An Overview of Social Innovation

By John BristowComments Off on An Overview of Social Innovation

This is taken from an article on page 32 of the Observer on 3 April 2011 by Geoff Mulgan, Chief Executive of the Young Foundation, in London and Visiting Professor at University College, London, the London School of Economics and the University of Melbourne. Previously he was:Director of Policy at 10 Downing Street under British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Director of the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit (formerly known as the Performance and Innovation Unit), Co-founder and Director of the London based think tank Demos (from 1993–98), Chief adviser to Gordon Brown MP in the early 1990s.

This short article is linked to the launch by the Young Foundation on 12th April 2011 of a new organisation called Action for Happiness to act as a hub for knowledge about happiness and well being – its foundations, how to promote and measure it etc. .See www.actionforhappiness.org . The Young Foundation, mainly works on social innovation – the design and launch of new social organisations, but also produces some publications on social innovation and the state of British society.

 In this article Mulgan reflects on the rise in popularity of the idea of social innovation. He says that often the innovations that matter most may not be in things but in the way we live together and organise ourselves. While the relevance of, and market for, new technology remains strong, and material needs are important, he points to other human needs that remain unfulfilled, reflected in the growing interest in quality of life, well being or happiness, and the lack of any significant increase in happiness since the mid-50s of the last century in the more developed economies, despite more material wealth and consumption. He alludes to how mental and physical health is better not just in richer societies but also those that are more equal at the same time (c.f. Spirit Level by R Wilkinson and K Pickett which maps income inequality against the UNESCO measures of social and personal health in a number of countries, with income inequality not being linked to right or left wing politics). Social innovation is not new; he reminds us of Robert Owen (the co-operative movement), Florence Nightingale (social and health care reforms) and Michael Young (Which? magazine and the Open University). But it is seen as more critical at this time.

 He defines social innovation as new ideas, organisations and solutions that can change the way we live by addressing social needs in new ways, especially those that reach and empower those in the poverty trap. He gives examples such as Muhammed Yunus’ Grameen bank, a social business or enterprise, bypassing the powerful banks and mafia-like loan merchants in Bangladesh and empowering poor people to look after themselves by having access to “micro-credit”. This has gained recognition through Yunus getting the Nobel prize. He mentions too a commercial venture, M-Pesa, that uses mobile phones in East Africa to provide a new banking system for poor people. Other examples he gives are: urban farms, bicycle hire schemes and holistic child care centres.which in some cases may be co-operatives, in others a local government initiative.

 Social innovation is also defined by its process – a social one – thriving on collaboration, hope and local empowerment, doing things with people rather than to or for them. New ideas and role models or exemplars emerge from local initiatives rather than in university research laboratories. Internet technology is a key enabler of this, he points out, as it uses “crowd sourcing” to share ideas and experiments in new ways of addressing social needs – and I would add that if these innovations can be environmentally as well as economically sustainable while bringing people to act together for a better society then they are all the more relevant.

The way social innovation works he sees as haphazard – and sees this as similar to the way innovations in science and technology in the 19th century came about often through gentleman amateurs. Mulgan argues that there needs to be more support to help social innovations to grow to scale and to influence or shape the wider social system, while recognising that a self-organising social process is an inherent aspect of their development. Government is taking an interest, realising that economic growth alone is not enough. Examples he gives are: Obama’s social innovation office in the White House and a $650M education innovation fund, the EU research and development fund being allocated to citizens ideas as well as new hardware, other countries (such as France and Australia) finding ways to “incubate” social innovation, and the interest of the recent Labour and the current Coalition government in the UK (as well as the French President, Sarkozy) in measuring well being or happiness and assessing government policy in relation to this and not just GDP. This reminds me of the triple measures suggested by the Economist a few years back of net national income, income inequality (looking for a more healthy gap) and the health of the natural environment (rather than GDP alone providing a “grossly distorted picture”).  .

 Geoff Mulgan has written a number of books including: Communication and Control networks and the new economies of communication (1991), Politics in an Anti-Political Age (1994), Connexity (1997), Good and Bad Power: the Ideals and Betrayals of Government (Penguin 2006) and The Art of Public Strategy (2009). He wrote  numerous Demos reports and pamphlets.

Culture, Patterns in Societal Change, Quality of Life
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