The Evolving Role of Social Innovation across Europe. A 2019 Perspective.
This is a summary of a talk given at the Catalonia Association of Public Universities in Barcelona on 18th September 2019. The event convened business, civil society, academia and government to explore a new agenda for supporting social innovation in Catalonia. In this keynote, Helen makes a number of recommendations for re-casting the infrastructure for supporting social change, encouraging us out of an individualist era of support – to one that is more supportive of collaboration, partnership and systemic change.
For those who want a quick fix: Almost the entire infrastructure which supports social value creation in this country is bound up in support of individual organisations, and individuals. This needs to change.
It is a fascinating and critical time to be talking about social innovation. It is great for the Catalonia Association of Public Universities to have convened you all together, representing as you do, business, civil society, academia and government.
Because – and this will be the main message of my talk to you today – our social challenges cannot be tackled by one discipline or one sector; they must be tackled by us all, together. This means understanding our different capabilities, strengths and our different motivations to work together in new ways – and involve people and communities in new ways.
The Young Foundation has been synonymous with social innovation since the term came into popular use. Our work stretches across the UK and Northern Ireland and different parts of Europe, including work in the Eix Besòs neighbourhoods in Barcelona. We have a strong, and long track record as a supporter, champion and incubator of social innovation stretching back to the 1950’s and are lucky enough to have an incredible alumni of people who have supported our mission over that time.
Figure 1 – A Brief History of the Young Foundation
One thing that characterises all our work over the decades is a desire to deeply understand the experiences, stories and perceptions of communities and people. And from that, support new innovations that improve peoples’ lives. It’s that simple and that broad. And I wanted to work at The Young Foundation because it works so closely to people and communities in a way that many trusts, foundations and governments just don’t – and perhaps can’t.
I was asked to explain what social innovation is, but I’m not generally interested in getting hooked on debates about definitions. And social innovation as a term is very slippery. So much so, it has been described by some academics as a quasi-concept; meaning that for some it’s just ‘not a thing’. Indeed, what do you call something which can used to be describe something that can happen in a poor neighbourhood and in a palace; that can emerge in a hospital in Denmark as readily as it can emerge in a village in the Amazon rainforest?
For me, this flexibility of the term has always been the source of its power. Because it can emerge from anywhere. Because it is able to be owned by anyone and everyone. Regardless of whether you understand or engage with the tools that see to support it. And that feels right.
For the purposes of this talk, I want to set out three definitions of social innovation which build on our understanding and plot its necessary evolution into the 2020’s. If you are not interested in the term ‘social innovation’, you might substitute if for ‘social change’ or ‘seeking to make life better’. The effect is much the same.
Part 1 – A new idea that seeks to address a social problem….
This is perhaps the most basic definition of social innovation, and would be regarded by many as incomplete. But it’s set out as ‘Part One’ because the vast majority of social innovations that have been supported by trusts, foundations, government, business sponsorship – or indeed, the hundreds who have boot-strapped themselves quietly with no support whatsoever, fall into this definition. A new idea that tackles a social problem.
The UK’s funding and support infrastructure has been pretty good at focusing on supporting new ideas. And no shortage of ideas to support. There are hundreds and hundreds of new ideas, ventures and initiatives that have emerged over the last decade that seek tackle some of our challenges.
These include a vast range of digital, social innovations which use mobile and digital technologies to co-ordinate knowledge, resources, skills, money and labour. RefAid, would be one example, WeFarm would be another. Other innovations focus on lowering the cost and accessibility of particular products; like Open Bionics using 3D printed artificial limbs which can be offered at twenty times lower cost than traditionally manufactured prosthetics. There’s been a rapid expansion of innovations which seek to provide better, cheaper care to older people, to people who are disabled or vulnerable; often engaging volunteers or through fundamentally challenging the traditional models of ‘delivering care’ to people. There are no shortage of innovations and ideas that tackle the world of work, not least supporting people into, or back into work. SmartWorks and Career Bus being two examples of tackling the effects of poverty and rural isolation respectively. The examples to draw on aren’t endless – there is certainly no shortage.
