Social Innovation’s Imperative to Be Ambitious and Think Big
SiG Note: This article was originally published on July 30, 2015 as part of the SIX Global Council series on Ideas for the Future. It has been cross-posted with permission from Social Innovation Exchange (SIX).
The world is awash with innovation reports and indices comparing the innovation prowess of different countries, cities, and corporations. The two cornerstone assumptions underpinning these reports are that innovation is:
- Anchored in technology, and
- A driver of economic growth essential for societal success.
“Technological innovation,” says the World Economic Forum’s recent Global Competitiveness Report 2014-2015, “is the key to a competitive and growing economy, unlocking major productivity gains and allowing companies to move towards higher value-added activities.”
By contrast, social innovation remains a modestly growing separate domain, unconnected to most national mainstream innovation systems. By “mainstream,” I mean the combined technological and business innovation domain, often referred to as STEM or Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics, which is the beneficiary of generous government support across the OECD.
This gap between mainstream and social innovation is a problem if we are to collectively apply our ingenuity to tackling this century’s pressing global challenges. Those include climate change, the loss of biodiversity, and deepening social inequality, all of which are torqued by population growth now upwardly revised by the UN to reach 10.9 billion people by the year 2100.
In addition, social innovators’ own success requires that they reach beyond their important existing networks with other social innovators. UK academic Dominic Chalmers has identified a key insight for social innovators to succeed:
“If social innovators identify too strongly as social innovators, and develop strong ties to other social innovators at the expense of more diverse and distributed groups, the innovation process may be starved of new knowledge and capabilities. This myopic ‘local’ sourcing of knowledge within narrow domains is well documented in other industries and risks limiting the creative potential of social innovation.”
Light at the End of the Tunnel
To be sure, there are important glimmers of change seen with governments. As well, some corporates are beginning to align their efforts with big challenges facing the world. The large US corporation DuPont has shifted its research agenda so that its “inclusive innovation” focuses on “applying science to great challenges.” Intel China is embracing the “power of corporate social innovation” noting that if “the purpose of technology is to improve people’s lives, we have to break down the boundaries between technology and social innovation.”
In Silicon Valley, the debate on its social role is beginning. As Michael S. Malone’s January 2015 article in MIT Technology Review, “The Purpose of Silicon Valley,” put the question: “Capital and engineering talent have been flocking to seemingly trivial mobile apps. But would we really be better off if more startups instead went directly after big problems?”
Here are three things the social innovation movement needs to do if it is to expand its societal role and shift how the mainstream operates:
1. Insinuate itself into national innovation systems.
This is important because social innovators need to participate in and shift their national innovation system to extend their impact. Achieving this involves strengthening the articulation of social innovation’s value, expanding its partnerships with other sectors, being more policy active, and ensuring that social innovation doesn’t exist only in its own silo (notwithstanding the on-going importance of social innovator peer networks).
Grand Challenges Canada (GCC), a $240 million platform that is part of the global Grand Challenges network, has attempted to explain what it would mean to combine STEM, business and social innovation. They articulate an “integrated innovation” vision. “Integrated Innovation,” says GCC, “is the coordinated application of scientific/technological, social and business innovation to develop solutions to complex challenges. This approach does not discount the singular benefits of each of these types of innovation, but rather highlights the powerful synergies that can be realized by aligning all three. Integrated Innovation recognizes that scientific/technological innovations have a greater chance of going to scale to achieve global impact and sustainability if they are developed from the outset in conjunction with appropriate social and business innovations.”
2. Advocate for social outcomes as a cornerstone metric for evaluating national innovation systems.
This is important because social innovators need to be able to access more talent, technology and intellectual capital than currently possible on their own. With OECD countries’ social spending envelopes (health, education, employment insurance, pensions, etc) growing exponentially and unsustainably, this should not be difficult.
3. Develop and adopt an ethical framework to guide (social) innovation.
This is important because we always need to be actively thinking about our “north star,” ensuring that we re-engage the most vulnerable people and ecologies in society. Any useful technological or social innovation can be applied for malevolent purposes. And all innovations – social as well as technological – have unintended consequences or even a shadow side. A Declaration of Action from a July 2015 Canadian cross-sector retreat examining Social R&D called for an innovation system that “leads from a new ethical framework for R&D for public good.”
For example, will the sharing economy improve social good or fast-track growth of the new precariat? A growing number of people struggle to cope with the “slow but continual downward pressure on the value and availability of work,” as many have observed, such as Derek Thompson in his troubling assessment “A World Without Work” in The Atlantic (July/August 2015).