Social Innovation: Do regular people care about it? (You know, regular people who don’t use words like “social innovation” … said lovingly).When I do use this phrase in public (to test it out), I hear things like this…Tom’s ShoesCharity WaterLivestrongEtc.
It helps that social innovation is making its way into the mainstream press, but it’s often conflated with many other terms in the same ecosystem:Social enterpriseSocial entrepreneurshipSocial businessCSRSocial financeTriple bottom lineEtc.Before we go further, a little context…
I live in this US.It’s a large and complicated place.Summarizing what’s happening there is always a dicey proposition.
It’s also a populated place. 308M people. 1 in 8 foreign-born (thank you world)1 in 5 with foreign-born parents.Immigrants are keeping us young(ish) and growing new businesses at much higher rates that non-immigrants (3X as high) - this is not new.
This is me. I do formal policy work – in about a dozen states this year - and a lot of informal things, like research club.Research Club is a community think thank where people cook breakfast together on the last Sunday of the month and share what they are working on (for feedback, “protoyptying” practice performance art, etc.)I live in small and lovely but Portland, OR (about 1.5 m). It’s the far west of the US, an hour from the coast. Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco are cousins. Some call the whole area “the left coast.”With these caveats in mind, and at Louise’s request, I’ll offer some observations about social innovation…
Here’s a few things that fall into the current state summary – WHAT ISWhen I say social innovation, most people hear “social entrepreneurs” – and we tend to value entrepreneurs/over entrepreneurship; innovators over innovation.There’s confusion about how to finance and measure things that aren’t profit-only orientedThere’s a near obsession with scale (regardless of market or type of e-ship)Let’s go through these one at a time.
SOCINN/SOCENTSocial Entrepreneurs – we love them, we need them. One of my heroes,Sarah Horowitz of the Freelancers Union, was a MacArthur Genius award winner – still innovating every day 13 years later.Here’s the problem The emphasis on the entrepreneur as special, gifted, and exceptional leaves out too many social innovators. It keeps the domain of social innovation limited and small and reduces the pressure on institutions like government to engage in the field. We can have more social innovators if we open up opportunities for participation and broaden our view of what social innovation is.
MONEYSo much effort, good thinking, years of work on alternative finance, but apparently it’s still going to take some time because it still takes a year to get a grant (in many places) and even longer to convince investors that a “blended return” is worth it. Huge potential, needs speeding up. Again, need more people pressuring both traditional and nontraditional funders to rethink both mechanisms (grants processes and RFPs) and their relationships to grantees. We need funding that’s fit for purpose.
SCALEWe are stuck on the idea of scale as bigger or scale as more. We need to adopt more sophisticated ways of understanding this concept. (Loved Hope Academy’s suggestion that scaling an idea is not the same as scaling an organization (Siim). Wanted to get up and dance.)This idea – that we can do 1,000 things aimed at a set of like outcomes is also scale. We’re starting to use collective impact frameworks (like Harlem Children’s Zone did) and other frameworks that align people around common goals – but success is often in spite of formal systems and policies, not because of them. We can make this easier (on ourselves and everyone else) and learn more in the process.
The good news…Key emerging trends are already helping to solve these problems.We can accelerate the solutions.
I spend a lot of time in this world – hackathons, barcamps, and other DIY-pursuits (including my current studies).Most makers, hackers, and DIYers would not call themselves social innovators – but many are.First, turns out, DIY is pretty social…Second, hackers want to work on stuff that matters – increasingly, hackathons are specifically aimed at social problems – I joined one earlier this year that was focused on education, for example. In 8 hours we created three apps that astonished school officials who provided the challenges we all worked on.In this model of innovation, it takes of village, and everyone’s contribution is exceptional.200 social innovators with “radar” about social problems who go to work everyday in offices or shops that don’t concern themselves with issues of the commons are potentially powerful as a group and as a network that penetrates workplaces who also likely have something to contribute.
On Money…“Real investors” used to laugh at kickstarter, now $100M – not pocket change. 75K backers per month.Dozens of other platforms.Indiegogo – arts, music.33 needs – focused specifically on solutions to social problemsAmy Pearl at Springboard is putting together a direct public offering to support a new community incubator called Hatch (full disclosure – I just joined the board). There are only a handful of legal experts in the country that know anything about this at all.The small and mighty crowdfunders are proving that a new financing models are viable.We need more experiments like these – each one makes it safer and quicker for those that follow – and right now, financing is a headache of a problem.
In the world of Gov2.0, small projects mean a lot.This is Boston in the winter. It turns out, there are still fires in the winter and if the hydrants are not accessible, firefighter cannot put out fires. Keeping them accessible costs money. A Code for America fellow (nonprofit peace corps for geeks) helped the city of Boston find a way to reduce the costs by getting people in neighborhoods to adopt hyrdrants using an app on their mobile devices. It doesn’t solve the whole problem – but solving 50 or 80% winds up being a big cost savings. And what do you know? The same app is helping public officials in Hawaii keep batteries in the tsunami warning signals (turns out it’s similarly expensive to replace and test batteries). Code is in GitHub for anyone to access and repurpose.That’s social innovation – in govt. context.Doers see the potential here—they are rarely policy makers.
A challenges for Social Innovation – how do we talk about the endgame?We’re not sure whether social innovation should ultimately exist alongside traditional govt and private-sector solutions, replace them, or transform whole systems—change the way economic and social policy works. In the mean time, we at least need to be in the same spaces, figure out ways to bridge the new and the traditional – both can learn from each other.Currently, these connections are not sufficiently robust. Or they are wrongly framed (lots of people like to hang out with the cool kids, but they are not actively learning from them or transferring lessons as quickly as they might).And the kind of leadership we’re used to – the hero worshipping kind – less well suited to this task than more collaborative models. We need more WEadership.
Why does this matter?Our problems are too significant not to engage as many as we can in social innovation.This image speaks for itself.One taken the same day ran in the Huff Po with a headline, “when librarians start to protest…”
Here is an example of the kind of bridging we need more of:This is Marcin, he was born in Poland and is one of the 1 in 8 foreign-born hyphenated Americans we heard about earlier.He’s go a PhD in fusion energy. He’s now a farmer in Missouri.
He build this tractor in six days for under $10K.And he’s building not only a sustainable farm, but the tools to be a sustainable farmer tractors, brick compressor, tree planter, etc. And he’s sharing the designs, plans, etc. His initiative is called the OpenEcologyProject. It’s opensource hardware. He and a growing network of farmers, makers, industrialists, and sustainability champions are building a Global Village Construction set – 50 of the world’s most important tools, their prototypes, and a community of people who can use and improve them.Think of it as legos for industrial production.
Alternative would have been for him to scale his tractor-building operation as a social entrepreneur – not nearly as compelling as building an entire toolkit with dozens of people from all over the world, each of whom is subsequently spreading knowledge about sustainable local economies and industrial production.
Notice I said Marcin lives not in SF or Austin, or Seattle, but Missouri.There’s promise all over…Tucson, AZ;Omaha, NE; Louisville, KY, Memphis, TNSo, that’s where we are – in a world of small pieces, loosely connected, but not yet making effective use of those connections, and focusing too much on special people and not enough on innovation wherever and by whomever it happens.People like you, me, and all the regular people we know can help.
Kristin Wolff on social innovation in US (with notes)