Social innovation is about bringing new ideas, products and services out into society with others for social benefit and improving the lives of our communities. While not every innovation will benefit everyone, there is a need to examine more deeply the question of who benefits(?) when we consider social innovation and that means taking some hard looks at who we are innovating for.
On August 15th 2015 the New York Times ran a feature story titled Inside Amazon, which looked at the corporate culture inside one of the largest, most innovate retailers in the world. In the piece written by award-winning journalists Jodi Kantor and David Strietfeld, they interview more than 100 current and former employees of Amazon and find a culture that is fast-paced, exciting, dynamic, creative and sometimes cruel, relentless in its expectations of its employees, overwhelming and harsh. What was interesting is that many interviewees spoke in conflicting terms about working for the company which offered great compensation and a stimulating workplace with lots of opportunities to grow while simultaneously burning them out and challenging their sense of self in the process of delivering feedback that wasn’t always experienced as constructive.
Across the news aisle we find another example of innovation in the news. In the September issue of the Walrus Magazine, editor-in-chief Jonathan Kay returns to the front lines of reporting with a feature story called Uber v. Taxi (or The Truth about Uber on the cover), which takes a comparative examination of changing business models and culture around cars-for-hire comparing tech start-up Uber with the traditional taxi model. The piece involves Kay signing up to be an Uber driver and also completing the City of Toronto taxi school to get a first-hand look at both systems from the perspective of driver and passenger. In an interview on CBC Radio, Kay was asked about the differences between the two and commented on how Uber was working well for the young, the mobile and able-bodied whereas traditional taxis were left with the others, creating a gap in income and opportunity between the two services:
That’s where drivers make a ton of money. Uber is taking that. Taxis are being left with older people, people with special needs, people who require wheelchair access and the visually impaired. Those are the people who require special training and vehicles that taxi fleets can provide but that’s not a particularly profitable part of the trade. Those trips take a lot of time and effort and passenger care. There’s not enough money on the table left for the taxi drivers to make a living.
Innovating for whom?
What these two stories have in common is that it profiles the way innovation spaces can divide as much as unite. On the surface, we see two examples of ways in which new thinking, careful product design and marketing, and a focused attention on user experience can generate value for consumers. However, what they also illustrate is that what is perceived as value is largely contingent on whom it is being asked and that this perception is not a minority position. This is not a case of blacksmiths getting outraged at the dwindling market for horseshoes due to the automobile or manufacturers of picture tubes castigating people for buying digital televisions. This is a case of entire segments of the population being left out.
Both of these examples are based on age to illustrate a point of commonality.
In the case of Uber, its the young, urban professional who does well by its innovative model. It’s the person who has few things to carry, needs little assistance, and likes to travel to the popular places where there are many others like them, which creates an ideal marketplace. For taxis, they are being asked to go to out-of-the-way places (like doctors appointments), deliver people and their parcels (for people who aren’t highly mobile), and are bound by a set of rules that Uber is not to ensure that they assist those who need it in using their service. Uber gets the cream of the market, while taxis are left with what’s left and that is mostly older adults.
But what ‘older’ means is a matter of perspective as we see with Amazon. As the reporters explain, old age isn’t what it once was:
In interviews, 40-year-old men were convinced Amazon would replace them with 30-year-olds who could put in more hours, and 30-year-olds were sure that the company preferred to hire 20-somethings who would outwork them. After Max Shipley, a father of two young children, left this spring, he wondered if Amazon would “bring in college kids who have fewer commitments, who are single, who have more time to focus on work.” Mr. Shipley is 25.
Every innovation produces ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, but what is striking in both articles is that the ‘winners’ are a very narrow band of the population, young, urban professionals. A look across what we often gets heralded as innovation (pick up any issue of Fast Company magazine to see it) and you’ll see a world dominated by (mostly) young, (mostly) white, (mostly) male, (mostly) middle class, and (mostly) tech-driven innovations that come from places and cultures like Silicon Valley. Facebook, Apple, Google, Uber, AirBnB — they are all based in Silicon Valley.
