Social Innovation & Special Effects

What perhaps distinguishes social innovation from any other type of innovation is its concern with effects.  In other words, what difference does it make, and proponents of social innovation are upfront in what they expect to see.

For Phills et al. (2008) –  a novel solution to the social problem qualifies as a social innovation only if it is “more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just than existing solutions and for which the value created accrues primarily to society as a whole rather than private individuals (Phills et al., 2008, p. 36). This effect – known as “social value” – involves creating benefits or reducing societal costs in ways that “go beyond the private gains and general benefits of market activity” (Phills et al., 2008, p. 39).

The challenge is then to work out what qualifies.  One way is to judge effects in terms of three key ideas:

  • impact – an assessment of how much the solution has affected the social problem
  • scale – the number of beneficiaries of the solution and
  • durability – whether the solution can deliver effects over the long-term.

So that leads to the conclusion, for some, that social innovations are more than  ‘band-aid’ solutions and must tackle the root causes of a social problem (e.g., Westley et al., 2006), as well as spread widely (e.g., Goldberg et al. 2009) and last (e.g., Leadbeater, 2008).

Another approach is to look for evidence in different areas – such as the creation of “new social relationships” through a greater participation of a marginalized group in society (Nussbaumer & Mouleart, 2004) or an increase in the innovative capacity of a society (Mulgan et al, 2007; Murray et al., 2010) or a substantial disruptive effect on social arrangements (Westley & Antadze, 2009).

This commitment to judging an innovation by its effects comes with some significant difficulties.

For starters there is a problem of measurement. It’s not easy to work out how one novel solution impacts a complex social problem where the processes are not easily reduced to simple cause-effect relationships (Westley & Antadze, 2009). Second, there is the thorny problem of not only judging the effects but also who benefits from a particular social innovation.

Phills et al. (2008) place the emphasis on benefits to society rather than private individuals but this is not always easy to untangle. Solutions may have multiple benefits, private and public, such as the internet (Pol & Ville, 2009) and there are also difficulties in elevating public benefits over private ones. Many innovations, such as in health and education, are experienced on an individual basis (Auerswald, 2009).  And focusing on general societal benefits can overlook the costs experienced by a minority.

For example, the transformation of the cotton industry in Britain led to cheap clothing that was easy to clean and design but it also had “disastrous social consequences” for the displaced hand-loom weavers (Pol & Ville, 2009).

The argument for avoiding private effects, however, seems to relate specifically to those involved in the market. But this raises a third problem – how to make sense of the role of the market and business in social innovation.  And that is a whole topic in itself!


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