Disruptive Social Innovation – A political challenge

This article, written by Simon Willis (CEO, Young Foundation) and Jeremy Crump (Head of Strategy, Young Foundation) is part of our SIX Global Council series on Ideas for the Future.

Clayton Christensen’s concept of disruptive innovation arose largely from an analysis of the industrial and product market, such as steel, manufacturing and computing. The focal point of the disruptive innovation model is the producers, while the consequences for the civil society remain outside the analysis, however profound those impacts might be. For example, although the reduction in the cost and size of storage devices has enabled radical change with far reaching social consequences, the great majority of these social consequences was unanticipated by anyone in the respective producer industries.

After writing The Innovator’s Dilemma, Christensen’s focus also went beyond the product market, arguing that there should be an innovative transformation also of social institutions (which are often well funded, but lacking in results). Christensen cites as examples reducing the cost and access to medical treatment by increasing the roles of nurse practitioners, cheaper health insurance by resegmenting the insurance market, reducing the cost of education by greater use of online learning, and financial innovations such as micro-lending and Kickstarter.

Christensen’s analysis of product innovation has a tension in its narrative which explains it continuing allure – and which gives it its title. Innovators all reach a point at which they have to jump off a platform which still exists and which they have invested in heavily in order to benefit from the next technological innovation. This is often impossible. They are imprisoned as incumbents by their previous success. We can all identify with the doom laden image of those who were the future once agonising over when to jump.

Social institutions and markets

Does the disruptive innovation model work for social innovation? I suggest that it doesn’t. Of course there are incumbencies, but most of Clayton’s examples of social innovation are technological, market-based examples driving out barriers to efficiency and market freedoms. This is how firms work in product development. Applied to social institutions, it just looks like commodification and neo-liberalism.

The relationship between social institutions and markets is a political question. In the last twenty years, governments have retreated from public ownership by means of privatisation and outsourcing. They have enabled the commodification of services which were previously not in the market. This has undoubtedly delivered change, but it has also been part of a removal of decision making about social institutions and public services from the political arena to the economic. In the market, choice is exercised in proportion to the ability to pay. The individual voice is not heard in the market, and when the policy of the state is principally to create an environment suitable for large scale businesses, the collective voice isn’t effective either.

Where does social innovation stand in this? How can it challenge the real incumbencies of the market, inequalities of income and wealth, the muting of collective voice and the marginalisation of the political?

A new politics of movements

One set of answers is that social innovation is the basis for a new politics. This new politics is that of movements, a horizontalism in contrast to the hierarchical politics of the old Left. David Graeber describes this approach in his discussion of Occupy[1]. The ideology of local collaboration based on equality and consensus, the refusal to engage with existing political structures, and the rejection of hierarchical methods is certainly disruptive in its aims. It’s an approach which is attractive to social innovators, makers, start-ups and hackers. It has proven effective in campaigns and raising awareness. At a local level, this new politics of communities and movements has been a strong driver for change in people’s lives.

But this can’t be the whole story. Disrupting inequalities of wealth and power and creating strong democratic institutions implies engagement with the political institutions of society. This work is not easy, nor is it often fun. Some social innovations have tried by creating new deliberative fora online or using crowdsourcing to fund campaigns. The outcomes have sometimes been transitory or disappointing.

If social innovation is to be disruptive, it must engage with political structures. It must not be seen as an alternative to political engagement. Michael Young, whose centenary is this year, aimed to disrupt almost every incumbency he came across, but he did this by creating new institutions which could embody and sustain this disruption. Even if the results were not always what he intended, Young’s ability to work in the political system of his day was decisive for his lasting achievement.

Disruption as a political act

The political circumstances in which the social innovation movement now finds itself are very different from those in which Michael Young worked. Social innovation has now become the focus of attention for politicians of many types. It appears to offer new ways of supporting services as public funding is reduced, to offer means of engaging untapped innovative talent in the population and to create new sources of investment. The EU Commission is funding social innovation research and investment to create employment, shore up the European social model and enliven local democracy. These are great opportunities for research and investment, but are there opportunities for disruption rather than co-option?

Disruption of social incumbencies and inequalities is a political act and we should not hide this fact. Social innovators need to take politics seriously. In Greece and Spain, political incumbencies have been challenged by radical parties which, in different ways, seek to bridge the gap between movements and the state in ways which is difficult not to consider to be socially innovative. At the same time, sophisticated policy wonks are quick to dismiss some of the new politics, which is emerging from online activism, and social network based movement building. Organisations like Change.org, Avaaz and Get Up seem to incumbents to offer little threat but those who dismiss the mass petition as a pointless place to start have probably forgotten the history of the Chartists, a movement which ultimately transformed our democracy. It started as a 6 point petition in the Welsh valleys among other places. That petition’s preamble included the following words:

“We have looked upon every side, we have searched diligently in order to find out the causes of a distress so sore and so long continued.

“We can discover none, in nature, or in providence.

“Heaven has dealt graciously by the people; but the foolishness of our rulers has made the goodness of God of none effect.

“The energies of a mighty kingdom have been wasted in building up the power of selfish and ignorant men, and its resources squandered for their aggrandisement.

“The good of a party has been advanced to the sacrifice of the good of the nation; the few have governed for the interest of the few, while the interest of the many has been neglected, or insolently and tyrannously trampled upon.” Familiar?

Social innovators everywhere need to develop a new discourse about the institutions of society and how we can work together to disrupt inequality and build democracy.

[1] Graeber, David. The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement. 2013.