Social innovation is often about engaging complicated systems like technology (dry) with complex systems like humans (wet). The implementation and evaluation approaches we take must match wet with dry and knowing when we are dealing with each.
If you’ve ever fixed any kind of machinery, you know that a device that’s exposed to the elements is incredibly difficult to maintain. A washing machine or the underside of a car gets grungy, fast.
On the other hand, the dryest, cleanest environment of all is the digital one. Code stays code. If it works today, it’s probably going to work tomorrow.
The wettest, weirdest environment is human interaction. Whatever we build gets misunderstood, corroded and chronic, and it happens quickly and in unpredictable ways. That’s one reason why the web is so fascinating–it’s a collision between the analytic world of code and wet world of people.
Much of social innovation is becoming like this: a collision between the wet world of people and the dry world of technology. It is hard not to be impressed at the technological capabilities we have at our disposal and how they can be put to use to serve humankind. Mobile handsets, low-cost portable computing tablets, social network platforms like Facebook or LinkedIn, or digital common spaces created by tools like Reddit and Twitter all provide incredible means to connect people and ideas together. Stop and think about what we have at our disposal and it is truly mindblowing, particularly when you think how much that’s changed in just 5 years, 10 years or 20 years.
Yet, the enormity of the scale of these tools and their ubiquity can mask their significance and not always for good. Take Facebook, which just launched its IPO and is the current champion of social networks with over 900 million users. It’s easy to forget that Facebook didn’t even exist 8 years ago and now almost one in 7 citizens on this earth have an account with its service.
This could be a tremendous opportunity for social innovation. Yet, it also speaks to the issue of Seth Godin’s wet and dry analogies for design.
Tom Chatfield, a tech writer from the UK, recently blogged about rethinking our social networks. He points to Dunbar’s number, a well-researched figure that estimates the limits to meaningful human relationships to be between 100 and 230. The drive to scale technologies (the dry) to ever-expanding and increasing numbers is problematic if the limits to my ability to meaningfully connect with the networks they create (the wet) are relatively fixed or difficult to change.
It’s dangerously easy simply to gawp and grimace at the sheer scale of the networks connecting us. The numbers are staggering, and offer a powerful index of how much and how fast our world is changing. But we mustn’t overlook the great lesson to be drawn from work like Dunbar’s: the weight of a special few will always outweigh the many, no matter how great the “many” becomes.
Some have argued that Dunbar’s number is a fallacy in the social media world, choosing to rely more heavily on sociologist Mark Granovetter’s work often summed up as the argument for The Strength of Weak Ties . His early research (see link [pdf] for original paper) focused not on the strong ties between people who were close, but the ‘friends of friends’ effects on transmission of information, which is the space where many innovations and novelty comes from in a network.
This confuses the potential innovation and the human capability to connect across large, diverse networks (a technical, ‘dry’ issue) with the quality of the interaction (a relational, ‘wet’ one). Both exist and both will exist, but there is a difference between learning something new and taking it to scale.
Novelty of information and new ideas comes from the intersection created by cognitive diversity in the design process. This is why designers seek to bring people with different perspectives together to explore concepts and generate ‘wild ideas’ as part of an ideation phase. Lots of information can be very useful in this situation and allow designers (social and otherwise) to see things they might miss if they stuck with a narrow band of perspectives. Yet, bringing these ideas to focus, refining them and transforming them into a social innovation that matters to people is far more relational than we give credit for.
Facebook might be great at linking us to ‘friends’ we’ve lost track of, but in applying a model where all of these friends are treated more or less equally, along with all of the information streamed at us through the main feed, our ‘wet’ interactions are made to feel ‘dry’. Drawing the motivation to scale ideas and engage in the efforts needed to make real change happen from such an approach is unlikely.
A recent post from FastCoExist, part of the Fast Company network of sites, by Ashoka changemakers Alexa Kay and Jon Camfield pointed to the barriers and facilitators for making change happen. Among their principal barriers is the need to connect deeper, rather than broader with each other:
How do we learn to be change makers? Much of the art of change making involves soft skills that we absorb from others that model or demonstrate change making behaviors. This means that learning opportunities are limited by one-to-one interactions and by exposure to other change makers. Compared to traditional fields like entrepreneurship, where there are plentiful resources for training, the practice of change making is still far from being widespread.
One of their principles for change reflects the complexity of social change by encouraging and supporting self-organized networks:
Often leaders or institutions promote dependency with a community. But successful change making communities depend on reducing dependence on one anointed leader. Flat networks and peer-based accountability structures are necessary if a community is to sustain change beyond one individual. The need for change communities and networks to be self-regulating is vital for their sustainability.
This is where walled gardens like Facebook are likely to fall down, just as many custom Ning-based communities have fallen into disuse. Create systems that are too bounded (dry) and we risk sucking the moisture from the human elements (the wet) that make real social innovation happen. Our challenge is finding the right balance between the controlled, stable environments that these new technologies afford and the self-organized, emergent and innovative environments needed to implement and scale our initiatives more effectively.
Wet Leaf By Faustas L, via Wikimedia Commons used under Creative Commons License