ALS #IceBucketChallenge: A Social Innovation or not?

27.08.2014 Blog

The ALS #icebucketchallenge is thriving and obviously causing some debate in and beyond social media these days. And it goes like this: In front of a camera, a person pours a bucket of ice water over his or her head and nominates three other people to do the same. The video is uploaded to social media. If one of the three doesn’t do it, s/he will have to donate $100 to the ALS association, a charity with the mission to fund research to find a cure for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a deadly neural disease.

Now what is the point in terms of social innovation [pdf] here? First of all, we need to appreciate the ice bucket challenge has been immensely successful as a fundraising campaign: The ALS association raised $41.8 million from July 15 to August 21 (compared to $2.1 million in the same period last year). More than 300,000 new donors were recorded. By August 23, when the challenge had really taken off in social media worldwide, the association had received $62.5 million in donations compared to $2.4 million July 29 to August 23, 2013. So as a fundraising campaign, the challenge has obviously and undoubtedly been a tremendous success so far.

But what about social innovation? Fundraising is obviously not social innovation which is about finding and implementing new solutions to social problems. Despite the fact that ALS and its socio-economic side effects are apparently a social problem, the total number of people actually suffering from ALS is not that big. In fact, that is the problem with this disease: It does not pay for the pharmaceutical industry to develop a cure for ALS which is the very reason why the ice bucket challenge as an innovative funding tool was called into existence. Nevertheless, we need to see that compared to other social problems the one of ALS and the market failure of finding a cure are relatively small ones.

And that is also one of three central points of critique:

  • Westerners pour ice water over their heads, while the lack of access to clean water has been one the most severe problems of humanity for decades, and it will worsen in the future. In this perspective, the ice bucket challenge is nothing else but a decadent game of well-fed Westerners. Of course, we need to see that the challenge obviously has nothing to do with the problem of lacking access to water for billions of people, and it will not affect the problem in any way (except potentially raising awareness for it). But there is definitely something to the argument that compared to other social and health problems, ALS is a rather small one which is probably getting more attention than is might deserve, for instance if we look at sheer numbers compared to other health issues.
  • A second major stream of criticism currently making its way through social media and beyond appears more thoughtful: The ALS association is alleged of funding lethal animal testing in ALS research, which is why some Hollywood celebrities have publicly refused to donate, and numerous animal activists have followed suit. While one could clearly argue for and against such conduct and whether or not the association actually supports it, this point of criticism obviously appears to make more sense than the one about clean water. A very important and clearly positive unintended consequence of the challenge is that many of those who refuse to support the challenge or the assocation for whatever reason have donated to other worthy causes and made that support public. Thus overall, the challenge had a short-term positive effect on giving and it might even have a lasting positive effect on overall donation behaviour.
  • The final major stream of criticism is concerned with the way people actually perform the challenge: By pouring water over their heads to expose themselves to peers on the web instead of donating and instead of raising awareness for the disease, they actually miss the point. As such, the challenge is at best "a middle-class wet-T-shirt contest for armchair clicktivists" – a both valid and justified point of criticism. However, many of the people must have done it the right way, as the figures above show, full stop. And while we don’t have figures for it yet, we can very much assume that awareness for the disease has also increased tremendously (the author of this being one of those who have learned about it for the first time last week).

As we see, the ice bucket challenge was not planned and initiated to be a social innovation – which is rarely the case actually anyway. However, it acquired elements of a social innovation in at least three ways: First, it triggered discourse about what is a 'real' social problem and what can for whatever reason be considered a relatively small problem (so far, however, only from a utilitarian point of view!) – to trigger such kind of discourse and thus establish new social relationships are central ingredients to social innovation. Second, it made people think about what they want to donate their money for, and whether or not a social cause that looks good and worthwhile to support in the first place may not be compatible with goals that rank higher on individual hierarchies of values – it is good to think and communicate about such hierarchies from time to time, and to make people do so may be considered a social innovation as well. And finally, while it does not solve any problem, raising awareness for social problems (may they be ALS or the lack of access to clean water) is a common cause and motivation for many social innovators to get active, particularly in the health sector. In terms of this, the ice bucket challenge has been a success so tremendous that it is hard to think of any similar positive web-based hype to come in the near future.

Of course, we need to acknowledge that there are very fine lines between clicktivism, awareness raising, fundraising and actual social innovation. According to a recent Huffington Post blogpost, online campaigns establish a link to the 'real world' effectively if they succeed to:

  • "Inspire, but also provide actionable information
  • Facilitate collaboration that authentically builds a sense of community
  • Instill a sense of urgency and accountability
  • Offer additional ways to learn, engage or act"

Some of this has surely been achieved by the ice bucket challenge, but definitely not all. But if we take a wider view and thus into account all the developments the challenge has triggered so far we may quite confidently state that there are elements of social innovation in this campaign.

But beyond rather academic questions of whether or not we are witnessing social innovation here – let’s also not forget about the simple fact of the tons of money raised so far, right?