The Flickering Light of Social Innovation

The Flickering Light of Social InnovationWithout doubt one of the most exciting areas of innovation, social innovation, that is developing initiatives that are attempting to tackle the real societal issues, has had a very tough time in the last year or so.

The need for social innovation and where it is contributing and aspires to resolve, has not gone away but it does seem to me, some of the energy and passion seems to have drained away in this time. Perhaps, in recent weeks, there are some signs of some emerging initiatives that are beginning to be ‘rekindle’ this social innovation flame but it seems in such incremental ways. Surely what is needed, is making bold leaps at this time not token gestures? We need to mobilize with a real intensity around many of the present social ills we are facing.

Recent losses in the movement for social innovation

Firstly for those involved in the social innovation movement the sad loss of Diogo Vasconcelos, who tragically died last year took away the champion of social innovation. Equally the move of Geoff  Mulgan from being the CEO of the Young Foundation into a broader CEO’s role at Nesta, where they certainly have shifted their recent focus in helping people and organizations bring great innovation ideas to life has altered where the emphasis needs to be placed for innovation in general, less so for social innovation.

This focus has been through providing investments and grants to mobilize research, explored through networks and building the skills necessary as the UK’s innovation foundation.

My feeling is that the focused energy, commitment and passion both of these individuals brought to social innovation has not been replaced as yet. It seems both organizations (Nesta and the Young Foundation) are actively exploring novel ways to support social innovation. Yet in these tough economic circumstances, at the very time these really need accelerating at a pace, it must be very hard to deliver the level and depth of solutions society needs and is crying out for? What we do need is more champions to be visible to keep social innovation shining in the headlights for our leaders to see and support.

I’m certainly not so encouraged that a recent competition announced greatly accelerates and meets today’s real, pressing social needs in the ways we should be doing. We need a lot more movement and commitment than this, when we are facing over 25 million people out of work across Europe and up to 50% of young people in Spain and Greece unemployed and large parts of Ireland, Italy, Portugal, France, the UK all struggling to hold the level of the young, unemployed below 30%. The constant closure of businesses, the hardships of millions all caught up in the economic distress is causing us to face some of the most  serious economic hardships across most of Europe in our lifetime.

Perhaps we have had a void in this time? Has it got harder or easier in the past 12 months?

As I have sensed the energy has been seemingly lost in social innovation. Its past ‘raw’ passion has been replaced with a very different type of animal. There has been a major event in this time, in that the EU commission has taken social innovation into the heart of its future programmes. It wants to make the fixing of society’s most severe problems as central.

This, they are suggesting, needs to become a people-centred movement, which aims to create a more participatory practice-based process to find sustainable strategies for a socially and sustainable future. This planned adoption, this shift in the emphasis point of being more open and participatory, is actually a really daunting task to achieve.

The EU by taking hold of social innovation, might actually be squeezing out the very forces, the passion, the individuals commitments to social issues at a grass root level and replacing this with “people power” might be more volatile than they think. The shift suggested is perhaps beyond bold but reckless, unless it has a clear model to replace the existing, as these existing models are breaking down under the strains being imposed by austerity cuts.

Is this EU adoption a possible distraction, deflecting vital resources and commitment from the issues needing to be resolved in the here and now and attracting the ‘organizing’ resources away at a vital time to work on alignment and policy forming issues. Those that have actual experience to resolve social issues themselves get distracted away in aligning with the EU on its application of taking on social innovation. Can we afford that in these times? Unless we have emerging a Social Innovation equivalent of a Marshall plan as a Social European Recovery Program, SERP.

A real concern is that Brussels, the centre for EU policies and planning, has even less in common with the very real people that are actively engaged in the social solutions needed today. They march to a very different ‘beat’. Social innovation is by its very nature and attempt at tackling complex social problems experimental, cross-cutting, highly collaborative and very dispersed into pockets of local need and application.

It is going to be a struggle to fit social innovators with the Bureaucratic nature of the EU, less than risk-embracing, grappling with the severe economic problems across the EU community. So far the EU or national governments are not finding easy solutions to complex economic issues, can they add even more to their crowded agenda of social innovation. There is just too many questions being asked of the existing success or failures around the EU as an economic and financial block ? Adding social innovation at this time when the EU is defensive and under increasing attack is questionable.

We are facing austere cuts across many European countries, social initiatives are being caught up within all these economic cuts demanded. How can social innovation help solve the very issues when it is equally being starved of money, resources and focus?

There are countless acute needs for solutions

There is a growing need across the EU for support, both in material ways (creation of jobs) and psychological needs (to manage in these austere times). Is social innovation rising to these twin challenges to help resolve these urgent needs of today?

Deep within this ‘catch all’ of social innovation we need to prepare many for the most difficult transitions they are facing within their lives:  in loss of jobs, in their self-esteem, in their future and in their rights of choice, as these are being taken away from them in so many different ways. The destiny of many is being pre-determined by so many events out of their control and when people feel powerless, they ‘react’. Perhaps a very different type of “people power” than those in power would desire.

The ability to build ‘resilience’ is currently heavily shackled by a lack of money entering the system; the debt burden at individual, state and EU level is restricting options. Hard choices are casting more out of the participants of wealth creation, into being dependants upon others. Many are spiralling down.

In a world of networks and instant connections we are witnessing a growing sense of isolation, physical isolation. There are fewer people to turn too and ask for advice, for help, for recognizing their needs for support, because these people are becoming more hidden from plain view. They are increasingly on the margins, caused by policy revision, austerity cuts and become increasingly small in scale as they can’t find the voice of the past, that would stand up for them.

Social innovation is complex and challenging but it needs to deliver solutions today.

There are many ways to sketch an increasingly complex picture of social ills. There is a vicious spiral, turning to greater tensions and increased pressure points. There are moments of transition and social innovation needs to respond and respond quickly to these pressures.

We are facing growing health issues, ageing challenges, youth disenfranchisement, and communities breaking down, a growing sense of injustice, and lowering of well-being.

The social innovation light needs turning on brightly, it can’t simply flicker like it is now. There is no future if we can’t find pathways and real solutions to the problems we are facing today. Society needs to engage before it is “too little too late” and I fear we are far too close to the social equivalent of the doomsday clock of midnight.

image credit:overstock.com

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Paul HobcraftPaul Hobcraft runs Agility Innovation, an advisory business that stimulates sound innovation practice, researches topics that relate to innovation for the future, as well as aligning innovation to organizations core capabilities.

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