Social innovation: Needing an academic home?

Studying social innovation isn’t easy.  Especially for those who haven’t gained their academic stripes and still need to care about what others think.

The problem is that social innovation doesn’t have an academic home.  As an emerging field its proponents are scattered across the academic world with no obvious central point of contact to share ideas and carve out a credible space. Despite the increasing popularity of the term there is no dedicated academic journal and limited academic currency.

So, studying social innovation can become a ‘side of the desk’ type of project.  There is kudos for being seen as involved in something progressive, but this is peripheral work – at the edge of more established disciplines. For example, Business Schools like the idea of social innovation and are integrating it into their teaching curriculums (e.g., Brown, 2009; Samuelson, 2009) but there is a pitiful amount of research on the topic – dwarfed by research into accounting, strategy and marketing.

This isn’t a big deal for those just using social innovation as a contemporary example on which to springboard back into their own theoretical conversations.  But for those interested in exploring how to organize solutions to complex social problems it can be a frustrating time – working on isolated projects that may be unpublishable and yet potentially rich with practical and theoretical insights.

And yet there are some who have already made substantial contributions.  For example, the work of Frances Westley (drawing on complexity theory), Michael Mumford (interest in creativity), Frank Moulaert (urban studies and social inclusion) and Geoff Mulgan (exploring the process of social innovation and sharing its methods).

Some might argue that social innovation doesn’t need an academic home.  Finding solutions to social problems requires input from all academic disciplines. For sure.  My argument is not that one academic discipline should dominate – far from it – I am certain that there will many benefits from using a variety of theoretical lenses to help explore social innovation dynamics.

But without some academic leadership to create places and spaces for the study of social innovation, it may remain out of reach for the majority of scholars.

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