a regional than national one, is immensely hard. There are very few examples where the combination of coherence, comprehensiveness and broader outlook come together without significant changing of a workable local model. The art of communicating, of diffusing the skills, knowledge, understanding of the key variables and the local experience are hard to often translate. Much in social innovation is intangible, more than business; as it is in tacit knowledge that often successful social innovation solutions are made.

How do you scale up a highly fragmented set of solutions when we lack more often than not the developed networks and the intermediaries that can assist? Some of our established institutions like the Salvation Army can find major new roles to invent and work within, that provies the structure and need of networks, contacts and established infrastructure well established. Its mission and role emphasis might need to change to capitalise on this.

The three categories of social innovation

In a report, which has certainly helped shape this blog, on “Social innovation in the European Union” they are suggesting that you can schematically classify social innovation into three broad categories:

Firstly, grassroots social innovation that needs to respond to pressing social demands and directed more at the (growing) vulnerable groups in society.

Secondly, a broader one that addresses societal challenges where the boundary blurs between social and economic and directed more towards society as a whole. (My Salvation Army could be a clear example or the Red Cross or even the Open University)

Thirdly, the systemic type:  that relates to fundamental changes in attitudes and values, strategies and policies, organizational structures and process delivery systems and services. These include climate change, recycling as examples.

All three categories play a part in helping to manage and shape society.

Economic & Social Dynamism

There are many social challenges that will need creative and careful strategic framing that require innovation thinking. The pressing social issues will continue to rise to the highest political level and eventually ‘they’ will act, they will be forced too. Social Innovation will then explode in importance when the combination of all our forces: government, non profit, business, communities and entrepreneurs all come together, as they have to, so as to resolve growing social problems through new innovative approaches.

We all need to firstly be aware and then engage in understanding the power and opportunity social innovation can provide and the part we can play. Innovation can be a powerful enabler to many of our social challenges we are in need of facing up too. It should be on everyone’s radar as it is only one ‘touch moment’ away from social issues that are all around us.

Social innovation comes of age in Europe

Social innovation is about new ideas that work to address pressing unmet society needs”

The shifts taking place in Europe

The competitiveness and challenges that Europe faces in the next ten years are significant. Innovation has been placed at the heart of Europe’s 2020 strategy. It is this clear recognition that innovation is the best means of tackling issues that will affect our future living standards is not new in itself, but it is this real political recognition of its place and importance, now that is.

Innovation is also our best means of successfully tackling major societal challenges, such as climate change, energy and resource scarcity, health and ageing and becoming more urgent each day to address in more systematic ways.

European funding of innovation in recent years has perhaps placed far too much emphasis on research and development to deliver the growth and jobs it requires. In many cases it has been outperformed by other competitors and has not been as well linked as it should have been to country or EU policies. The EU is presently going through a public consultation to strengthen its new “Common Strategic Framework” to get into the system more efficiency, not an easy task across 27 plus countries and better uptake across a wider audience.

Societal challenges are where the next big challenges lie.

The recent global economic crisis has raised society issues far more. Social innovation will begin to move from the margins to the mainstream to tackle a range of these society challenges. It will inevitably need more structural support; it needs more coordination and alignment by all the stakeholders involved, it needs organizing and being recognized in its own right.

“Social innovation’ as a term is still relatively new one but social innovation is of course not. There are many examples but establishing a “field” of social innovation is certainly necessary and needed to get a broader momentum behind multiple initiatives.

Any new ‘field’ needs debate. It needs common terminology, clearer definitions of what it covers, a growing understanding of the different tools, techniques, methods and establishing a knowledge base to draw down from. Social innovation has no given geographical boundaries; it happens across society that involves all sectors of a community: public, private and non-profit. Actually one of the real challenges is managing across the boundaries between sectors.

An emerging social economy is replacing much of what we have known.

I recently wrote in this blog (4th January 2011) about how social will dominate our thinking in 2011 and beyond. Here is the link (http://bit.ly/eYV9E9).  It is very different from economics based on the production and consumption of commodities. It has five very distinctive differences from existing innovation approaches

  1. It has an intensive use and reliance on distributed networks to sustain and manage the relationships that constantly need to be brought together to resolve a ‘given level’ of societal challenges. They are fluid, constantly changing and never fixed.
  2. It has blurred boundaries between production and consumption, across sectors and traditional ‘mixes’ of innovation. Often there are no clear ‘black or white’ solutions, many will need de-constructing and re-constructing on distinct challenges and context.
  3. The emphasis on collaboration and repeated interactions need greater care and maintenance than much of our present ‘one-off’ consumption. Society is quick to mobilize today, playing off the defensive is not the answer, it is leading the offensive and shaping these interactions becomes critical. You cannot be passive, you need to be ready to experiment, learn and move on through this learning and confront, irrespective.
  4.  There is a significant emphasis on value and missions to build momentum and overcome many challenging barriers so as to achieve those solutions that provide improvements on existing approaches. Passion runs high, solutions become very emotive. It needs a consistent and strong commitment to execute from this value and mission, you need a bedrock of belief and commitment.
  5. The consumer or final receiver of the social solution dramatically changes, from being a passive to a very active, and highly engaged participant. Many of todays solutions based on the presentl linear process cannot work or applied. Solutions based on consistent interactions must be built on ecosystem platforms. I’ve touched on ecosystems previously here (http://bit.ly/icrzGb ).

