Participation & Social Innovation: The ‘real thing’

One thing stands out when scanning the literature on social innovation.  Participation.  You just can’t get around it – the act of working on novel solutions to social problems involves a crowd.

What’s surprising then is that many of the detailed examples of social innovation focus on the work of particularly special people (Bornstein, 2007; Elkington & Hartigan, 2008).

We know that behind these social entrepreneurs are lots of people playing crucial enabling and support roles – providing expertise and funding.

We also know that people can come together and produce amazing things as the numerous examples on the web demonstrate – such as Ohmynews that uses web based technology to involve citizen journalists in South Korea or ReachOut! – a web-based peer-to-peer approach to tackle depression among young people that started in Australia and is now spreading in the US.

Less known, and perhaps more important, is the crucial element of participation by those with a direct experience of the social problem.

In the Urban Studies literature this is a defining element of social innovation – the engagement of those who have been excluded and are marginalized by existing social arrangements (e.g., Gerometta, Haussermann & Longo, 2007 ; Moulaet et al., 2007). This is distinctly different from a “crowd sourcing model” that gains its wisdom by the sheer volume of participations dealing with what to many are simply intellectual problems.  In constrast, social innovation means to involve and transform the lives of those who face the social problem every day.

Sounds political, messy, emergent, local…and hard.  Some creative approaches can be found in the work of designers (e.g, Brown & Wyatt, 2010; Burns et al., 2006) seeking to shift from a product-centred approach to a user-centred one by actively involving users in the creative process. The starting point is “the presumption that people are competent interpreters of their own lives and competent solvers of their own problems” (Mulgan et al., 2007, p.22).

The importance of this ‘grounded’ creativity and expertise may require fundamentally rethinking the standard approach to solving social problems that tends to privilege professional expertise.

The transformative aspect of social innovations may lie more in their participatory process than in their well published outputs.

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