Some fields stagnate because they fail to take the bold steps into the unknown by taking chances and proposing new ideas because the research isn’t there to guide it while social innovation has a different twist on the problem: it has plenty of ideas, but little research to support those ideas. Unless the ideas and research match up it is unlikely that either area will develop.
Social innovation is a space that doesn’t lack for dreamers and big ideas. That is a refreshing change of pace from the world of public policy and public health that are well-populated by those who feel chained down to what’s been done as the entry to doing something new (which is oxymoronic when you think about it).
Fields like public health and medicine are well-served by looking to the evidence for guidance on many issues, but an over-reliance on using past-practice and known facts as the means to guide present action seriously limits the capacity to innovate in spaces where evidence doesn’t exist and may not be forthcoming.
The example of eHealth, social media and healthcare
A good example of this is in the area of eHealth. While social media has been part of the online communication landscape for nearly a decade (or longer, depending on your definition of the term), there has been sparse use of these tools and approaches within the health domain by professionals until recently. Even today, the presence of professional voices on health matters is small within the larger discourse on health and wellbeing online.
One big reason for this — and there are many — is that health systems are not prepared for the complexity that social media introduces. Julia Belluz’s series on social media and healthcare at Macleans provides among the best examples of the gaps that social media exposes and widens within the overlapping domains of health, medicine, media and the public good. Yet, such problems with social media do not change the fact that it is here, used by billions worldwide, and increasingly becoming a vehicle for discussing health matters from heart disease to weight management to smoking cessation.
Social innovation and research
Social innovation has the opposite problem. Vision, ideas, excitement and energy for new ideas abound within this world, yet the evidence generation to support it, improve upon it and foster further design innovations is notably absent (or invisible). Evaluation is not a word that is used much within this sphere nor is the term research applied — at least with the rigour we see in the health field.
In late May I participated in a one-day event in Vancouver on social innovation research in Vancouver organized by the folks at Simon Fraser University’s Public Square program and Nesta as part of the Social Innovation Week Canada events.Part of the rationale for the event can be explained by Nesta on its website promoting an earlier Social Frontiers event in the UK:
Despite thriving practitioner networks and a real commitment from policymakers and foundations to support social innovation, empirical and theoretical knowledge of social innovation remains uneven.
Not only is this research base uneven, it’s largely invisible. I choose to use the word invisible because it’s unclear how much research there is as it simply isn’t made visible. Part of the problem, clearly evident at the Vancouver event, is that social innovation appears to be still at a place where it’s busy showing people it exists. This is certainly an important first step, but as this was an event devoted to social innovation research it struck me that most attendees ought to have already been convinced of that.
Missing was language around t-scores, inter-relater reliability, theoretical saturation, cost-benefit analysis, systematic reviews and confidence intervals – the kind of terms you’d expect to hear at a research conference. Instead, words like “impact” and “scale” were thrown out with little data to back them up.
Bring us down to earth to better appreciate the stars
It seems that social innovation is a field that is still in the clouds with possibility and hasn’t turned the lights on bright enough to bring it back down to earth. That’s the unfortunate part of research: it can be a real buzz-kill. Research and evaluation can confirm what it means for something to ‘work’ and forces us to be clear on terms like ‘scale’ and ‘impact’ and this very often will mean that many of the high-profile, well-intentioned initiatives will prove to be less impactful than we hope for.
Yet, this attention to detail and increase in the quality and scope of research will also raise the overall profile of the field and the quality and scope of the social innovations themselves. That is real impact.
By bringing us down to earth with better quality and more sophisticated research presented and discussed in public and with each other we offer the best opportunity for social innovation to truly innovate and, in doing so, reach beyond the clouds and into the stars.