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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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”.

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Social innovation chains and clusters

One of the issues that interests me around social innovation is the relationship between one social innovation and the next. I’m fascinated in how social innovations enable and constrain future solutions. The literature on social innovations tends to track the trajectory of one solution and rarely explores the context from which it emerged and its longer term effects on other initiatives. One notable exception is the work of Mumford (2002) who explored the innovations of Benjamin Franklin. Mumford highlights the cumulative effects that can come from working on novel solutions to social problems. Franklin’s ability to repeatedly innovate seems to come as a result of drawing on elements of past innovations. It’s a sort of “chain” of social innovations. I really like this idea but I have a few problems with it :)

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