Organizing social innovation without organizations

One distinctive feature of social innovation is that it is missing a signature organizational form.  In fact many of its proponents are either agnostic about organizations or downright antagonistic. Why?

There are practical reasons. No single organization or sector has the resources, money or expertise to fix social problems that have impacts that extend beyond their boundaries (Osborn, 2009) such as dealing with climate change.  So to think about a single organization fixing a social problem just doesn’t make sense. The consensus is that novel solutions to social problems can originate from any sector (Bacon et al, 2008; Mulgan et al., 2007) where everyone can be a ‘change maker’ (Drayton, 2006) and should remain “agnostic about the sources of social value” (Phills et al. 2008, p. 37).

There are also arguments around organizations being lousy at innovating on social problems.  Continue reading

Technology and social innovation: From laptops to a new social economy

Technology and social innovation are often used in the same breath. New technologies are deployed to solve social problems – from lightweight solar-powered laptops for children without electricity to new vaccines to halt the spread of a disese.

But the relationship with technology is a complex one (as always :)).  Social innovations are sometimes the means by which new technologies can become established and at other times the prompt for new technological solutions (Mumford, 2002).

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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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