User-driven Social Innovation: Involving young criminals and disadvantaged mothers

Innovation generated by users has in recent years been the subject of considerable interest.  For the most part this has focused on commercial solutions, from mountain-biking to medical equipment. Businesses are encouraged to find ways to develop and integrate the insights of these “creative users” into their products and services.

The advantage of such innovation is that users are so close to the action.  They experience the product at first hand, understand how it works in practice and are the first to experience any problems. This ‘real-life’ knowledge is said to make them particularly well suited to develop new ideas.

In a recent article in the Journal of Social Entrepreneurship*, Peter Svensson and Lars Bengtsson (2010) draw on the idea of user driven innovation in the commercial sector and apply it to explore the organizing of social innovations.

Instead of users who have with issues with products, users are “people with social problems”.  Through this lens they explore two innovations in Stockholm, one shaped by “young criminals”, and the other by “disadvantaged mothers”.

Youth Violence & Social Isolation in Stockholm

In the mid 1990s the Swedish government commissioned a Foundation (Fryshuset), connected to the YMCA, to launch a campaign to reduce juvenile crime on public transport. They established project “Easy Street” that operates in Sweden’s three largest cities, employing over 150 people and involves over 1000 young people.  The seeds of this program, however, were sown a decade earlier in the summer of 1986 when Stockholm experienced riots between different groups of teenagers.

A local police officer invited well-known young criminals to explore the reasons behind the violence.  While initially suspicious of the officer’s motives, the youth provided crucial insights into what was leading to their social exclusion. Over time they developed an association called Non-Fighting Generation with the aim to inform kids about the legal consequences of violence and prevent aggression.  When the government came calling in the mid-1990s, the Foundation recruited past members of the Non-Fighting Generation who were instantly effective because of their immediate knowledge of the issues:

“Through their presence in the various trouble neighbourhoods, rapid acquisition of information, understanding of the problems’ backgrounds, street cred and relationships with potential young criminals, the organization’s members could take pre-emptive measures to mediate between gangs”

In addition to dealing with issues around youth engagement, the Foundation was also involved in supporting “disadvantaged, economically vulnerable single mothers with full-time jobs and little or no support at home”.  It was at a one-week summer camp for these mothers that new ideas emerged to support this group. The coming together of the group provided individuals with the space to speak with others who faced similar challenges. It also provided an opportunity for them to articulate their ‘real’ needs to Foundation workers.

“When the project leader asked a participant what she would most like to have in the world she received the surprising answer that the mother wanted to be able to take a bath for 15 minutes without being disturbed”.

This was a crucial turning point for the project leader, a single mother herself.  She began to look for ways to help sustain and increase the energy mothers need to care for their children. She also noticed that “many single mothers’ children rarely found real happiness in their families….the project’s aim would be to make certain the children would sometimes see their mothers happy”.

The solutions included setting up regular meetings to support and encourage as well as a ‘family coaching’ service to work on issues of self-esteem.  But perhaps the most important innovation was the development of a babysitting service. This service enabled mothers to be “reenergized by attending to their own needs for a while”.  The project has been incredibly successful. It went from 20 members in summer 2006 to 500 members by December 2008. The babysitting service is a commercial enterprise, selling services to the general public. The project employs 2 people, has 30 active babysitters, and over 200 mothers and children participate in each event.

User-Innovation: The Implications

Svensson and Bengtsson argue that several insights can be taken from these two cases:

  1. The idea of user-innovation is applicable to social innovation. Users, people with social problems, do in fact have substantial knowledge about the causes and mechanisms of their problems and can generate new ideas. Their first-hand knowledge of their own problems makes them particularly suited.
  2. Users can be catalysts in the innovation process – starting a process that more formal organizations can pick up…“users that self-organize into embryonic groups of individuals to solve their problems, and later this social network is adopted and further developed by the service providing organization”.  Of importance here are what the researchers call “prototype organizations” – organizations such as the summer camp and the Non-Fighting Generation association that helped ideas to develop.
  3. Users are important for diffusing innovations because of their legitimacy amongst their peers. Users from socially excluded groups – such as young criminals and disadvantaged mothers – are more likely, Svensson and Bengtsson argue, to listen to those with shared experiences. That said, partnerships with service providers are critical to gain the external legitimacy to secure funding for programs.

My Back of the Envelope Thoughts

Let’s put to one side the sample size (two cases) and explore the implications of seeing users, people with social problems, as social innovators.

First, I think the emphasis on recognizing the situated knowledge of those most affected by social problems is a great one. But I am not sure that we need the idea of user-innovation from the commercial literature to get at it. The idea that the people most affected by social problems can be involved in innovation is a central idea in nonprofit and the social movement literature. If anything, the commercial sector has far more to learn about user engagement from the social sector than the other way round.  The literature on Participatory Action Research also provides another rich set of insights.

Second, it might have been helpful for the researchers to further explore the differences of user-driven innovation ideas in the commercial sector cf the social sector, for example, the complexity of the social problems, issues of stigma facing some users etc.  So for example, making modifications to a mountain bike seems a quite different task than organizing a drug user group.

Third, I am not sure I completely buy the idea that simply being closer to a social problem means that a person is more knowledgeable about its solutions. The researchers describe it as “full access to knowledge”. I am not sure how you can argue this when knowledge is filtered, constructed, and often contested. While users are more knowledgeable about the impact of a social problem in their lives, I am not sure if complex social problems are necessarily easy to ‘untangle’ or even that they just impact one group. For example, who are the ‘users’ for the problem of climate change or when it comes to mental illness (patients or their carers etc)?

Fourth, are there some potential costs in adopting a user-driven model? The focus on the user as the source of solutions could avoid recognizing the systemic issues that need to be tackled.  So while babysitting is a great service for single mothers it could shift responsibility and attention away from policy-makers whose child-care and welfare policies may significantly contribute to social hardship.

Fifth, the case studies reveal the importance of mediators and translators – people able to connect users and agencies.  The police officer and the project leader were critical in facilitating and recognizing the importance of listening to and interpreting the experiences of youth and single mothers. This seems an interesting avenue to explore – the role of connectors who are able to develop solutions that have legitimacy in the world of the users and their organizations. The researchers also raise the importance of ‘safe’ spaces and organizations – i.e. summer camps and associations – that seem to provide crucial opportunities to explore and experiment.

Sixth, is there something qualitatively different about social innovation cf commercial innovation? For social innovation the innovation may be as much in the process as the outcome, in contrast to commercial innovations that are measured by a clear endpoint (product/service that can be sold).  If we adopt the researcher’s definition of social innovation that draws on the idea of Moulaert et al. (2005), who approach social innovation as a way to increase social inclusion, then perhaps the assessment of user-involvement in social innovation should focus less on their contribution to generating novel solutions (ie babysitting) and more on how the participation of socially excluded groups impacts their exclusion – their life chances and broader societal attitudes. In these cases, users seem important sources of innovation but it is unclear how over time they continue to be involved and whether there have been any long term implications of this participation.

It would be great to read a follow-up paper!

* Users’ Influence in Social-service Innovations: Two Swedish Case Studies
Peter Svensson; Lars Bengtsson
Journal of Social Entrepreneurship, Volume 1, Issue 2, 01 October 2010, Pages 190 – 212
The URL to  it is:


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