Irresistibly Biased? The Blind Spots of Social innovation
Irresistibly Biased? The Blind Spots of Social innovation
By Remko Berkhout /

What’s the state of play in the fast paced world of social innovation? The Unusual Suspects Festival in London seemed a good place to find out. Collaboration was the theme. The claims made were high. The stakes may be even higher. A dazzling line up of initiatives were on display, backed up by discussions and debates on everything from the future of public services to the role of the arts in social change to the game-changing potential of social entrepreneurs.

Social innovation has an irresistible global appeal. Who wouldn’t be persuaded by the challenge of mobilizing all our skills, energies and creativity to solve the world’s toughest problems? Students are increasingly pursuing social innovation as a career path. The UK government is championing it as a key strategy in the ‘Big Society.’ Initiatives like Shared Lives Plus  in healthcare,Code Club in education, and the return of community organizing at Localitywere among hundreds of exciting examples showcased at the Festival.

Thanks to the work of the Social Innovation Exchange, the impact of such projects travels to places as far apart as South Korea and Argentina, where innovators are working on similar grand challenges. Innovation is also fast becoming the mainstream in the international development community, with leading donor agencies like Britain’s Department for International Development,USAID and the Omidyar Network throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at innovations linked to povertyhumanitarian disasters and government transparency.

But perhaps this buzz disguises some important biases that undermine the power of social innovation, at least if it aims to transform the systems and structures that perpetuate poverty and inequality.  I came away from the Festival with four of these biases swirling around my brain: a bias towards co-optation instead of genuine collaboration; ‘bigger is always better;’ ‘solving problems’ is more urgent than building the capacity to find solutions; and a serial avoidance of politics.

According to management guru Peter Senge, collaboration is the human face of systems change. Addressing the most pressing global challenges demands collective action on an unprecedented scale across all sectors of life. We need more ‘public-private partnerships’ and ‘multi-stakeholder initiatives.’

But let’s not forget that systemic change is impossible without contestation. Challenging dominant ideas and debating alternatives in the public sphere is a key source of creative tension. “Having a good fight before getting to yes” is essential to building compromises and constituencies, as the sociologist Xavier de Souza Briggs concludes in his book ‘Democracy as Problem Solving.” Protecting spaces for ‘unruly politics’ and the exercise of strong countervailing power is vital for societal renewal.

So it’s highly problematic to hear Brooks Newmark, Britain’s “Minister for Civil Society,” say that social organizations should “stick to their knitting and keep out of politics” at a meeting that announced the dawn of a “people-helping-people age.” Just get on with your work, pay your taxes (so that government can bail out more banks), and don’t expect the state to bail out ordinary people.

Instead, here’s some money and the odd award for you to ‘innovate’ your way to helping people deal with a collapsing economy and a social safety net that’s disappearing. And so the social innovation community gets busy devising ingenious volunteering schemes in hospitals and facilitating communities to re-organize their depleted assets. Is this collaboration or co-optation?

The second bias is scale. “You are playing too small,” declared the writerCharles Leadbeater to a roomful of social innovators at a discussion of ‘Making It Big,’ a report issued by the UK agency NESTA. The report proposes some helpful steps to scale up social innovations, but omits to acknowledge that bigger is not always better. On the contrary, the desire to ‘make things big’ is what has caused many of our toughest problems to emerge or expand in the first place. If there’s one thing to learn from systems thinking, it’s that the smallest of gestures can make the biggest difference and vice versa.

The problem with the scaling-up debate is that it’s dominated by management science and its focus on market development and organizational theory. Developments in the social realm rarely conform to such dynamics. Nor do they fit into to the timeframes and ‘value for money’ metrics of success that funders and policymakers tend to apply. For example, studies of social movements show that their real impact lies through changing the climate of ideas or expanding the range of policy alternatives. The timeframes of these processes are generational, not annual, and their effects are usually difficult to control or predict.

As an illustration, take the Austrian town of Graz where I live. In Graz I’ve discovered a lively ecosystem of activists and social entrepreneurs who are ‘moving and shaking’ public life through everything from co-working schemes toprojects for urban renewal  and  alternative street festivals. A good many of them went to same alternative secondary school which was set up in the 1970s by parents who wanted to change the system through concrete ‘pre-figurative’ alternatives.

By the social innovation standards of today, they failed. The school is still small and struggling, and the education system they set out to shake up is as stuck in its ways as it was 40 years ago. Yet haphazardly perhaps, it has produced a generation of change makers that are now at the forefront of creating innovations, big and small, across many areas of social and economic life.

What these activists also have in common is that they don’t worry excessively about problem solving, a third social innovation bias that plays out unproductively in at least two ways. First there’s the myth of “solutionism”, a term coined by Evgeny Morozov to describe the global obsession with ‘fixing our world,’ preferably with technological solutions or band aids while ignoring the deeper dynamics of the problem. Second, problem solving only taps into a small part of the reservoirs of human creativity and civic energy. To paraphrase the futurist Buckminster Fuller, people should be architects of their future, not slaves.

The upshot of these biases is an over-arching denial of politics and power. My impression from the Unusual Suspects Festival was that little deep digging is happening in the social innovation world to get at the underlying factors that perpetuate inequality and plunder the planet. Popular tunes among innovators include grand statements about ‘broken systems’ and ‘unprecedented crises’ which demand that we ‘hack’ or ‘reboot’ our world. And then off we go, co-creating and experimenting our way to a bright emergent future.

Coupled with energy, urgency is a contagious mix, but perhaps it would be useful to take an extra minute and ask some basic questions about what is going on: who benefits from the status quo, and who will benefit from any social innovation? Which problems rise to the top and which are ignored in competitions, policy papers and social innovation funding?

To illustrate these questions, take the example of Alberta’s one billion dollar Social Innovation Endowment, which was also featured at the Unusual Suspects Festival. According to its own press release, this new “monster fund”  puts Alberta’s “growing savings” to work in “resolving complex social issues like poverty or family violence…[by using] new thinking, new approaches, and risk-taking that can be more effectively implemented outside of traditional government approaches.”

Big money, big words, but if these ambitions are genuine then  a substantial part of the endowment should be invested in the deeper structures that give life and oxygen to society, like an education system that promotes life-long learning, or deepening democracy, strengthening gender equality and protecting biodiversity.

In addition, where do these ‘growing savings’ come from?  The answer is royalties from one of the dirtiest forms of energy in the world. You would expect at least a mention of the controversial Alberta Tar Sands and the Keystone Pipeline in the Endowment’s strategy—probably the most important reality that frames the questions of who gains and who loses from social innovation in the province.

It’s none too soon for the social innovation community to throw away their rose tinted glasses. As for the next festival of unusual suspects in London or wherever, how about a focus on politics for a change? Now that really would be a social innovation.

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Irresistibly Biased? The Blind Spots of Social innovation