One of the issues that interests me around social innovation is the relationship between one social innovation and the next. I’m fascinated in how social innovations enable and constrain future solutions. The literature on social innovations tends to track the trajectory of one solution and rarely explores the context from which it emerged and its longer term effects on other initiatives. One notable exception is the work of Mumford (2002) who explored the innovations of Benjamin Franklin. Mumford highlights the cumulative effects that can come from working on novel solutions to social problems. Franklin’s ability to repeatedly innovate seems to come as a result of drawing on elements of past innovations. It’s a sort of “chain” of social innovations. I really like this idea but I have a few problems with it :)
The relationship between innovations feels a little too neat and progressive. The chain metaphor implies quite strong connections between one innovation and another and I’m not sure that it is always that easy to untangle. I’m more comfortable with innovation as bricolage – the unique combining of different elements from past innovations experienced and observed – that can be messy and emergent. In addition, while innovations may build on each other they may also work to constrain creativity and problem solving – especially if current solutions are perceived as successful.
An alternative way of thinking about how one social innovation might lead to another is to think about social innovations in clusters. The advantage over “chains” is that there is less need to demonstrate direct relationships between individual innovations as the emphasis is more on the working environment that shapes innovative activity. Thinking about clusters has become a popular approach to explore how industries and organizational fields emerge and develop. Understanding place seems important here – the geographical and social settings in which innovations are designed and implemented.
I’m still not sure. Searching for clusters may require abstracting to a level where it becomes practically difficult to identify how one novel solution shapes another.
What chains and clusters do highlight is the importance of thinking about social innovation as a collection of novel solutions rather than a single one. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t study single innovations but we need to situate them. To study a single innovation may require exploring its family tree – looking for elements of past innovations embedded within it – its historical roots or genetic code. This might provide some vital clues as to its transformative potential.