Social Frontiers: How should we research social innovation?

20.11.2013 Blog

A recurring theme at Social Frontiers was the question of how best to research social innovation. In a session dedicated to discussing this issue, we heard four papers that took distinct approaches to researching this field.

First off, Kyriaki Papageorgiou presented her paper ‘Healing nature, transforming culture: a story of social innovation in Egypt’. Kyriaki introduced us to Sekem, a multifaceted Egyptian initiative which began as a small plot of desert land and now runs projects that include agricultural companies, a school, medical centre and a university. Kyriaki used her anthropological background to study the case of Sekem in depth. Her paper argues that the anthropological approach has much to offer the study of social innovation, not least its emphasis on questions of power, history and culture that might otherwise be overlooked in studies of innovation.

In contrast to this case study approach, we heard from two groups of researchers who are using large scale databases as their key research tool. Marie Bouchard and Catherine Trudell’s paper (‘Exploring the conceptual universe of social innovation: a relational database for a better understanding of its effects on social transformation’) starts from the premise that social innovation is too reliant on case studies. In particular, they argue that the case study methodology does not lend itself to the generalisation of knowledge. In 2011, the Centre de recherché sur les innovations sociales (CRISES), began to build up a database of social innovation. The database now includes more than 300 cases studies from Quebec and is being used to enable the longitudinal, sectoral and spatial analysis of social innovation in a regional context. It is also relational (as opposed to a ‘flat’ database), which allows the researchers to look at the logical relations and interdependencies between the data. Marie and Catherine highlighted a number of challenges related to this approach. One relates to the ‘triple interpretation’ of the data – at the level of interviewees who provided the data for the original case studies, the researchers who developed the case studies and the researcher in their team who are re-conceptualising and organising the information from the case studies for the creation of the database.

Anna Kaderabkova from the Centre for Innovation Studies in Prague also used a database approach for her paper, ‘Evaluation of social innovations – Their characteristics and impacts, cross country comparisons and implications or policy support’. She and her colleague looked at the database of submissions to the SozialMarie prize which is awarded annually to social innovations by the Austrian Foundation Unruhe to examine the nature of social innovation in Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries. They found that social innovation projects from CEE are dominated by NGOs and frequently funded by the ESF.

Finally, Katherine McGowan from the Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience (WISIR) presented some early findings from a project using a historical perspective to trace the development of social innovations. Building on work from Brian Arthur, Steven Johnson and DRIFT (the Dutch Research Institute for Transitions) Katherine and Frances Westley have developed a methodology for following a social innovation over its lifecycle. So far this has been completed for social innovations as diverse as the internet, financial derivatives, National Park System in the USA and women’s birth control. Katherine shared a Prezi that traces one of the examples they have completed, the emergence of the intelligence test. Using this technique, she and Frances have developed the hypothesis that it is the discovery or definition of new social phenomena in combination with existing phenomena that provide the necessary intellectual space for the emergence of social innovations. It is these conditions that allow people to ‘explore the adjacent possible’.

Following the presentations, the group discussed the merits of different research approaches. There was no suggestion that quantitative or qualitative approaches ought to dominate but rather that both should continue to be used in a complementary way. A further issue that was raised was the relationship between research work and practice in the field. Here Frances Westley argued that we are seeing real synergy between what she termed ‘thoughtful practitioners and practical academics’. In her experience there is great potential for exchange between practitioners who are interested in reflecting on the theoretical elements of their work and academics who develop frames and tools that give solid ground for action.

Many thanks again to each of our presenters for excellent talks, and to Jonathan Breckon for chairing a great session.