The Walrus Live – The Future of Social Innovation?

The Future of Social Innovation?  Guess where social innovators got stuck on this subject?  They never got past the moderator’s request that they define the term "social innovation.”

Seriously, that was the first question put forward during an afternoon session at The Walrus Live, by Evergreen founder, Geoff Cape.  He pursued the question from a couple of angles, but everything that followed was a congenial waste of time.

There’s not much you can say about the future of something you can’t describe.  You can only think incomplete thoughts about that which you can’t identify.  To spend an hour uttering meaningful sentences, about a term that had no agreed meaning, was a strain for panel and audience alike.

Still, in my view that’s what resulted.  There were warm anecdotes and expressions of mutual admiration on the stage, but the future of this specific practice was never addressed because they couldn’t articulate, with any specificity, what social innovation is.

This is not merely a definitional problem.  In the middle of the Evergreen Brickworks, halfway through 12 hours of talks, attended by hundreds of professional social innovation practitioners, it was important to know what the hell we were talking about.

In private conversation later, I tried broaching the issue of how social innovation is different from other kinds of innovation.  I was told variously that it was innovation for good, that it was good for society, that it was anything involving groups that solves problems ... but no one I spoke to could pull together a coherent statement that broadly captured the meaning.

Obviously, the easy part of this definition is innovation, which former Governor General, David Johnson, had capably defined for us, resorting to Latin to distinguish it from invention.  It’s the modifier, “social,” that seems to stump people.

Johnson later spoiled this moment of clarity by declaring that social innovation occurs any time two or more people get together to solve a problem and that the people sitting around him were socially innovating at that very moment.  Can it be that all conversation about doing good qualifies as social innovation?  My impression is that a lot of this talk is a substitute for action, but if the talk is in fact the action, social innovation isn’t as potent as I’d thought.

One fellow, leader of a virtuous and enterprising non-profit group, told me that social innovation is anything that does good.  I said, “That’s stupid.  There are many ways to do good, and social innovation is only one.”  So, he fumbled around with the idea that social innovators do good for society, which didn’t address my comments at all and introduced a new falsehood in addition to the assumption that all innovations affecting society prove to be good.

Focussing on what makes social innovation, “social,” I look for defining characteristics in the method and outcome of innovation.  The idea of innovation as personal or organizational practice is a 21st century commonplace, but in the commercial realm, it’s driven by the need to overcome competition and generate profits.

Of course, corporations all believe their success depends on satisfying a social need, which would make them social innovators.  But this rationale doesn’t quite work, having resulted in the perfection of cigarettes and hand guns, fatally defective cars, and epidemics of personal data loss, among other good works.

Maybe this is leading somewhere helpful.  Social innovation would logically be the opposite of antisocial innovation.  Antisocial innovation would be innovation that is actually hostile to the inclusion of broad interests in its design and in the distribution of its benefits.  The singular profit motive in planning, the decision made in secret, the absence of ethical or moral feedback loops, the exclusive enjoyment of benefits by the corporation and its shareholders... these would appear to be standard operating procedures for the dominant companies of the 19th and 20th centuries.

In contrast, social innovation would consider more than one bottom line, seek multiple inputs in planning, be open about its intentions, and be responsive to feedback of its concerned communities.  That would make sense of the term because we’re agreed about the meaning of “social” and “innovation” separately.

Perhaps the attempt to define the term seemed unnecessary to people already engaged in enterprises based on those defining principles.  They might be irritated to learn that someone has devoted a blog to the words they use for the work they do.

We could always have cheated and simply looked it up on the hundreds of smart phones in attendance.  Although you won’t find a consensus on what social innovation is, I like the Stanford definition: a novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just than existing solutions and for which the value accrues primarily to society as a whole rather than private individuals.

Here’s the catch for me: unstated principles get forgotten, get compromised, get misunderstood, get selectively applied, and are sometimes used for unintended purposes.  If you can’t say what you mean, repeat it, and remember it, sooner or later it will begin to lose the force of meaning.

The phenomenon of corporate greenwashing is a case in point.  A principled approach to the environmental improvement of a company’s behaviour requires clear intentions, along with formal structures and systems to monitor and modify that behaviour in accordance with declared goals.  Otherwise, greening devolves into words without action, motivated outwardly in response to what the competition is doing and what the public wants to hear.

Walk along any detergent aisle in a grocery store.  Observe how much green is on the packaging, and how little environmentally benign product is actually in the packages.  Marketers have cherry-picked the vocabulary of environmentalists, requiring the least possible change from the manufacturer while conveying a comforting sense of virtue to the consumer.  That’s what happens when the language of principles decays into meaningless fragments.

It’s important that this doesn’t happen from a management science perspective as well.  Start-up corporations, whether commercial or charitable, have choices to make about how they want to work.  If social innovation represents a real alternative to the blood simple corporate imperatives of the 19th and 20th century, we have to be clear and conscious of the differences.

Corporate design is a messy business.  But like all design, it gets easier with clarity of purpose and principles.  Ironically, it got really messy for Mark Zuckerberg, who built an online empire based on an anti-social innovation in social media, for example.

Facebook innovates really well, but inputs are narrowed by the control and self-interest of its owner, who confessed to Congress that he had to rethink his assumptions about what was good for society, for Facebook, and for Mark Zuckerberg.  This clearly got confused when he used the private interactions of Facebook users to sell data in an uncontrolled way to the highest bidder.  The legal and political consequences are still unfolding.  The high blown purpose of Facebook’s founders appears to have dissolved during the long, bitter legal fight for ownership and control.

As the winner of that fight, billionaire Zuckerberg has joined the global club of great swinging dicks – CEOs who have built dominant corporations and achieved spectacular levels of personal wealth.  As a social innovator, however, pale, ringleted young Mark looks like one of the old boys, more at home in a deep wingback chair with a fat stogie in his mouth than in his everyday t-shirt, anonymously joining a drum circle at sunset on the beach.


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