Measuring what matters - reporting back from EMES 2013

22.07.2013 Blog

Measuring what matters?! – Blueprint for Social Innovation Metrics presented at EMES 2013 conference

This year’s EMES conference lent its headline from Dennis Young’s seminal book on nonprofit organizations and thus was dedicated to exploring the question: “If not for profit, for what? And how?” One response might be: For creating social innovation!

It is still contested which role Social Enterprises, which represent the key research subject of the EMES European research network, play in the emergence and the diffusion of social innovation. The very question about the reciprocal relationship between entrepreneurship and innovation in the social sphere and its increasing prominence was however clearly reflected by the panels of the 2013 conference. It was hosted by members of the research network from the HEC Management School of the University of Liège, in cooperation with the Belgian Interuniversity Attraction Pole on Social Enterprise (IAP-SOCENT).

The bi-annual conference has become a key event for scholars dealing with the social economy, the phenomenon of social entrepreneurship and the concept of social innovation. This circumstance has led over 300 researchers to find their way to the lovely city of Liège in Belgium on July 1-4.

In fact an entire stream, consisting of 10 panels has focused on exploring various questions surrounding social innovation. Among these were issues of: definitions and measurement, diffusion and institutionalization, the relevance of local context and its influence on social innovation and many more.

The conference was thus just the right place for the TEPSIE team to discuss most recent research findings. Eva Bund presented the “Blueprint for Social Innovation Metrics” in the panel “Defining and capturing social innovation”, which was chaired by Johanna Mair Professor at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin and academic editor of the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

The Blueprint proposes a set of social innovation indicators and thereby represents a first step towards measuring social innovation at the national level. The indicators have been derived from a screening of more than 30 models that were designed to capture innovation in the commercial private and the public sector or include metrics that focus on social, normative or environmental dimensions. Through this screening, however, it has become clear that SOCIAL innovation, while sharing some traits, also differs in essential terms from mainstream innovation.

On this background the research performed by the team of the Centre for Social Investment at the University of Heidelberg has uncovered vital gaps in existing measurement systems. These concern for instance: the connection between social innovation and social needs, the struggle of innovations to gain legitimacy by society at large or the diversity of resources that need to be committed to create this type of innovation.

These issues had indeed been central aspects in the critical assessment of the Blueprint by the audience of the conference panel and the connected discussion. The proposed Blueprint, however, is not restricted to uncovering such gaps but instead proposes metrics to fill the latter. This could be done by drawing from data provided by “value surveys” or the realization of “needs mappings” for instance.

What is more the Blueprint categorizes the proposed indicators along three analytical levels that pay tribute to the complexity of social innovation: (1) Framework conditions, (2) entrepreneurial activities, (3) organizational output & societal outcome. Not only the discussion at the EMES conference has made clear that by a measurement approach we can hardly capture all aspects that constitute social innovation such as the dynamic nature of innovation processes.

However, the development of metrics – in analogy to similar attempts on technological innovation – illustrates how a major step can made towards grasping social innovation capacity as a vital source for societal cohesion and well-being. In this sense the Blueprint adheres to the idea of measuring what matters and thus enhances modes of managerial as well as political steering that can trigger the unfolding of existing capabilities.

Measurement at the aggregated macro level should ideally be accompanied by in-depth case studies that allow for more detailed insights into the process of social innovation. In the same way it is complemented by the discussion of social impact at and beyond the organizational level as well as so called “new welfare indicators” such as the “Social Progress Index” recently proposed by Michael Porter or the comprehensive report on their promises and drawbacks by Nobel laureates Siglitz and Sen from 2009.

It seems the measurement of social innovation will play a pivotal role for future research and practice and we are happy to engage into discussions on how it should be designed.