A few days ago a good friend of mine referred me to a recent set of articles on social innovation in the Philanthropist. After the link, he wrote:
“Seems a bit like throwing spaghetti at a wall to me, but I know you love a challenge.”
I wasn’t too sure what he meant but my response was to rattle off an email presenting an argument for social innovation – I threw in a definition, told him why I thought it was important and, for good measure, said that if social innovation was spaghetti then that was nothing compared to the subject he studied (true Christmas spirit there).
Over the last 48 hours I’ve thought more about my defensive response – what had the connection between spaghetti and social innovation triggered?
After googling the spaghetti phrase I better understood the challenge. Apparently good cooks are able to tell whether spaghetti is ready to serve if the pasta sticks to the wall – if it falls it needs more time (but you probably knew that already). It’s a sort of trial and error method.
In spaghetti terms, social innovation is like hit or miss pasta and its cooks (practitioners and academics) are optimistically throwing it at the wall, publicly presenting sets of ideas and principles, without really knowing if any of the ideas will stick. I could picture two kitchens – one where social innovation is like avant-garde cuisine – cutting edge, experimental and inspirational – or a transport Café – where mutton is dressed as lamb, food is half-baked and disappointing.
It made me think about what would make social innovation “stick” – what would really ensure that a focus on solutions to tackle complex social problems would be worthy of academic study and practitioner interest.
My initial response was to cycle back to the problem of multiple definitions. There is definitely a case in academia to apply some discipline here. It’s time to put some boundaries around social innovation.
So social innovation is NOT:
- A novel solution that just has social impacts – that’s every solution at some level.
- A novel solution that just involves people in the process – that’s every solution too.
- A novel solution for the benefit of a single organization (i.e. an HR practice) – labelling this as social innovation should be banned from academic publications! :)
- A novel solution that is created by organizations in just one sector (public, private, voluntary/nonprofit).
- A novel solution that is only created by special people such as social entrepreneurs.
None of these should stick. I wanted to go further and talk about the intent/motivations of the innovators as well as the outcomes. But then I thought about a comment written by one of my Committee members reading my draft literature review on social innovation. He helpfully pointed out that the different approaches to social innovation are not necessarily incompatible and reflect the complexity of the ideas which are being explored. To seek coherence too quickly in an emerging field can lose the essence of what makes it distinct.
Taking the cooking metaphor a little further – the emerging field of social innovation is like being in a kitchen where the recipe for social innovation is still uncertain and perhaps always will be. While there is definitely a case for articulating core ingredients (e.g., novel solutions that tackle social problems in ways that significantly shift the way the social problems are understood and managed), a wonderful part of social innovation is the openness to variety in how that might be approached and organized. Although the mixing and matching of different ingredients will sometimes produce something completely inedible, it can also produce something uniquely tasty. The challenge for the field is to make this a process of creative refinement – learning from different combinations and exploring both success and failure.
Social innovation, like spaghetti, is probably always going to be a messy business.