If there is one thing that unites the emerging field of social innovation it is a shared interest in social problems. But on closer inspection social problems are seen to be treated in a number of different ways.
One of the most striking features of the social problems presented in the literature is how dramatically they vary in scale. Social innovation, for some, is concerned with global problems such as climate change that affect everyone (Cooperridder & Pasmore, 1991; Osborn, 2009), in contrast to those who focus on local problems such as deprivation that affect a select few within a specific neighbourhood (Nussbaumer & Moulaert, 2004). There are also differences in the way the social problem is specified. It can range from a general term such as “the economic crisis” (Mulgan, 2009) to more specific issues such as dealing with obesity and addictions (Mulgan, 2006).
For some, social problems are ones that need to be tackled now. The “development of social innovation is an urgent task – one of the most urgent there is” (Murray, Tucker, Ali & Sanders, 2007, p. 7) as we are said to be at a point in history where we face a “perfect storm” of “rapid climate change, decreasing fossil fuel supplies, food shortages, and economic collapse” (Westley & Antadze, 2009 p. 8).
One feature that connects a sizeable subset of the literature is that social problems are ‘intractable’ – extremely difficult to solve. Problems are described as “deeply rooted”, able to “persist over time despite multiple interventions” (Philia, n.d.) and beyond the reach of a single organization or sector (Murray, Mulgan & Caulier-Grice, n.d.).
The implication is that whatever the focus – global or local – social problems are not ‘out there’ but are embedded within social arrangements. To understand them requires exploring those arrangements in detail.