Government 2.0, Sustainability

The Economist on social innovation

I read Let’s hear those ideas at the Economist with great interest, to get a sense of how social innovation might be represented to a business/finance audience.  It is quite a good piece, but one aspect of it stood out for me:

However, so far the enthusiasm for social entrepreneurship has run ahead of its effects. The problem has not been a lack of good ideas… The problem is instead one of speed and scale. Successful innovations have spread only slowly, if at all. In business, entrepreneurial firms that do well grow fast; but social entrepreneurship does not yet have a Microsoft or a Google. Policymakers hope that with encouragement from the state social entrepreneurs’ best ideas can be spread faster and wider.

While I agree that we need to diffuse social innovation more widely (and as rapidly as possible), the idea of scaling, of creating the next “Microsoft or a Google” in social innovation perhaps misses part of the point.

Ezio Manzini has spoken about small, local, open and connected [site no longer available] social innovations being an appropriate path forward for diffusing social innovations.  In his recent talk he talked about how such innovations have economies of scope, as opposed to the more traditional view of economies of scale.

Through connecting and synergising, social innovations have the potential to maintain the important local-ness and human scale while replicating the benefits to a wider group.  I’m sure I’ve read in one of his papers (though I can’t seem to find the reference) that in fact trying to increase the scale of social innovation may actually reduce the sustainability of the activity, suggesting that trying to scale such innovations is perhaps looking to solve the wrong problem.

This is not to say that social innovation doesn’t need support.  The Economist article points to some great initiatives in the US and the UK that are allocating funds to support social innovation.  More of that is definitely needed.

Something to consider, though is Ezio’s suggestion that Government needs to consider how to engage with such initiatives, leaving enough room for innovation to occur, while building the frameworks that support the longevity of initiatives.  This is a different way of working for Government agencies and I suspect it will take some adjusting for this transition to occur.

My hope is that funds are directed to create the enabling structures that support more social innovations — e.g. supporting the communities who are already innovating and encouraging further innovation — rather that taking specific ideas and trying to scale them to apply to conditions that are poorly aligned with those that saw the innovation emerge in the first place.  While the latter approach may work in some circumstances, I suspect that it may backfire if not done with care.

(I note that Raul has an alternate take on the article over at the ASIX blog.)