Reporting back from ISIRC 2013 in Oxford

07.10.2013 Blog

A busy few weeks for the Tepsie team means it is already a month since I attended the 5th International Social Innovation Research Conference, this year hosted at the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford.

Although the conference was much smaller than the previous year's event, there was still a wide range of topics covered in both the plenaries and paper presentations. The conference was divided into seven key streams:

  • Social investment and financial innovation
  • Social impact and performance measurement
  • Policy and politics
  • Governance and stakeholder relationships
  • Hybridity and organisational innovation
  • Creating shared value and corporate social innovation
  • Critical perspectives on social innovation

The conference has its roots in social entrepreneurship and this is reflected in the contributions which tended to focus on social enterprises. For me one of the most interesting and clearly presented papers was by Ines Alegre of the Universitat Internacional de Catalunya. Ines’ recent work has involved using quantitative methods to better understand where consensus is moving with regards to definitions of social enterprise. She collected definitions that appeared in journals in 2011 and what other definitions they cited in order to make a citation map. This left her with a sample of 251 papers and 110 definitions to work with.

Using clustering analysis she was then able to identify some distinct clusters of definitions that have high levels of linkages between them. Ines was able to show that over time definitions that stress shared governance (for example the EMES network definition) have declined in use while those that emphasise entrepreneurial orientation combined with social objectives have been used more often. She therefore argues that is no longer satisfactory to begin all papers on social enterprise with the mantra that there is no consensus on definitional questions; if we look systematically at the literature we do in fact see a consensus emerging. Perhaps this could be a useful exercise for definitions of social innovation?

The conference also provided a chance to present some early work on scaling as part of the Tepsie project.  As part of the critical perspectives session I presented an early paper looking at some of the language we use when thinking about growing social innovation – both scaling and diffusion. The paper argues that while scaling is a useful way of conceptualising the growth of certain kinds of social innovations, there are limits to its usefulness beyond the field of social enterprise. In addition, even though diffusion captures some of the complexity associated with spreading innovation, the literature has limited practical use in helping plan or facilitate that diffusion. We conclude that neither the concepts of ‘scaling’ or ‘diffusion’ will be adequate to describe all the ways in which different social innovations grow, spread and become institutionalised. We also suggest that these issues about the terms we use to conceptualise growth go beyond semantics; rather they point to some of the weaknesses in the way social innovation is currently discussed. If we want to talk meaningfully about the growth of social innovations, then it is necessary to talk about specific types of social innovation, each of which will have its own distinct language for growth and associated literatures. The paper was well received and it was very helpful to get feedback on our thinking at such an early stage of this stream of Tepsie work.

Many thanks to all the conference chairs and particularly to Breanne Svehla of the Skoll Centre who did a fantastic job liaising with all the speakers, making sure we had everything we need and generally keeping the conference running smoothly.

Image courtesy of Friedwater on Flickr Creative Commons