Social innovation: The problem of success

The literature on social innovation is really a literature of success.  Largely missing are solutions that have failed, had unintended consequences or are contested.

While it is recognized that labeling something as new does not make it “inherently virtuous” (Bacon et al., 2008) the solutions generally seem to be treated as having positive effects (Murray et al., 2010). This can gloss over any disagreements as to their effectiveness and the values and beliefs of their proponents.

For example, Charter Schools in the US are cited as a defining example of social innovation (Phills et al. 2008).  They are not, however, without critics who might view them as ‘novel’ but not an appropriate solution (e.g., Renzulli & Roscigno, 2007).

Also largely unexplored are how past solutions interact with new ones. For example, social innovations of the past may have played a role in creating the social problems of the present or are perceived as so successful that they create resistance to ongoing change (Westley et al., 2006). To choose an ‘old’ solution might also be a better choice than trying to create a new one (Moulaert et al., 2005).

It makes a lot of sense, however, for an emerging field to emphasize stories of success to build interest in its practice and study.  But if we are to increase our understanding of how to organize social innovations we need a future version of the “Open Book” to include sections on “failures” and “contest”.  Otherwise, we might end up organizing around trivial issues or use the term social innovation to avoid engaging with or recognising different opinions.


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