Technology and social innovation: From laptops to a new social economy

Technology and social innovation are often used in the same breath. New technologies are deployed to solve social problems – from lightweight solar-powered laptops for children without electricity to new vaccines to halt the spread of a disese.

But the relationship with technology is a complex one (as always :)).  Social innovations are sometimes the means by which new technologies can become established and at other times the prompt for new technological solutions (Mumford, 2002).

On the “push side” take the emergence of the car.  The success of the car is said to be related to the “host of associated social innovations: driving schools, road markings and protocols, garages, traffic wardens and speeding tickets and, more recently, congestion charging systems” (Mulgan et al., 2007, p. 12).

On the “pull side” take the interaction between drugs and health organizations. How healthcare drugs are developed can be shaped by changes in the ways health care services are organized (Gardner, Acharya and Yach, 2007).

And yet it is one type of technology, the internet, that seems to dominate much of the talk about social innovation and this seems to mess up any simple relationship between technology and social innovation.

For starters the internet has both push and pull functions.  The power of this network technology is demonstrated in initiatives such as the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, and the operating system, Linux, but the internet also grows and is shaped by the success of new social networks that build on its platform such as Tyze, an online support system connecting those with disabilities to family and friends, and The School of Everything, an online service that puts people in touch with folk in their area “who can teach anything from Yoga to Mandarin”.

It also messes with the idea of what new technological solutions are all about.  In contrast to the view of new technologies as “high tech”, focused on narrow objectives, produced by a select group of ‘experts’ and where the intellectual rights are private and protected, here the emphasis is more on “low tech” solutions that seek to meet public goals through involving large and diverse communities whose collective intelligence produces outputs that are openly shared (Leadbeater, 2008; Murray et al., 2010).  A mouthful of difference :)

The effects? Some see the cummulative effects of this activity as integral to a new social economy. In a world of distributed networks and blurred boundaries between production and consumption (Murray, 2009) the relationship between technology and social innovation seems to have meshed.

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