The interest in social innovation has grown over the last 10 years but it’s not new – since the dawn of time individuals, families and communities, governments, and companies have developed innovative solutions to tackle social problems. What is new is the energy being invested into taking our social innovation abilities to a higher level. Around the world there are initiatives to connect innovators, share knowledge of what works, find ways to attract resources, and develop new partnerships that cross communities and sectors. And what is also new – Governments are starting to recognize that they are a critical partner in scaling proven social innovation.
Aside from the logistical challenges of bringing different people together, there is the even harder task of getting them to work together – to build what academics call a “field” – a shared way for individuals and organizations to relate to each other.
The research on field-building (largely focused on industries and professions) demonstrates the importance of rules, norms, collaboration and the work of institutional entrepreneurs. It also highlights the importance of organized events.
Events can be catalytic. They can offer the space for people with very different ways of thinking to mix and explore new ideas. This process can lead to new relationships, patterns of thinking and behaving.
And yet, despite their potential, they remain relatively under-explored. Until now. Researchers Elke Schüßler, Charles-Clements Ruling and Bettina Wittneben* decided to concentrate on one of the most contested issues of our time – climate change – and explore the role of field-building events. Their particular interest – why these events had appeared to so dramatically fail.
Competitions to encourage innovation have spread around the world and they play a significant role in facilitating and promoting social innovation. For example, the Dell Social Innovation Competition has been running since 2007 and has produced over 4,500 ideas and Ashoka’s Changemakers claims 5,000 “high-impact” solutions since 2004 from over 145 countries. Corporations, foundations and governments are often the sponsors of competitions, with targets and prizes, on a diverse range of issues from climate change to gender equity. The stakes are often very high: The European Commission is banking on its Social Innovation Competition this year to generate solutions to its unemployment crisis – to find work for over 25 million unemployed citizens.
So much seems to be resting on these types of competitions, but what do we really know about them? Why are they growing in popularity? How are they most effectively organized? How might they change in the future?
Researchers from Cass Business School in London and the Newcastle Business School, Joseph Lampel, Pushkar Jha and Ajay Bhalla, sought to answer these questions*.