Social Innovation’s Update: Part 1 – A Complicated History

Social innovation was once at the leading edge for social impact thinking and now seems stalled: what happened?

This first of a two-part series builds on a piece I published on Medium and can be read here.

Social Innovation was a term I used regularly to describe my field of interest. I loved how it brought together aspects of business, design, and social action under one umbrella. I don’t use that term very much any more and this article provides some reflection on why and how I got to where I am.

In 2006, I led one of the few social innovation laboratories for health. My team of more than a dozen sharp-minded, socially engaged, and creative thinkers worked tirelessly with communities, non-profit organizations, healthcare, and technology to create social innovation in practice. Most of us no longer work in that domain. In less than a decade social innovation has gone from my core focus to something I pay little attention to. How did that happen?

It’s not that I’ve stopped caring, it’s more that the term and the field it represents has changed to the point where I don’t know where I fit in it anymore. Nor do I know what that field even looks like. As I reflect on this, I’ve come to believe that social innovation requires a rethink and update.

Social Innovation: A Short History of a Young Field

Humans have been innovating forever and non-profits, governments, and charities are no different. However, the concept of social innovation as it has become known is relatively new and that has to with a number of factors can converged at the end of the 20th century.

Social innovation grew from a confluence of factors and sectors coming together in the early 2000’s.

  • The rapid expansion of the third sectorof non-profit organizations (chronicled nicely by Paul Hawken in Blessed Unrest) around the world
  • Changes in taxation policies that allowed new benefits for charitable giving and an ability to ‘invest’ in social enterprises (which included the founding of ‘B-corp‘ certification programs and models;
  • The maturation, growth, the further emergence of design thinking applied to social programs and services, making the means to think about, create, and develop ideas and transform them into reality much more accessible to wider audiences beyond traditional design and engineering;
  • Growth in the size and scale of a philanthropic sector fueled partly with funding (and an ethos) from Silicon Valley, who’s investors were seeking new ways to support social benefit enterprises;
  • The global development sector’s frustration with a historical lack of tangible ‘returns on investments’ made in health and social programming

Social innovation was unique in that it explicitly sought to engage academics, practitioners, business leaders, and social activists together. There was no hierarchy or discipline behind it: just an interest in fusing what we know about how things transform and motivation – financial, social, environmental, and intellectual — to turn ideas into actions. It brought in applied social science along with an understanding of systems thinking — most notably, the introduction of complexity science to many who had never heard of it before — and evaluation. It was also predicated on good design: it led to the idea that we could ‘creating social change at scale’.

This all happened at a time when social technologies — broadband and wireless internet, mobile handsets, social media, easy-to-use media creation tools, cheaper devices — were flourishing, adding to the spirit and means for innovation.

The situation was ripe for new thinking and an opportunity to take new thinking about systems, complexity and design and fuse them with tools for organizing, communicating and sharing. It was a perfect storm for generating a field that, as some would say, would shape how the world is changed.

But that’s not how it’s played out.

Diversity & Complexity

The irony that a field so diverse in its disciplinary composition, breadth of focus, emphasis on inclusion, and commitment to evidence would fade due to a lack of diversity of voices and perspectives is thick. But that’s what I saw.

When I look at the literature, the ‘headliners’ for conferences, the books and the seminars on social innovation I see the same names over and again espousing the same theories, models, statistics, calls to action, and partners as there was when things started. While many of these ideas are still sound, the issue is that there are too few of them. We aren’t generating new ones or evolving the established ones. Yet, things have demonstrably changed in the environment where social innovation takes place.

Diversity is one part of a larger constellation of issues tied to complexity. Complexity refers to how relationships form, evolve, multiply, and manifest themselves in states of high activity, change, and diversity. What I was seeing was that there wasn’t much in the way of mixing. Sure, there was representation from many parts of the world, different identities, ages, and social circumstances, but over time I just saw the same people and same perspectives. It’s as if the complexity was gone.

It didn’t help that much of what passed as ‘complexity’ was rhetoric and not based on what we know from the science of systems. We weren’t allowing for true emergence, co-evolution, network effects, or other principles of complexity to manifest. Social Innovation was becoming just another area where people talked a certain way and acted according the models and methods that had been proposed earlier in its history. We weren’t growing or changing as a field.

Social innovation wasn’t innovating and it wasn’t listening to its own rhetoric.

Evaluation, Impact and Scale

Despite prominence of evaluation in social innovation discourse, most of the ‘impact‘ of social innovation is still anecdotal or vague. That’s not uncommon for a new field, but it’s more disheartening when so much of what passes as social innovation is framed as ‘impact.’ Some of this is due, rightly, to the issue of complexity that is featured in most situations that require social innovation responses. But much of it is also due to a poor job of evaluating the work.

As John Gargani and colleagues have found, impact is actually a challenging concept to describe, capture, and achieve – let alone scale.

Approaches like Developmental Evaluation became popular as ways of capturing social innovation, yet the quality of most of these published evaluations remains low. Much of what is passed off as Developmental Evaluation (DE) is not what it claims, partly because it is difficult and requires considerable time and resources to do well. While it brings much to a social innovation, without time, care, and attention plus the design skills to implement findings, Developmental Evaluation offers little more than poor quality action research.

Which returns me to scale. We cannot scale things we have no reliable evidence for if we wish to create meaningful, sustained, healthy change.

Yet, it was near impossible to attend a presentation on social innovation without hearing the question: does it scale?

Scale is such a seductive idea because why wouldn’t you want to have your idea move from the local context to a global one? Who doesn’t want to be able to create the equivalent of the ‘Facebook for [insert social issue here]’ that’s used by literally billions?

Scale is a deceptively tricky — truly complex — issue. There are real physical, social, psychological, environmental, biological, sociological, and economic reasons why something might or might not scale. Polymath Robert West wrote the book on scale and should be required reading for anyone asking about scale.

Design Thinking and Social Innovation

Social innovation is driven partly by the thinking, the ethos, and the money of Silicon Valley. It’s no surprise that the leading journal for the field is the Stanford Social Innovation Review, based in this part of the world. Design thinking, Agile, and other ideas for creative productivity all have roots in this part of the world. While there’s many benefits to this way of thinking, not everything submits to the pace and structure of the tools of the Valley.

It’s not a surprise that social innovation coincided with the growth in popularity of Design Thinking. Yet, as noted above, much of the dynamic, evolutionary, innovative aspects of design thinking isn’t evident in how social innovation has developed. Design Thinking has been under its own criticism for having not delivered much in the way of real transformative value commensurate with its promise.

Both could benefit from a rethink.

So what comes next? I’ve got some ideas and I’ll explore them in the next post. Thanks for reading.

Image Credits: Dev Benjamin on Unsplash Mika Baumeister on Unsplash,  Jason Goodman on Unsplash

1 thought on “Social Innovation’s Update: Part 1 – A Complicated History”

  1. Pingback: Social Innovation’s Update: Part 2 – An Opportunity and Future - Censemaking

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