There is an interesting podcast with Charles Leadbeater on social innovation released this month by the Australian Social Innovation Exchange. Leadbeater argues that user-led innovation, where needs are articulated and shaped by users rather than producers, is needed for many social innovations. For Leadbeater, social innovations are a collaborative and participatory response to social needs that are currently inadequately met. He predicts it will be a time of upheaval and disruption for large organizations, especially in the public sector, as the interest in social innovation grows. He briefly mentions the idea of “latent capacity” – the idea of untapped knowledge and potential in a community that, with the right tools, could be focused on tackling social problems.
There is a sense that Leadbeater is using social innovation to cast a vision. User-led innovation is still in its infancy – the examples of Mountain Biking, Wikipedia and Linux are promising but it is unclear how this approach might work on social problems that are complex and contested. It could be that I don’t really understand who the users are when it comes to many social issues where the notions of users and producers can become blurred. Assuming that users are those dealing personally with a social need/problem, I also struggle slightly with whether they are always the ideal leaders to develop novel solutions. While I can definitely see the case for the importance of privileging the insights and knowledge of those most impacted by a social problem, I am not sure users are necessarily the primary source of change. Users may need outsiders to both create the conditions for creativity and take a novel solution through to implementation. It is in the interactions between diverse skills and interests (users and interested others – friends, family, nonprofits, government, business) where new ideas can be created, developed and integrated or organized to transform existing arrangements.
But what Leadbeater does by stressing the central role of users is to elevate the participatory element in social innovation. While a number of definitions of social innovations recognize that the organizing of social innovation can be eclectic (i.e. can come from different sectors), less are willing to make participation across diverse groups a core component. As the term social innovation is increasingly used as a promotional label to announce something new in what is a currently fashionable and most favourable light, listening to Leadbeater is refreshing and challenging.
Podcast: ASIX – Social Innovation Podcast Series – Episode 1 – July 2010 Good’ay!