Here are two views of social innovation as expressed by Professional Ezio Manzini at the launch of the European Union's Social Innovation Europe, March 2011. Professor Manzini is one of the world's prominent thinkers on sustainability and social innovation.
First View: Social innovation that seeks to correct market failures and the weaknesses, limitations, excesses and myopia of society and the economy. For example, poverty, homelessness, exclusion and addiction.
Second View: Social innovation that proposes a new idea about society, our economy and our priorities for a good life. For example: Fair trade, 100 mile diet, car pooling, personal support networks.
In the first view you don't need a big vision, you accept society as it is. The economy is more or less working well and social innovation can be used to improve our efficiency at addressing. 'negative externalities' such as unemployment, breakdown of neigbourhoods, pollution, isolation and so on.
In the second version a bigger vision is required. What is the society we imagine? What is the role of the economy in achieving well being for all life, for our environment, for our planet, for taking care of each other? How do we prevent so called negative externalities? Should we be doing something different, not just more of the same?
In the first view you could have a successful highly efficient social innovation but it wouldn't necessarily change the overall impact on society.
- Example One: Cars today are more efficient, less gas guzzling, less harmful to the environment than 30 years ago. Yet overall, there are more cars on the road, more gas consumed and a greater impact on the environment. A highly innovative and efficient car by itself cannot address climate change. In fact our innovation and creativity may be better placed by emphasizing other forms of transportation (ex: walking) and urban planning (ex: densification).
- Example Two: Improvements in services to people with disabilities could unintentionally make them and their families more dependent on costly professional help, less resilient and capable of solving their own challenges and perpetuate the myth that disability equals helplessness.
The second view of social innovation would lead to specific innovative social and environmental solutions while at the same time:
- increasing the number of engaged citizens and volunteers
- strengthening the resilience and adaptive problem solving capacity of individuals, families, neighbourhoods, and communities
- nurturing the quality of our relationships
- increasing the amount of public space and
- changing our relationship with time i.e. reducing the furious and deleterious effects of, 'fast everything'.
NOTE: Professor Ezio Manzini from Milan is one of the deepest thinkers about the potential of social innovation I have encountered. Here is a long video of a recent lecture he gave in Australia. Well worth it if you have an interest in the design principles that enable innovative solutions to our pressing social, economic and environmental challenges.