It’s time to innovate social innovation

By Fábio Deboni, Executive Manager at the Sabin Institute.

While Social Innovation seems to continue to be on the rise, there is also some disagreement as to what it actually means. This issue has been previously discussed, and the purpose of this article is to discuss the need for the approaches of/for/about social innovation to also be able to innovate and reinvent themselves.

Innovation – Where, what for, for whom?

Despite the various definitions out there, I tend to prefer this summary definition by Canadian colleagues about their perception of ‘social innovation’: new, inclusive and collaborative approaches to solve complex problems. 

In my opinion, this summary deserves only 2 important addenda:

  1. ‘solve’ could be replaced by ‘tackle’, since complex problems are difficult to ‘solve’; and
  2. the phrase ‘complex problems’ could qualify the kind of problems concerned by more clearly outlining the socio-environmental, democratic, civilizing and related aspects, and failing to do so would result in us not standing out from the ‘conventional crowd’ in the innovation environment.

OK, we have a definition – but does that solve anything?

No. Although many people look for an (off-the-shelf) definition to call their own, we have seen that this does not change pointers in the organisational models and in the systemic arrangements currently in place.

So it is worth asking whether this craving for (social) innovation has led us or at least prompted us to:

– tackle the socio-environmental and civilizing problems that plague us in a systematic, fair and collaborative way? Or is it that in some cases we have been even more exclusive and elitist?

– strike a balance of power among the various social, economic and political actors? Or is it that in some cases this has become even more pronounced?

Questions such as these and so many others should be asked more often among actors who wish to ride the wave of social innovation, but unfortunately it is not what we have seen. 

Coming back to the concept, it is also worth highlighting some insights from Australian colleagues (TACSI) who consider that principles are more relevant than methods in their journey through this agenda. Without a doubt, it sounds like something in conflict with what we have seen here today: a pervasive barrage of methods/tools (fads with foreign names, etc.) overriding ‘background’ reflections on the problems that need to be tacked and on the initiatives to this end.

Who is spearheading this in Brazil?

A tour of experiences in several countries shows a wide variety of ‘spearheaders’ of this agenda in each local environment.

Ranging from more individual initiatives (Canada) to a strong government incentive (United Kingdom), to the promotion of civil society and foundations (Switzerland and Australia), through academia (Mexico), social entrepreneurs (Spain) and cooperatives (Germany) , the spearheaders vary from country to country, thus showing that this cast of actors should ideally be involved as a whole in this agenda, although in practice just the odd actor will be taking up a (real) facilitating role in these ecosystems. 

Here we can see several interrelated sub-ecosystems, and it seems that we are yet to realise that their convergence is where we could find the potential spot for an effective social innovation ecosystem. 

The chart below is for illustrative purposes only and has no scale; it is an attempt to ‘draw’ the interfaces across the various ecosystems that could make up the/an ecosystem of social innovation to raise the profile of this debate.

The various ‘ecosystems’ represented by circles/ovals help us to put on the radar a wider array of sectors and ‘silos’ that have participated (or have the potential to participate) in each country’s social innovation ecosystems. The challenge per se involves interfaces, convergences and ‘grey’ areas between sectors, thus reflecting the multistakeholder character of social innovation. In short, social innovation should take place in a cross-sector manner. 

Are we much distant from the perception and scope of this scheme in Brazil? I do have many doubts, even though I continue to be hopeful. 

Snags and challenges

Similar challenges are easily identified around the world. Ours here in Brazil – understanding, funding, coordination/ecosystem, tools and evaluation, among others – can also be found in other countries and demonstrate that there is much to be done not only in Brazil. 

Given that we are lagging behind other regions (Europe, Australia, Canada, etc.) in terms of understanding, promoting and working on this agenda, more fundamental aspects of it have now been overcome or are well underway. One of these involves the challenge of understanding. Concepts and definitions of social innovation for each country are now established and, although the topic may still generate some noise at the local level, this issue seems to have been overcome based on the preference for a principle-based approach. 

In other words, these foreign experiences seem to place less emphasis on the ‘best’ concept and more on the principles that any social innovation approach must follow.

Although these principles also vary from location to location, they involve collaboration between different actors and sectors, transparent relationships, a medium-long term vision, a focus on structural and systemic issues, more horizontal models of governance, etc. 

Another snag in this agenda is the aspect of funding. While public support in several countries was and continues to be very relevant to raise the profile of the issue, in developing countries government initiatives such as the ‘Portugal Inovação Social’ experience’ are likely to be badly needed. 

Although it is also faced with dilemmas and challenges, the progress it has leveraged based not only on the availability of funding (many millions of euro) is undeniable, and also its role as a ‘spearheader’ with the local ecosystem. 

The initiative of Enimpacto in Brazil deserves special mention, though it is more limited to the impact business agenda.

Innovating social innovation

While challenges are pressing and varied, it is also essential to debate a sense of ‘more of the same’ in the existing initiatives of/for/about social innovation. This has been discussed before, which reinforces the perception that the agenda seems to have fallen into the ‘quality seal’ trap. 

There seems to be more progress in discourse (narratives, seals, brands) than in the approaches adopted by these ‘social innovation’ initiatives. Rethinking approaches involves resizing projects, programmes, partners, scope of action, governance, etc., in light of the approach to tackle the structural causes of the complex and pressing socio-environmental problems upon us. I wonder if that is what we see out there today?

But then what would it be like to innovate the way we engage in social innovation? 

In this context, innovating involves:

– spreading and interconnecting the various initiatives across the country, thus alleviating regional gaps and devolving power 

– bringing in more people from the top, bottom and off-the-grid in discussions and definitions of/about the ecosystem

– placing emphasis more on the principles and practices of genuine mutual collaboration and less on fad tools and techniques, even if they are necessary

– engaging in a broad and critical discussion of the capital available to foster social innovation in light of their allocation in order to leverage positive social and environmental impacts for more people and communities (and to reduce inequalities) regardless of the organisational model, the legal framework and the ‘business’ model

– taking a critical and ‘political’ role (This refers to civic action and strengthening of the public domain, and it does not refer to political organisations and parties.) of social innovation as a driving force that reconciles the public and private levels, in line with a European ecosystem principle: “social innovation will never be in favour of weakening/deteriorating public services”

– sustaining long-term partnerships, projects and initiatives, breaking the logic of annual cycle partnerships/projects.

Far from trying to exhaust this discussion, I will choose to stop here so as not to upset readers. On my blog, I continue to ‘confuse in order to clarify,’ as a Brazilian poet would put it: