This fall, the Quebec Social Innovation Network (RQIS) will launch a new publication on social innovation indicators. This guide follows a broad literature review aimed at better understanding – and measuring – social innovation impacts and processes. We present here a first glimpse of the reflections and approach that led to the upcoming guide.
As social innovation has gained popularity across sectors and disciplines, a common concern is how to evaluate social innovation. In response, several approaches to evaluation have emerged.
Developmental evaluation, for example, provides useful guidelines and tools for evaluating complex and iterative initiatives. This powerful approach has filled a gap in the evaluation field by creating a framework for continuous feedback to nurture the dynamic development of social innovations and address challenges and outcomes as they emerge. It has sparked the interest and engagement of a growing number of organizations as an alternative to more traditional, restrictive evaluation frameworks.
Yet at a more micro level, social innovators continue to ask: how do we actually measure our impact? What are appropriate indicators that will allow us to demonstrate the benefit our initiatives generate? What are the enablers and obstacles to social innovation processes?
Several intentions underlie this quest for clarity:
- social innovators and entrepreneurs need data to develop and scale their initiatives in the right direction, with the right stakeholders;
- governments want to implement proven, efficient and useful programs;
- private corporations want to promote their contribution to social change;
- funders need to improve and adjust their programs to increasing complexity, and;
- organizations want to develop a shared understanding of what social innovation is.
So… what are these indicators? The truth is that they are ubiquitous. Last fall, the RQIS conducted a broad literature review of the existing tools, initiatives and reflections on social innovation indicators. The amount of material accumulated was astonishing: there are indicators to specify the nature of a particular social innovation; others that measure economic, social and organizational impacts; and yet more to help identify and analyze enablers and obstacles during the social innovation process. The main challenge was not so much to gather information relevant to our work, but to find our way through the tremendous amount of data.
A second, more predictable, challenge emerged as we engaged with the data: while some innovators crave a clear and ready-to-use list of social innovation indicators, the diversity of social innovation initiatives – and the unique contexts they operate in – quickly renders such a list as either outmoded or inapplicable.
The nature of social innovation is complexity, throwing up major barriers to developing a common core of social innovation evaluation indicators, including:
- the complexity of multi-sectorial relationships involved in social innovation processes;
- the iterative nature of social innovation (rendering useless standard, linear evaluation models);
- the specificity of each particular context in which a social innovation is implemented and scaled, and;
- the absence of a universal definition — or a clear set of criteria — for social innovation.
How can we reconcile these challenges with the need for common indicators clearly expressed by a plethora of organizations and individuals? The approach the RQIS decided to take is “a reflective decision tree” that draws on the sum of our research to guide the reader through a step-by-step set of questions. This new publication will not pretend to be the “list” some of us are waiting for, but it will offer a customized iterative guide through the specific evaluation issues an innovator is trying to resolve. This approach involves more effort on the user’s part, of course, but who said that social innovation was an easy path? Instead, the user will need to dig deep into the knowledge about the initiative he wants to evaluate: its innovative components; its implementation processes; its social, political, cultural and economic environments; its knowledge mobilization mechanisms; its leadership, etc.
Finally, during this journey, we cannot, in the name of methodology, rigour or perfection, forget what is most important when trying to define indicators for social innovation processes or impacts: above all, such indicators have to be useful, realistic and accessible for the user — and, of course, defined with the participation of or by the end users.The RQIS social innovation indicators guide is due to be published this fall. Sign up for the RQIS newsletter for news about the guide.
 Sources: OECD, JRC European Commission, Handbook on Constructing Composite Indicators: Methodology and User Guide, OECD, 2008, p.51.
Mélanie Bisson is the coordinator of the Quebec Social Innovation Network (RQIS). Previously, as a socio-environmental project manager at Equiterre, Mélanie developed a deep interest and solid experience towards multi-sector partnerships and collaborations. As the RQIS coordinator, she leads a diversity of individuals and organizations who work together to define, promote, and make more accessible social innovation.
Luc Dancause has over ten years of experience as a consultant, researcher and instructor in social innovation, knowledge mobilization, local development and qualitative research methodology. Actively involved in the Quebec Social Innovation Network (RQIS) since 2009, he is member of the board since 2013. Luc authored the upcoming publication on social innovation indicators. He can be followed on Twitter @eldancos