There is nothing like a crisis to generate action. Even the most optimistic observers accept that Europe faces monumental economic and social challenges. Small or incremental solutions simply don’t cut it. These are the perfect conditions for social innovation: Solutions are needed that transform systems, not just tinker with them. Europe has become a “living lab” for this emerging field by default – it has to urgently experiment with new ideas and processes now. So, when two Commissioners, Johannes Hahn and Laszlo Andor, from the European Commission issue a Guide to Social Innovation*, it’s worth studying.
Many governments around the world are exploring ways of shifting the locus of social innovation from a centralized state-led approach to local communities. It makes a lot of sense: It can empower people, utilize local knowledge, create customized solutions and reduce costs. But Dominic Chalmers*, from the University of Strathclyde, argues that this shift would require recognizing some significant barriers.
Social Innovation Barriers
Chalmers’ review of the literature identifies three main barriers to individuals and organizations engaged in social innovation:
- Protectionism and risk aversion – Chalmers states that a prevailing popular assumption that all people share a common homogenous desire to develop optimal solutions to social problems is a naïve one. His review of the literature highlights competing organizational objectives/logics and how privatization policies can reinforce and extend existing silos/domains rather than bridge them. He also believes that the commissioning agents – governments and philanthropists – are predisposed to conservative decision-making and avoid risks so that they favour incremental rather than disruptive innovation.
- Problem complexity – the work to tackle complex social problems involves cooperation across multi-stakeholder environments. The literature reveals how difficult this work is in practice as existing organizational structures and cultures are just too rigid. The end result is partial solutions that deal with symptoms and not the systemic root causes.
- Networks and collaboration – the literature also highlights the problems for social innovators to make connections to established networks as their issues don’t fit neatly with existing categories.
The net effect, Chalmers warns, may “hasten the ‘fizzling out’” of interest in social innovation and it never realizing its potential.
An Open Innovation Lens
Chalmers argues that these barriers might be overcome by drawing on an “open” paradigm and in particular the study of open innovation (citing writers such as Chesbrough). Researchers have demonstrated how some businesses have benefited from dramatically rethinking their approach to developing new ideas/products. Instead of generating all knowledge in-house, companies that adopt an open innovative approach invest in looking outward, beyond their organizational boundaries, and develop learning networks. Open innovation is also associated with privileging user involvement – directly involving consumers/customers in new solution development. The overall result for some has been radical innovation. Chalmers recognizes that this literature has been largely focused on multinationals and technology companies but believes that it could help to unlock some of the barriers facing social innovation.
It will be two years to the day since I wrote on this blog. I’m now back…for a while!
Since I last wrote, I’ve completed my PhD dissertation on the topic of social innovation and then spent a year and a half working for a private Foundation that invests in social innovation. It’s been a period of profound learning.
In the past year I’ve been convicted about the need to support and build the knowledge commons. This is so critical for emerging fields such as social innovation – where early learnings need to be collated, synthesized and widely shared to enable this growing movement to continually develop more sophisticated and effective solutions.
I was going to start with a completely fresh blog canvas but this site’s analytics software show that people have continued to access the reference sections of the site – definitions and reading list – even while the site has been dormant. I plan to update and refine these lists and add a few more reference sections.
I will continue to try to summarize new academic papers on social innovation and consider their possible implications for practitioners. Tragically, a considerable amount of academic research is locked away behind paywalls and/or not written in plain English and/or the practical take-aways are unexplored.
I look forward to the coming few months – as always any advice, feedback and contributions are much appreciated.