Social innovation has stalled while its need has never been greater: How might we bring it back to life?
A new dawn for social innovation could be upon us if we look closely. As I outlined in an earlier article, social innovation appears to have lost much of its momentum and vitality. Where once the term social innovation was everywhere, now it’s a more rare sight. I don’t hear it discussed at events or on podcasts, see it written about in books or blogs, or trumpeted by governments or businesses looking to do good. It’s not like it used to be.
That’s not a bad thing if the need for what social innovation brings is gone or if we’ve replaced the concept with something better. Except we haven’t.
I have ideas for bringing some life back into a field that may be feeling the effects of having run too far, too fast.
Means, Ends, and Methods
The means, ends, and methods of achieving the kind of reinvigoration that social innovation could use include:
- Reconnect with technology put into the hands of the public, leveraging the potential of AI. Social tools were a great lever of social innovation in the early-2000s. Through blogging, mobile internet, and social network platforms, innovators could find each other, create, and scale their thinking (and resources) faster than ever. Generative AI tools provide a new wave of technologies with similar promise.
- Emphasize projects that offer intense local focus on addressing issues of global concern. The climate crisis, AI, mass human migrations, and economic disruptions all have global effects but cannot be managed at that level. People also need to see evidence of change and a means to affect that change, and focusing on localized actions is the way to do it. Local actions allow people to engage, contribute and learn by doing. It gives people a stake in the solutions, not just the experience of the problems.
- Focus on populations and the largest, smallest viable audience. Social technologies have allowed us to ‘thin-slice’ communications in a way that creates communities of interest that are too disconnected to scale across many of our biggest challenges. The concept of the smallest viable audience is helpful because it focuses efforts where they are likely to achieve change. A population-based approach might look at geographic disparities or broader-based socio-economic ones that define an issue.
- Build research and design capacity in tandem, emphasizing behavioural, strategic, and systemic design. Designing services, products, and systems requires we make things as attractive, easy to access and engage, and effective as possible. A designer’s familiarity with managing constraints can be supported by behavioural science that will aid in creating useful, actionable solutions. Tying these together with a focus on a broader strategic set of aims in addressing systemic problems is where backbone organizations, governments, professional practice organizations, and community-based NGO’s can help with coordination. It’s not about central control or planning; it’s coordination and support.
- Connect complexity and evaluation to create fact-based, evidence-informed feedback systems. We can’t decouple social innovation from the feedback needed to learn, grow, adapt and develop. This kind of evidence base requires a sensitivity to complexity and an understanding of what knowledge, practice, and evidence-making mean in such dynamic systems. By working with complexity rather than attempting to convert linear, positivistic science to situations that don’t fit. Principles-focused, developmental and design-driven approaches to innovation that enable learning and adaptation in motion are well-suited to this and incorporate many different types of data gathering and synthesis.
This is a summary of what I believe could benefit the field of social innovation. It’s not something that any one body or actor can accomplish or needs to do, rather it’s something that has to be cultivated in an ecosystem. The good news is that, much like a root system with trees or mycelium network of fungi, a strong foundation exists (it’s just underground).
We just need to build and grow around the rocks. And those metaphorical rocks are what are keeping things down. These include inertia, lack of diversity (and novelty), and weak or absent connections. But unlike nature, we can do this by design.
Breathing Life into Social Innovation
Social innovation was propelled by a variety of factors leveraged through social media. Twitter and Facebook were invaluable tools for introducing people to one another and building nascent networks that spanned geographic and structural differences. But what if we went more local? By emphasizing (not limiting) a focus on local or regional issues, we remove some of the limitations that social media platforms now present.
This approach allows a diversity of collaborations that were always limited in some way by online social networking. While the advantages of scale might be lost, focusing on a diversity of means for engagement — online and offline — will increase the richness of the interactions. And that richness is what brings trust. Trust is perhaps the greatest leverage or constraint (when absent) to social innovation. People need to trust the ideas, knowledge, and skills of those they work with. It’s in trust that we build the cohesion enough to take social action, which is what underpins social innovation.
Connecting people closer to the work they do and the products and outcomes from that work is critical to growing and sustaining motivation from people. Embedding feedback into the system is therefore not just about accountability and outcome assessment, it’s a means of promoting and maintaining engagement. This engagement is what gets people involved and, when focused on problems and issues that matter, that interest can be leveraged into innovation.
Too much social innovation was focused on far-off places and issues that were disconnected from local realities. It’s harder to get people engaged in a problem situation on another continent when there are issues that present a clear and present danger (or opportunity) in their own communities. Those distant connections will fall off under pressure and right now, we’re all feeling pressure. What this also does is empower local leaders and innovators to act, rather than to wait for something from somewhere else.
Coordinated Complexity Webs
Conditions of high complexity require attention and engagement to understand. We can’t influence complex systems at a distance with confidence; we need to shorten the distance between causes and consequences. That means we need to get involved in projects where we can experience and ‘live’ our data through our creations. This is what gives start-ups such power in the early years: their founders are connected to the entire organization. They understand their enterprise as a living system. This often gets lost as things scale.
The reasons for this are often connected to complexity principles. We cannot control systems, nor can we ‘unchange’ those that have transformed, but we can influence them. We do this through actions that are coordinated with communication. For social innovation to flourish again, I envision building back those networks — through whatever means work (e.g., Mastadon, LinkedIN, Discord Servers, something new) — and promoting the kind of collective learning, feedback and information sharing that fosters growth, without requiring changes in size.
Self-organized, yet supported coordination efforts can enable us to return to the days where information flowed more easily across contexts. From a leadership perspective, this is where things can complicated. The tendency to highlight certain stories over others can lead to the same problem we had before: superstars and poster children. Dynamic leadership that is distributed and representative of those in the system will help. By dynamic, I mean an evolving and changing leadership that transforms with the systems we seek to change. We build leadership structures fit for the purpose of leading in complex times.
This means speaking, acting, reflecting on, and learning about complexity as a fundamental aspect of innovation. It means training people to design and evaluate. It also involves sensemaking at all levels.
What ideas will we come up with? That’s up to the innovators. What supports to they need at a policy level? That’s for others to answer. If we get these recommendations right, we can address the matter of innovation and policy. But if we don’t, we won’t have much in the way of social innovation and we’ll be back to where we are.
What do you think?