And the job of governments (of different tiers) has been to think about how to systematically support the encouragement and support of this kind of social innovation and then try to encourage the absorption of those ideas into existing systems, structures and cultures. This represents the good old fashioned way of thinking about innovation and economics; promoting supply of good ideas, at the same time as trying to stimulate or respond to demand.
In this social innovation ecosystem, we see financial support in the form of early stage grants, various, sometimes expensive and complex social finance products, crowdfunding, venture philanthropy – all with their unit of focus being the individual organisation. The support on offer is to support individual organisations to grow, in their impact, but often their size too.
Non-financial often support takes the form of accelerators and incubators; all with their focus on supporting individual ventures and organisations to scale and grow, to get their theory of change down to a finely crafted thing. To broker tailored support (often from corporates) to offer coaching, mentoring and – while never saying it out loud – adopting most of the language, lexicon and structures that were forged in the pit of primeval Silicon Valley.
It’s typified by developing skills for innovation and entrepreneurship; in schools, universities, tailored programmes for budding social entrepreneurs and a healthy dollop of glue in the form of intermediaries, who help connect people, exchange learning, develop bodies of evidence and good practice; that bind things together a little.
These things are not wrong. They are good. They offer support where it is needed. But to repeat, their locus of attention is the individual. The individual organisation and its relationship to the whole.
Why am I labouring this point? Bring on Part Two.
Part Two – Innovations that are social in both their ends and their means
It has long been a mantra that social innovations or ideas should involve and include those who they are professing to work in the service of. And any commercial product developer would think it an anathema to do anything else. Of course you need to engage in the habits, motivations, values, behaviours and needs of the people you are attempting to serve. Many take this further than ‘user centred design’ and fundamentally place people at the heart of production and ‘delivery’ of social value – with great impact and to great effect.
But anyone with half an eye will see that something very big is happening in this country and in many other countries, which mirrors the behaviours and fates of many communities of people over recorded history. I don’t want to talk extensively about Brexit, particularly in a place like Catalonia, which has seen some seriously charged and turbulent political disruption over the last few years. But the UK is divided over Brexit, and is experiencing sustained insecurity over its future; and many people who voted for Brexit, and many people who The Young Foundation consistently speak to up and down the country, say very similar things. They say that they don’t feel listened to. That they do not feel that they matter.
In different ways, we see young people taking to the streets to ‘Make the world Greta again’ – mobilising in sustained and effective ways to raise their voices to raise the alarm of the climate emergency. They want to be heard, they want their world and their futures to be protected. They don’t feel that either are assured. In Hong Kong, for different reasons, we see young people taking to the streets and trying to make their voice heard; to shore up their rights. The Basic Law: One Country Two Systems was always going to crack over time. But young people in Hong Kong are in no doubt of their mission – and their willingness to take serious risks to protect their rights.
When people feel do not feel listened to, and are disaffected, they feel out of control. When people feeling out of control is to seek to take control. There will always be protests, they are necessary. They are the pointed end of the sharp stick that provokes and demands broader change. One of the most urgent things we need to do, in terms of support for social innovation is to systematically, at every step of the way, listen to, involve and devolve power and control to people who are claim to be working in the service of. And this extends way beyond the democratic process.
In the UK, it’s easy to assume that this popular desire for more control is only and always about the EU, or Whitehall, or a failing democracy, or those damned politicians who pocketed all those expenses, or who made sure no-one went to prison after the crash of 2008 or who took us to war in Iraq, or who won’t curb emissions as fast as we need.
But it isn’t. It’s everywhere. In different ways, different guises, that need to be listened to, to feel more in control, has been growing for a very, very long time. Well before our fated referendum.
And while our eyes are wide and intently focused on what might be the rawest and most significant event to affect the UK in living memory, that desire for control is driving a lot of policy and practice outside politics, in the realm of civil society and those who resource it.
This is important. Because those gaps outside work, outside politics, outside shopping and Netflix, in that empty, ungoverned space of un-coerced association – in our communities in other words – is where we are finding agency, a sense of control, mutual support and the capacity to innovate and transform. And public institutions need to find ways of working with that power, involving communities in ways which demand that they, much more so than the people, shift their policies and practice.