How we design innovations and the cultures we create in that process can have enormous implications. Are we creating our own silicon valley for social innovation?
“Slamming the Door on Silicon Valley”
Jess Zimmerman, writing in The Guardian, remarked on how Silicon Valley’s culture is one of entitlement and male hegemony, pointing to work of women’s groups aimed at making the work culture in the valley more female-friendly. Even though Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In is a product of that environment, it not of that environment. “The Valley” is an environment that fosters both Uber and Amazon (which is should be noted is based in Washington State and not Silicon Valley, but nonetheless is part of the same cultural milieu discussed here). That ethos is one that is characterized by cultures of hard work, long hours, dynamism and youth. As a result, a path dependence is created based on the design specifications proposed at the start and leads to products that are, no surprise, a reflection of their makers.
Facebook’s features of ‘extreme openness’ as evidenced by it’s settings that make it hard to keep things private and rules against using pseudonyms can be traced back to Mark Zuckerberg’s dorm room at Harvard and his personality and personal belief system about what social life is to be like. As a result, Zuckerberg’s design has influenced online interactions of more than one billion users worldwide and continues today.
So what does this have to do with social innovation? Consider the literature — wide in scope, thin in detail as it may be — on social innovation methods and tools from social labs to design thinking. What we might find is an incomplete list of items that looks something like this:
- Be bold, bring wild ideas to the table and lots of them to the table; no idea is a bad idea
- Co-create with others
- We live in a VUCA (Volitile, unpredictable, complex, ambiguous) world and need to work accordingly
- Flat organizational structures work best for innovation
- Innovation doesn’t happen during 9-5, it happens anytime
- Information technology will leverage creative innovation potential everywhere, anywhere: it always wins
- You have to ‘move fast and break stuff‘, including the rules
The list can go on.
While I have belief in what is contained in this list, it’s a restrained belief. Each of these points (and there are many others) can be upended to illustrate how social innovation can exclude people, ideas, cultures and possibilities that are as harmful as helpful. As I’ve argued before, social innovation has embedded in it an ethic of social justice if it’s to truly be a true social innovation. This requires attention to the ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ of innovation in ways that go beyond a call to innovate and change, it means paying attention to the cultures we impose through the innovation process.
Do we place too much emphasis on disruption vs harmony?
Where is the role for contemplation in the speed to create new things?
Is there a place for an introvert in the innovation table?
While innovative ideas might not respect the 9-5 clock, many paycheques, office spaces, commuter schedules, daycares and employee benefits do, what does that mean for those who rely on this?
Are these values those of innovation or those of a particular type of innovation from a particular context?
The Trickle of Innovation Streams Through the Valley
If we are to adopt social innovation on a wide scale we need to create a culture of innovation that is more than just a new version of a trickle-down model. Indeed, as Geoff Mulgan from Nesta writes, innovation has the potential to be another ‘trickle down theory’ that rewards the most advantaged first and then eventually to others in some modest form, creating inequities.
Yes, we now know much more about how to cultivate buzzing creative industries, universities, knowledge intensive industries and so on. But we have almost nothing to say to around half of our population who face the prospect of bad jobs or no jobs, and look on with dismay and envy at the windfall gains accruing to the elite insiders.
Silicon Valley is currently the place of privilege in the innovation world. If you have the privilege of not needing add-ons to your taxi ride, require assistance or have to drive to a neighbourhood that’s off the beaten path or have to pay by cash, Uber is great. If you can work flex hours and long hours, are gregarious and extroverted, and aren’t temporally limited by the needs of a spouse or partner, children, a loved one who requires care, or pets (that can’t be brought to work for obvious reasons — and I’m thinking of you cat owners) then a place like Amazon is maybe for you.
When we use these spec’s as our models to design innovation more widely, including social innovation, we create systems that exclude as much as include and that might get us innovations, but not necessarily real social ones.