When it comes to innovation, we’re not only talking about corporate strategies or marketing initiatives; we’re also talking about social welfare. Geoff Mulgan recently presented the state of the field in social innovation at UNESCO’s HQ in Paris, where he talked about practice, theory and the future of the concept. The simple question he asked was « Why is the world so good in developping nanotechnologies, implementing cloud computing or shooting people to the moon (or mars), and incapable of tackling wicked problems like child obesity, waste or isolation of elderly people?« . Here are some interesting thoughts expressed during his conference.
« Social innovation is any innovation that is social in both ends and means« , says the former Director of Policy of Tony Blair when asked to define the term. It’s not (only) a buzzword, he says, because a growing part of jobs and wealth will stem from the health-care and social sectors. We will have to find a difficult equilibrium between progress and correcting its negative side-effects. The world obviously has problems dealing with these side-effects: Geoff Mulgan displayed various statistics which show that the more countries spend on health-related expenditures, the worse their citizens are off! « We have a fundamentally wrong system somewhere« , concludes Mulgan.
But where does the problem lie? Where do the problems lie, actually? According to Mulgan, a lot of people contribute to solving social problems (design consultancies, local initiatives, governments etc.), but they’re not good at sharing solutions! When we talk about social welfare, proprietary innovations and concepts may not be the optimal way to tackle problems. « People are good at generating ideas, bad at embedding them and very bad at implementing them at a large scale« , said Pierce.
One way to roll out social innovations (on a micro-level) has been proposed by the people from IDEO, masters of design-thinking. Their approach is based on the assumption that « people can’t […] tell what their needs are, their actual behaviours can provide […] invaluable clues about their range of unmet needs« ,Tim Brown and Jocelyn Wyatt wrote in an article of the Stanford Social Innovation Review last winter. After this human-centered ideation phase, the implementation phase also encompases communicating solutions: « Storytelling, particularly through multimedia, helps communicate the solution to a diverse set of stakeholders […] particularly across language and cultural barriers« .
The viability of large-scale implementation, however, can be discussed. But beside the future challenges of social innovation, whether it is web-enabled or not, the most interesting part was the discussion that followed. The role of the United Nations’ Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is to create the conditions for dialogue among civilizations, cultures and peoples, based upon respect for commonly shared values. People attending to M. Mulgan’s presentation questionned him about the relevance of the concept of social innovation with the institution’s mission.
- Will these types of innovation lead to a withdrawal of the State regarding social welfare activities?
- If UNESCO’s role were to take decisions and implement social innovation initiatives, on what indicators should the value of these innovations be measured?
- How to succesfully combine online initiatives with offline power structures?
These few questions show how hard it is to bring innovative bottom-up initiatives to institutions like the UNESCO. Its aim is to foster dialogue between cultures rather than to impose solutions. This is what Mulgan says in substance: « I don’t think UNESCO can lead, because nobody wants to be lead; [but you can] listen, empower and link up social innovators […] UNESCO has to be in touch with the leading edge and communicate it« . For those of you who are interested in the subject, read the Open Book of Social Innovation (full PDF) by clicking on the picture below…