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Social Innovation: Cult or Saviour?

by Alice Thornton
Jul 26, 2017
by Trampery Republic

I was recently lucky enough to be invited to speak at the launch of the latest edition of STIR magazine, ‘The Cult of Innovation’. The lead article of the same title was authored by Dan Gregory, who argues that the current fashion for social innovation has not only failed to address systematic inequalities in society, it actually threatens to worsen them. This is because social innovation jargon – including ‘social innovation hubs, labs, accelerators, incubators and catapults’ – excludes people who don’t understand or identify with that culture, and most importantly because social innovators (or at least the ones who attract the label and the associated attention and funding) tend to be relatively privileged. As a result social innovation initiatives risk perpetuating social divides, and because they have failed to include less privileged groups, these initiatives have failed to redistribute economic power in any meaningful way as well.

At the launch event, Dan was debated by Anna Laycock of the Finance Innovation Lab, and Ieva Padagaite of Blake House Filmmakers Cooperative. Both speakers had a more positive view of the topic. Ieva shared her own experience of setting up Blake House, a workers cooperative and social enterprise, and how we need to be much more critical about social innovation and 'social washing' because we need social innovation to solve the complex societal, economic and environmental challenges we face. Anna argued that we ‘shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater’ – that not all social innovation is bad, and social innovation initiatives can be run in a way that is inclusive and does aspire to challenge entrenched social and economic inequalities. Members of the audience provided some examples of incubators that had succeeded in attracting a diverse group of people working on truly promising ideas.

But what do we actually mean by ‘social innovation’? The challenge in debating a nebulous concept is that we can end up talking about different things, particularly given that innovation cannot be good or bad in itself – it is the outcomes or effects of innovation that matter. For me, a key question to ask about social innovation is what drives it – for example, is it increasing social need, cuts in public services, a genuinely new idea, or a desire to increase organisational efficiency? Our opinion of innovation initiatives will be influenced by our political beliefs about these factors and others that create a need for them. Another key question is why there is a slightly bizarre but pervasive association between social innovation and growth. The social sector has inherited a ‘growth mindset’ from commercial start-up culture, and seems to have accepted the assumption that innovation and growth go together in an entirely uncritical way; it is apparently not good enough to have a decent idea, and then keep it going within its original context. When you think about it, it is also a little bizarre that social innovation is so often assumed to be, or to require, a new organisation (hence the incubators and accelerators) rather than just being an idea that anyone could take up, that could benefit existing organisations, or that could become a more collaborative movement.

So what can we do to ensure that social innovation is a force for good? The audience discussion helped to crystalise some general principles:

  • Use language that people understand. Don’t complicate what you are trying to do by making it sound fancier than it actually is. Simplicity should be celebrated
  • Ensure that there is at least one person involved in any social innovation who has some lived experience of whatever social issue is being addressed. This will help to overcome social divides and inequalities of opportunity (and is highly likely to make the innovation better designed and more successful as well)
  • Actively encourage the ‘unusual suspects’ to bring their ideas and receive support. If your incubator cohort is predominantly white, middle class, largely male and from a similar educational background, then you have not done enough to make your space inclusive and accessible to people who might actually have the experience and understanding to tackle entrenched inequalities
  • Beware of social incubators (and accelerators, labs, launchpads etc) that provide support in exchange for shares, paralleling the norm amongst commercial start up incubators. Not all social innovations will work under this model, not all innovators will be willing or able to participate, and this approach to funding social initiatives risks perpetuating the inequalities and inaccessibility of our current economic system
  • Don’t assume that innovations have to physically grow – certainly not all the time. It is perfectly acceptable for successful, innovative organisations to sustain themselves at their current size rather than aiming to scale. (See my previous blog post for more on this topic).

There will be many other benefits and hazards of the ‘Cult of Innovation’. Please get in touch to share your ideas: @AliceHMThornton, LinkedIn or by email.

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