By Paul Braithwaite
Social Innovation as a term has been around for a while – and the unnamed practice has arguably been around for centuries – but it has only recently entered our lexicon in Northern Ireland.
So it’s important to ask the question – is it just yet another piece of jargon, used essentially to describe what has until now been known as good community development work?
Or worse – is it a barely concealed agenda to commercialise the voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) sector?
This quote reflects some of these genuine concerns and I suspect these are shared by many in the VCSE sector in NI:
“Basically social innovation for me is what poor people do every day to survive and what we in community development have tried to do together with ‘marginalised groups’ as long as I can remember. The trendy word is for me not more than a brilliant way for authorities to say we don’t want and don’t know how to handle social needs”
Hans Andersson, Creative Director, Cesam, Sweden (courtesy SCDC)
Ultimately, terminology (like beauty) is in the eye of the beholder. Both social innovation and community development have clear and broadly agreed definitions (see below), but that doesn’t mean everyone adheres to them. Both are vulnerable to a hollowing out as a result of poor practice or being used as a vehicle for other agendas.
Community development centres on people as the primary agents of change in their own lives. At heart, community development envisages social justice – an equalisation of the distribution of power and resources within society.
Social Innovation – if it is to be transformative – must start with an endorsement of this ethos of community development. Those claiming to practice social innovation must have humility enough to recognise that the VCSE sector has been putting this into practice, with some truly innovative results, for decades.
“enables people to work collectively to bring about positive social change. This long term process starts from people’s own experience and enables communities to work together to: identify their own needs and actions; take collective action using their strengths and resources; develop their confidence, skills and knowledge; challenge unequal power relationships; promote social justice, equality and inclusion in order to improve the quality of their own lives, the communities in which they live and societies of which they are a part.”
See also Rural Community Network’s ‘A Strategic Framework for Community Development in NI’
“Social innovations are new solutions (products, services, models, markets, processes etc.) that simultaneously meet a social need (more effectively than existing solutions) and lead to new or improved capabilities and relationships and better use of assets and resources. In other words, social innovations are both good for society and enhance society’s capacity to act.”
For more information see the Trust’s 2013 report ‘Growing Social Innovation NI’
And, being true to its own definition, and to the user-centred world of design from which social innovation draws much inspiration, that shouldn’t be a problem.
A failure to put people at the centre of creating new solutions to social problems would leave social innovation practice vulnerable to being elitist and even disempowering.
But social innovation has a few tricks up its sleeve that can build on and enhance good community development practice. Here’s a few that stand out for me:
Whilst all innovations start small, the ambition is there from the outset to move beyond the confines set by geography and funding programmes to replicate and grow in order to challenge entrenched systems and transform society. Community-based Restorative Justice is an excellent locally-grown example of this.
Alternative financial models:
Contrary to popular belief social innovation does necessarily mean revenue generation. Social innovations can be grant-funded, social enterprises or even for-profit. The starting point is not the financial model but finding the solution that can generate the greatest social impact.
Of course, social innovations that can financially self-sustain will be more readily able to work at scale, but innovations in some fields, for example participatory democracy, are always likely to need grant-funding.
The point is not to be locked into any particular model at the outset.
The pre-eminent experts in relation to any social problem are the people who experience them. They should be at the centre of generating solutions too, but they may not have the technical knowledge necessary to realise the full range of possibilities.
The same is true of the VCSE sector. This is where the creative potential of cross-sectoral collaboration comes in – bringing together people with diverse backgrounds and skillsets is a powerful way of expanding the range of potential solutions.
The Trust is experimenting with this approach through its Techies in Residence programme.
Many social innovation approaches draw heavily from practices within the field of design. Human-centred design is one particular example of this. It brings a number of practical, common-sense tools, to shake up the way in which solutions, or projects, are conceived.
These include spending more time articulating the precise problem needing resolved, considering a whole range of possible solutions (not just the one you had inevitably already thought of before you started!), prototyping the best ones and refining these (iterating in the jargon) repeatedly through user feedback. Eventually the best solution emerges, with an evidence-base to back it up, ready to present to funders or investors.
So community development and social innovation are not the same thing.
Do they overlap? Yes. Are they mutually dependent? Absolutely.
In the end though new terminology only has value if it helps refresh and progress the quality of our practice. The Trust’s experience to date is that social innovation has the potential to do just that, but we’re happy to be judged by the results.
This blog first appeared on the Building Change Trust website.