30 May 2013

Social innovation … or social behavior rather ?

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A few months ago, I stumbled on a recent issue about Social Innovation (dated Nov. 2012), that provides a good outlook on this nascent topic, which is right in the wave of the burgeoning segment of social economy.

I consider this document as a good starting point to get familiar with the scope of social innovation, that’s why it deserves to be presented.
I publish here extracts from this publication from the European Commission which see in the social economy a sustainable source of jobs’ creation.

Innovating with no frills

Social innovations overwhelm new ideas, institutions, or ways of working that meet social needs more effectively than existing approaches. Social innovations often have roots in simple concepts such as peer mentoring – but their effects can be profound, creating important improvements at relatively low cost.

Tentative of definition : “Social Innovations are innovations that are social both in their ends and in their means.Specifically, we define social innovations as new ideas (products, services and models)
that simultaneously meet social needs (more effectively than alternatives) and create
new social relationships or collaborations”, according to J. Caulier-Grice, L. Kahn., G. Mulgan, L. Pulford and D. Vasconcelos (2010), authors of this publication.

Progressing social innovations

Social innovations are particularly hard to manage. They are by their very nature a new experience; and they often rely heavily and in a complex way upon the co-operation of others, such as clients.

From open source software to crowd source investment, from co-produced care for the elderly to circles of friends for children with disabilities, social innovation is an approach that can influence all walks of life for the better. Policy-makers, analysts and entrepreneurs are increasingly aware of its potential. As President Barroso has put it : “Europe has a long and strong tradition of social innovation: from the workplace to hospices, and from the cooperative movement to microfinance. We have always been a continent of creative social entrepreneurs who have designed systems to enhance education, health, social inclusion and the well-being of citizens”.

Assessment & metrics

Assessment in social innovation is an emerging agenda. There are many puzzles to solve – from how to persuade more people to adopt more environmentally friendly lifestyles, to when and where innovation funds or procurement innovation clauses should be used. Unfortunately, there is no simple, single solution to better assessment, no single tool that can transform understanding of how to tap into social innovation; instead, better answers emerge from a broader range of experiences, insights and data.

Too often, “billions have been spent on programs that look good to outsiders, but don’t work because they don’t speak to local people’s concerns and realities”, according to Keystone Accountability (a not-for-profit organisation assisting social purpose operators to develop).

Relatively little is known on the extent of social innovation and how well it is supported. The key-point is to identify and disseminate effective tools and guidelines to identify whether local peoples’ concerns and realities have been properly met.

Many indicators can be used to measure social outcomes, and key-categories include:
› Measures of subjective states of wellbeing (for example, the level of happiness, the extent of physical pain, the depth of self-confidence)
› Objective metrics of outcomes (such as life expectancy or literacy rate)
› Estimates of the monetary value of outcomes

A further key issue is the attempt to put a monetary value on all benefits. Although SROI and Cost Benefit Analysis provide precise numbers, the rigour of assumptions is often open to debate. There is not and there is never likely to be a reasonably robust approach that can estimate in monetary terms for a wide group of people over a wide range of time such intangibles as the ‘value of happiness’. Yet the benefits of social innovations are often intricately related to intangibles such as social cohesion, family and peer relationships. That makes an insistence upon monetization deeply problematic.

Action …

What is required is greater consensus (within each social field) on key-outcomes and sources of value added, so that parallel tools can be used within organisations to guide management and accountability.

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