It has been a great week for social innovation! The Young Foundation launched an Open Book of social innovation ideas and knowledge and NESTA released a a new website to build and maintain a growing network of its proponents. Socialinnovator.info states that it has over 500 methods for those willing to take the plunge. While this a great step forward in showcasing and collating examples of social innovation, the foundations of social innovation remain flaky.
A central problem is that there are multiple definitions of what social innovation means (see some examples at si2.ca). For some, it is really a term to connect a new idea to a social group in a positive way. No one thinks innovation is a bad thing and it’s ever better if it makes a difference to lots of people :) For others it implies collective participation in generating solutions or it reflects a social consciousness behind the innovation process.
Does this really matter when social innovation is popping up everywhere (see Google News Chart below) even at the White House? It does – especially to those such as the Young Foundation who really want to tackle social problems in new ways. The multiple meanings around social innovation create an ambiguity which can undermine its application and perhaps more importantly, in the long term, reduce investment in understanding the challenges of social innovation and how to make them “stick”.
And this points to a larger foundational problem. Social innovation lacks a theoretical underpinning. Despite a growing number of University Centers around the globe starting to use this fashionable label, there is no one academic discipline that really seems to taken it beyond a topical interest. There are some notable exceptions, for example the Social Innovation Generation network connected to Waterloo University out of which came one of the best books on this topic – Getting to Maybe – which ironically isn’t featured in the socialinnovator.info reading list (which has only two books in its “key texts on social innovation” page). These academics have been drawn to the power of complexity theory to explore social innovation dynamics and, in doing so, highlight the need for more rigorous study and the potential for different theoretical perspectives. Sure there are heavy-weight researchers working on overlapping topics of social entrepreneurship, social enterprise and the well-established arena of nonprofits and public sector innovation, but it is challenging to deal with a cross-cutting issue where the organizational type is no longer the defining characteristic.
Both of these foundational problems are eminently fixable but can’t be dodged. Having a definition of social innovation that clearly sets boundaries around what it is and isn’t will help practitioners and researchers alike. If the goal is to really make a difference to some of the world’s most intractable social problems then some people won’t be able to keep up. Tackling social problems can be a contested, conflictual and messy business and yet the sharper focus might encourage practictioners and invigorate a field of study.