Early recognition of these differences or where innovation is merging today around social and end consumer unmet needs will need ‘fleshing out’ in any future debates.

What is distinctive about social innovation?

Besides the five points listed above, there are many distinctive differences about social innovation. The emphasis is firmly placed and measured on outcomes; it raises relationships, cooperation and collaboration to far higher heights than innovation coming from business has seemingly been able to achieve or so it seems from the countless comments made. Perhaps it might accelerate this end of the innovation debate and ‘fuse’ innovation at the end result not at the present ‘fuzzy front end’ or in the process but solving the execution challenge through new novel ways.

As a result, the processes, metrics, models and methods used in the commercial or technological field of innovation may not be directly transferable to the social economy, or it might be a real mistake to attempt this. This is one of my major concerns from the EU commission merging this into their innovation activity under one overarching innovation initiative as the real danger becomes one of the ‘easy’ use of existing policy, mechanisms and frameworks for present innovation structure are applied to this. This would be the wrong model for social challenges. This needs clear difference from day one. This needs to be part of these intial debates.

Innovation as many understand it is always chasing for a clear measurable result. The more unambiguous the result the more the market values it. Scale, market share and profit rule the thinking. There is far more contestability when it comes to understanding value for society and will make for ‘generic’ answers as not as straightforward or potentially transferrable. Social innovation will be hard to often transfer as the context will be distinctly different. Recognizing the successful aspects and separating the ones applicable to a certain challenge will become a significant skill to ‘scale and scope’ social innovation when we want to benchmark others and try to duplicate those efforts as ‘our’ answer.

Let the debate begin.

For many who have been working within the social area what I have commented upon so far is nothing new, far from it. There has been a significant ‘work-in-progress’ for some years. The change lies in my opening comments, if social innovation goes mainstream, then debate also goes mainstream and becomes a deluge of conflicting advice and thinking.

How any social innovation Europe initiative is managed will depend on the strength of the work documented, proven and ready to be applied from the past as a good starting point.  A consortium of European partners has been working upon this and you can find some good background material from the web site of the EU on social innovation (http://bit.ly/i7bfoD ). Two other sites worth referring too are http://www.socialinnovationexchange.org/ and one of the leading researchers and influences on policy to date in this social innovation area has been http://www.youngfoundation.org/ . I’ve drawn a lot of my insights from the work they have pioneered.

The official launch event is in March 2011

The adoption of social innovation will have a launch event for the Social Innovation Europe initiative in Brussels on 16th & 17th March, 2011. (http://bit.ly/eJ09d5 ). This event will attempt to put a face on the policy, discuss implications and showcase a number of social innovation pioneers. It officially begins the EU leading social innovation. Should we be afraid of this or grasp the opportunity of what it can bring for the pressing society problems that are pressing in on us? I choose the later- embrace.

I’m presently reading an interesting book that does relate to this social set of challenges. Although it spends much of its discussion on business solutions it does certainly go well beyond the business world in lots of the examples to draw from and apply to social innovation. It is written by Gaurav Bhalla and called “Collaboration & Co-creation- new platforms for marketing and innovation”.

In this book he offers a simply but powerful framework that would apply here. Listen > Engage > Respond.

My hope for the EU Social Innovation debate

That the EU and all the ‘collective’ wisdom that will convene in Brussels will listen, not just to each other but to the crying needs of society as the issues have incredibly wide boundaries that are indeed unmet today. The challenges are big.

The EU does engage in a completely different way to tackle social issues. The platform that needs building has to be open, very fluid, often experimental and using all possible means of social tools to make it fully engaging.

Thirdly the ability to respond to such a different, diverse set of society challenges is going to call upon the ingenuity of the Commission. It will need to respond not just to the established parts of society, the institutions, public and private but to the third sector. This sector is passionate, driven and highly committed to the causes they personally sees as vital.

This all requires this social innovation ecosystem, the network of networks, that draws in civil society, government, business, institutions, not for profit charities and non-governmental organizations for example.

The Listen, Engage and Response principle is going to be a tough area for a body like the EU to manage but they will have to fully embrace today’s social tools (and tomorrow’s improvements) to stand a chance. A social challenge in itself!