Do We Need a Social Innovation Taxonomy?


Which species of social innovation represent your work?
Which species of social innovation represents you?

As social innovation grows in popularity the inevitable questions about what we mean when we use the term crop up. How we define, categorize and utilize the language of social innovation may require a taxonomy to enable us to better identify and understand its different species in the wild. 

One of the early things we learn as children is to distinguish things from one another. We start to learn that ‘cat’ is different than ‘dog’ and, soon after, that ‘white cat’ is different than ‘black and white cat’.

Classification systems become useful once the level of our understanding exceeds simple descriptors and requires more nuanced, detailed information to fully explain or interpret signals from it.

taxonomy |takˈsänəmē|

noun chiefly Biology

the branch of science concerned with classification, esp. of organisms; systematics.

• the classification of something, esp. organisms: the taxonomy of these fossils.

• a scheme of classification: a taxonomy of smells.

Over the past six weeks it has become increasingly evident to me that a taxonomy of social innovation might be required if we are to advance our thinking about what it is, what it does, and what it can become. Saying the term “social innovation” is becoming increasingly problematic without some qualifier or additional information, otherwise we are left asking: “What do you mean when you say that term?”.

Having attended numerous events, developed client projects, and taken some time to reflect it seems the time is right to start considering what a taxonomy of social innovation might look like. To start, I consider the two main ‘domains’ of social innovation as I see them: Big and Not-big social innovation.

Big social innovation

One of the most notable classifications of social innovation that I’ve seen is what I call Big and Not-Big social innovation. Big social innovation is the kind that is most likely to find itself discussed in places like the Stanford Social Innovation Review, find itself with design partners like IDEO or the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or the World Bank. This species of social innovation is intensely focused on scale, global impact, and large-scale partnerships between institutions often operating transnationally. This is a domain of big business, big philanthropy, big data, academics, policy wonks, media, design competitions and governments.

Suits, ballrooms, celebrity spokespeople, ‘rockstar’ scientists, TED talks and frequent flier miles play a big role in Big social innovation and success is measured in dollars saved/raised, thousands if not millions of units of something done, and global reach. Africa, India and the developing world are a popular point of focus for big social innovation. Terms like ‘best practice’, ‘innovating at scale’, ‘impact assessment’, ‘targets’ and ‘global reach’ are often heard in this community.

Big social innovation is usually top-down with grassroots connected through intermediary organizations.

Not-big social innovation

Not-big social innovation is a more wiley, diffuse, less-visible, but no less important part of this field of practice. It’s typically bottom-up and represented by many small and mid-size organizations of different stripes, relies on coalitions, and is often scrambling to maintain itself as so many of its participants are struggling to fund and support the operations. As such, its a much more fluid, dynamic environment. This is akin to the ‘pre-VC start-up’ world we see in the tech sector. It’s more often characterized by a highly volunteer-ized workforce, small-but-intense program delivery, with prominent roles for local leaders.

Not-big social innovation uses terms like ‘engagement’, ‘community’, ‘context-sensitive’, ‘co-design’ and ‘sustainability’ a lot, and when ‘outcomes’ are spoken of, they often are referred to on a program-by-program basis rather than in large, aggregated numbers. Qualitative research is popular and a deep understanding of ‘complexity’ (even when that term isn’t used) is felt, largely because those involved in Not-big social innovation often have to play multiple roles at once and don’t have the luxury of specializing on one thing.

Evaluation in Not-big social innovation might be done in-house with staff trained in evaluation methods or via a single-practitioner consultant who is likely to play multiple roles (e.g., evaluator, facilitator, designer, sense-maker, and educator), rather than through a large firm that may be more likely to deliver something focused more tightly on a large, single task.

Not-big does not equal small. Backbone organizations like the Tamarack Institute for Community Engagement represent an enormous community of small and medium-sized groups who are having a big impact through coordinated effort.

Taxonomy thinking

Does one of the two forms of social innovation strongly resonate with you? Do you think one is better than the other? If so, you’re not alone.

I’ve had the privilege of traveling within and between both worlds and often see, hear and experience the subtle and not-so-subtle prejudices within and between these communities. And they are communities with norms, values, beliefs and expectations as well as language, idols and aspirations just like any other.

However, the rush to judge either as good or bad fits a model that says that there ought to be one type of social innovation for all and implicitly presumes that there is a standard for practice that we should follow. This creates barriers to learning and communication along with dischord that is not useful. (Debate, argument, and disagreement are healthy, but only when it facilitates understanding and communication even if it doesn’t lead to agreement).

If we shift our thinking towards creating a taxonomy of social innovation we might better serve all in the long run. For example, the frog above is the Bufo viridis, a European toad. The image below is of the Hyla cinerea, a type of tree frog. Would we be so quick to say one is better than the other? Does that make any sense at all?

Biologists use taxonomies to identify animals, understand them, compare them, and share that knowledge with the world. By doing this same kind of thing with social innovation we might better produce the same kind of understanding and with it the love that comes from contemplative inquiry. In doing so, we create opportunities to invite people in, discover and share without the need for self-righteousness, prejudice and exclusion that undermines so many other social movements and could easily derail social innovation (taking all the benefits with it without giving us a chance to remedy its problems).

Big and Not-big changes to our understanding

There is a benefit to getting exposure, money and scale to certain social innovations in certain places at certain times (Big social innovation — BSI) just as we need intense local connections to grassroots, the diversity of participation, the lessons learned through struggles and wide participation for many other issues, places and contexts (Not-big social innovation, NBSI).

Social innovation is very young, yet mature enough that we might now need to consider it as something more than a single, solitary animal.

Is this frog that much better than the other?
Is this frog that much better than the other?

Photo credits: Bufo viridis by Matt Reinbold and Green? Tree frog by Matt Reinbold

both used under Creative Commons License via Flickr

Thanks Matt for sharing your fabulous work with the world. Check his photostream out.

2 thoughts on “Do We Need a Social Innovation Taxonomy?”

  1. Brilliant column Cameron! Your idea of taxonomy could be useful in so many fields; I’m thinking of knowledge translation specifically. Translating molecular knowledge to the clinic is a much different activity than translating health services practice from one community to another. Linda

    1. Linda, thanks for your comments on the blog. Your example from knowledge translation / translational science is a great one. The specifications of both are so different that they really need a means to distinguish them, while preserving the common thread that unites them.

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