Which brings us to Part Three. Why we do things.
Part Three – What’s the Point Of Social Innovation?
Perhaps it seems a stupid question to pose, but it is something to bear in mind. What’s the point of supporting social innovation? This is where the definition from Frances Westley et al become important to state. Social innovation should be concerned with shifting the “resource and authority flows, social and cultural values of the system that created the problem in the first place”. In other words, we shouldn’t be making a market out of social problems; we should be seeking, as far as possible, to work to prevent the root causes of those problems.
But we are still sorting out our kit at base camp when it comes to Part Three. Despite some trailblazers in the field of ‘system innovation’ (both in terms of theory and practice) we are still very much at the beginning of the journey. And most of the support for social innovation over the last decade has been about supporting individual organisations to create solutions to the effects of social challenges, they have not (for the vast part) focused on creating solutions to the causes of those challenges.
And of course, ‘root causes’ is where things get much more complicated. This is where we have to swim upstream to try and find the source of the problem. And it is in this realm that everything becomes murky and interconnected, more visibly, entwined within very large systems, cultures, values and worldviews.
Ultimately, it takes you into a place of deep complexity, where philosophy, political ideology and values lie. Where conventional ways of looking and understanding things begin to unravel, and look insufficient for the task. This can be daunting and paralysing. And our little technocratic minds can spend a lot of time trying to analyse a system, construct interventions, claim some degree of understanding and control over this strange and unpredictable creature we call humanity.
One thing that feels true, and right is that all of that finance and other infrastructure which has set out to support social innovation, needs to shift to be viewed through the lens of collaboration and ‘collective impact’. Although this latter term will probably be challenged, let it serve as a way of describing and prescribing the necessity for collaboration, across and within different sectors if we are in any way serious at supporting structural, systemic forms of change.
How many times have you sat in meetings, conferences, gatherings where people lament that we must collaborate more? More than one, less than a hundred is my bet. And yet the infrastructure of support for social change and innovation does not support that need. Just as we have seen the rise of cultural individualism over the last forty years, we see an almost blind adherence to individual organisations as the locus of our attention for support and finance.
So what would a social innovation ecosystem look like which shifted its perspective and explicitly set out to support collaboration and partnership to support social innovation? A few recommendations below.
Why not consider three small things…?
- Start with What Matters. Whether working on an issue or in a place, bring the voices, experiences and perspectives of people into the conversation – in ways that feel respectful and right. Too often, funders and policy makers are determining and interpreting the views of people, rather than listening to them. Where possible, do that at a scale, and in a way that mobilises and supports those voices in creating more change, beyond your own interests. If you think you’re doing that already – challenge yourself. Are you really?
- Collaborative Finance – Funders should experiment with bringing their different kinds of money together. Too often funders hold specific kind of funding, which can only support specific kinds of things. That’s perhaps more true of social investors as it is philanthropists and foundations. Partnerships and collaborations for social change demand all sorts of things. Carrying around one tool in your funding box won’t meet all those demands. So once you’ve worked out what matters to the people you’re trying to serve, don’t let your own particular set of constraints limit what you can support. Team up, partner, bring that finance to bear in a way that serves – rather than shapes and controls.
- Re-think innovation support programmes. With a few minor tweaks all those cohort based accelerators and incubators could be dedicated to supporting individual organisations both to realise their potential and forge impactful collaborations with others. So instead of populating these programmes only with entrepreneurs, bring in a whole range of people who all care about a particular issue; whether they are from industry, government, politics, businesses, academia, community leaders or budding academics looking for more than citations to evidence their success. Tailor support which advances all these people’s capacity and agency to support social innovation and change; incentivise meaningful collaborations. There are thousands of different ways of designing this kind of intervention, from place-based 100 Day Challenges pioneered by the Rapid Results Institute, to systems accelerators like Alt/NOW trialled by the Banff Centre for Arts & Creativity.
Helen Goulden, September 2019