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Challenge Social Innovation 2011

Challenge Social Innovation conference, Vienna, 19-21 Sep. 2011

New Presentations and Publications on Twitter and Blog Research

Time for another quick news roundup. Following on from the ANZDMC 2012 conference in Brisbane, where Jean Burgess and I presented our research into the use of Twitter during the 2010/11 Christchurch earthquakes, there were another few follow-up presentations of our research on social media and crisis communication.

First, I flew down to Melbourne to run a workshop on social media and disaster resilience together with Chris Fisher from the Queensland state Department for Community Safety, as part of the Disaster Resilient Communities conference. I’ve now published my two presentations from the workshop (slides + audio); they’re both online here.

The Theories Which Inform Social Innovation

The final plenary session at Challenge Social Innovation 2011 for today begins with Geoff Mulgan, whose brief is to outline a range of social innovation theories. He begins by posing a question: how do we know whether such theories are right or wrong? How can we test them – especially perhaps in such an emerging, novel field? Social innovation seeks to address certain problem areas – poverty, climate change, social exclusions, … –, and so by its nature is a sprawling field; the questions we must always come back to are what do we need to know, and how do we need to act?

There are plenty of pressures for innovation and productivity in public sectors, and civic society continues to evolve, leading to shifts in what public institutions are expected to do; funding for innovation, to date, tends to be spent on technology innovation rather than on service or social innovation, however.

Geoff’s work has been to map the meanings used by the field and its patterns of practice, rather than to start from a specific disciplinary perspective – this shows the various competing groups attempting to define it, from policymakers through NGOs and industry to researchers and other stakeholders. In his work, he has adopted a definition of social innovation as ‘innovations which are social in both their means and ends’; such simple definitions are needed in order for the field to progress.

The Historical Trajectory of Social Innovation

The second plenary speaker in this session at Challenge Social Innovation 2011 is Frank Moulaert. He begins by suggesting that much of the interdisciplinary work on social innovation has not been properly recognised, or has even been gently censored. But why is this the case?

We must work towards a shared analytical framework, but this can only happen through an open and wide-ranging discussion of where social innovation research should be going. Research on social innovation goes back to the early days of social science (Weber, Durkheim, Schumpeter, …); such work was synthesised in France (and in French) during the 1970s and 80s, but does not seem to have crossed over into anglophone research. Only at the end of the 1980s, international social science renewed its interest in social innovation – but international work, especially by the Young Foundation, takes too much of a business- and enterprise-oriented approach to the study of social innovation.

From Technological to Social Innovation

The next session at Challenge Social Innovation 2011 is a plenary which begins with Uwe Schneidewind. he notes that we’re at the intersection of technological and social innovations, and technology still continues to drive things rather too much; but social innovation is gradually growing in importance. This is also because the marginal benefits of purely technological innovations – improving efficiency, for example – are declining, due to rebound effects: the relevant effects of technological innovations are quickly absorbed by the dynamics of the overall system.

Cost savings from cheaper lightbulbs are absorbed by the fact that cheaper costs lead people to use more of them, for example; the New Beetle is more fuel efficient than the old Beetle, but is also heavier and has more devices which require energy; biofuels may provide a sustainable fuel source, but also lead to significant agricultural changes and to further deforestation of rainforests being logged to create farmland.

Social Innovation, Gender, and Class

Finally in this session at Challenge Social Innovation 2011 we move on to Edeltraud Hanappi-Egger, who highlights the question of gender in social innovation – who has a voice and who doesn’t in defining this space? How could gender be incorporated into social innovation, then?

Edeltraud notes for example the impact of microloan schemes on the independence and empowerment of women in upper Egypt – there was significant improvement at the individual level, and women who began to run their own businesses gained a higher status in their families, but at the same time, gender hierarchies in households and at the societal level still weren’t discussed.

What, then, could achieve sustainable social and societal change; what would result in structural change? The Egyptian institutions supporting microloan programmes went further in their approaches and implemented a number of additional promising aspects in 2010 – longer-term outcomes have yet to be studied.

Action Research for Social Innovation

This session at Challenge Social Innovation 2011 continues with Ilan Chabay, who is interested in connecting humanities and other research. He begins by noting an experiment in guerilla science which he’s been involved in since the mid-90s: this put hands-on science exhibits in public spaces from McDonald’s restaurants to cruise ships, and turned out to be very popular as well as to generate educational outcomes.

If we want social innovation, then, he says, this also implies social change: changes in artefacts, functions, organisation, and practice; changes in behaviours at a collective scale; changes in diverse cultures where any one approach isn’t universally applicable; and changes which stem from participatory processes. We need polycentric approaches.

Real Social Innovation to Help HIV Sufferers

The next Challenge Social Innovation 2011 speaker is Maurice Biriotti, who’s moved from the academy into private business; he still thinks that the humanities are the richest source of problem-solving of all the areas he’s worked with. Humanities scholars are genuinely innovative, most of the time, and the humanities can be used to drive the process of innovation.

He describes this through a practical example: some years ago, when his company did some corporate work in Mexico, he became interested in the nature of conversations in rural Mexico; there, there are many people who are HIV-positive, but this is a taboo topic, and sufferers tend not to tell anyone about their condition (even their partners). Sufferers would benefit significantly from taking available medication, and people are more likely to continue to do so if they have a strong support network – but that network was not available in rural Mexico.

Towards a Social Innovation Research Agenda in the Humanities

The next speaker at Challenge Social Innovation 2011 is Sean Ryder, who begins by noting the idea that more humanities funding should be channelled to the way cultures communicate with each other, and that such research could significantly address social innovation. More broadly, though, what can humanities research tell us about innovation? It can take historical, philosophical, and cultural perspectives on the causes, processes, and consequences of innovation; it can highlight the contextuality of the meaning of innovation; it can point to the fact that knowledge can never be disinterested, but is always culturally embedded; it can show innovation as a force of disturbance, complexity, and conflict (involving creative destruction, for example); and it can take a long-term perspective on innovative processes: the consequences we come from, and the possibilities we’re moving towards.

Further, of course, the history of culture is a history of innovation; the history of avant-garde movements is one example for this. Artists have always also been involved in breaking free from established models, in promoting creative destruction; many artists are also uncomfortable with being involved in research or innovation programmes, however.

Defining Social Innovation (and the Humanities' Role in It)

The second day at Challenge Social Innovation 2011 has begun, and I’m in a session on the contribution of humanities research to the question of social innovation. Chair Milena Žic Fuchs begins by noting that the humanities play a critical role to the development of critical and independent thought, as well as a range of other important contributions made in this space (and I’m afraid I’m not quite sure whether these were simply opening remarks or a proper paper, so I’ve not blogged a great deal of this…).

Co-chair Rüdiger Klein now takes over by suggesting that humanities contributions to social innovation research need to take into account the breadth and depth of the dimensions of this question. He also notes the unease that we still have when using the term social innovation – we need to reflect further on the concept.


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