Spaghetti & Social Innovation: What should stick?

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.”

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Complex social problems

For the most part, the reasons why social problems exist are either considered self-evident or left unexplored. But there is one major exception.

The most significant body of work to identify the reasons for social problems draws on complexity theory (Tapsell & Woods, 2008;Westley, 2008; Westley, Zimmerman & Patton, 2006). Through this lens, social problems emerge out of complex interactions between increasingly interconnected systems (Westley, 2008). Social problems are seen as situated in contexts that they shape and by which they themselves are shaped.

The implication is that social problems cannot be falsely extracted from the dynamic network of relationships that influence their causes, effects and how they are understood (Moore & Westley, 2009).  Rather than treating problems as ‘complicated’ challenges amenable to being broken down into fixable components, social problems are complex ones that are

“messier and more ambiguous in nature; they are more connected to other problems; more likely to react in unpredictable non-linear ways; and more likely to produce unintended consequences” (Burns, Cottam, Vanstone & Winhall, 2006, p. 8).

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The problem with social problems

A central feature of those exploring social innovation is an interest in solving ‘social problems’.  Phills et al.’s (2008 – see previous post) definition of social innovation cemented this relationship – for them, the ‘social’ in ‘social innovation’ is connected to societal ‘problems’ or ‘needs’.  They argue that there

“tends to be a greater consensus within societies about what constitutes a social need or problem and what kinds of social objectives are valuable (for example, justice, fairness, environmental preservation, improved health, arts and culture, and better education). Phills et al. (2008, p. 38).

This seems to make a lot of sense – rather than focusing on the social character of an innovation which is open to considerable interpretation and debate  – there is more “traction” (their words) in concentrating on things on which we can all agree – that we have problems.

But there are problems with social problems :) Let’s just take two for starters that appear in the literature…

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