Social innovation and citizen engagement: towards a framework

07.11.2012 Blog

One of the key strands of TEPSIE work we’re leading at the Young Foundation is looking at the relationship between citizen engagement and social innovation. Although participation and engagement have been studied extensively in relation to public participation in democracy and civic participation in community activities (see for example excellent work from Involve and others in this area), there has not been much explicit treatment of citizen engagement within social innovation.  So this work has been a great opportunity to unpack in more detail what citizen engagement means in the context of the disparate types of activities we understand as social innovation. How does the concept of citizen engagement help us understand the ways in which more diverse voices and actors, that go perhaps beyond the usual suspects, can be brought into the process of developing new solutions to social challenges?

Our first task for this work stream was to develop a simple framework to help us to think about the many different methods of citizen engagement as they relate to social innovation. You can read the full paper in the final deliverable, but we thought it might be useful to briefly introduce the framework here.

In the paper, we suggest that the most practical approach to organising different methods of engagement is in terms of the kind of input they provide to an innovation process. In this, we drew on the work of Christian Bason, Director of cross-departmental innovation unit MindLab. In his book Leading Public Sector Innovation, Bason distinguishes between two basic purposes of citizen engagement in relation to innovation. These are “involving citizens as informants, helping to understand what the present (or past) situation is” and “involving citizens as co-creators of a new future.”  He also distinguishes between forms of engagement that involve small (say, between 4 and 50) and large (many hundreds, or potentially limitless) numbers of citizens.  While Bason’s framework was specifically intended to inform a discussion about public sector innovation, we thought this framing was useful for thinking about social innovation more generally, which can be driven by organisations in the non-profit and private sectors, as well as informal groups of citizens.

Informing about present states refers to all the ways that citizens can provide information about their current experiences. This information is an essential input throughout the development of a social innovation. It is necessary in the first instance for the initial diagnosis of problems and for framing questions in the right way so that root causes rather than symptoms can be addressed. And it is especially important following the development of an innovation, in the testing and implementation stages, to understand how well a prototype is working in practice, or how an established product or service might need to be improved. Methods here might involve engaging citizens in different ways to find out how they experience a particular need, how they overcome specific issues and to understand how well or how poorly a current service or product is working.

Developing future solutions refers to all kinds of engagement activity whereby citizens can contribute and shape new ideas. These might be ideas that provide the seed for a new innovation, or ideas for how to improve an existing service or model. It includes some methods by which citizens are themselves the source of fully formed new ideas and others where they act as partners with innovators in shaping ideas together. Citizen engagement in developing new solutions is a valuable input to the innovation process first because it yields opportunities for accessing more ideas, from more divergent sources. And second, when ideas come from citizens themselves rather than being parachuted in from the outside, they are more likely to represent responses to genuine needs, and in turn to receive wide acceptance.

The distinction between many and few citizens enables us to identify the scale at which different engagement activities operate. Different scales will also impact the kind of input that citizen engagement makes to innovation processes. Methods of engagement that involve many people offering information about their experiences are useful for identifying underlying patterns and trends. Others that can be performed with only a small number of citizens will yield rich, highly contextualised information. Similarly, in the realm of developing solutions, engaging with large numbers of citizens can uncover many ideas from diverse sources. In other cases, it will be more appropriate to work with only a few citizens more intensively to develop solutions in detail.

Taken together, these axes create four quadrants which we used to organise different methods of citizen engagement in social innovation, which you can see in the diagram below. You can read our discussion of these methods in the full paper.

Using these axes we felt produced a very pragmatic typology, which suggests that we can analyse any potential method for citizen engagement by asking two questions: first, what kind of input is it providing to the innovation process? Does it involve citizens giving data in some form (opinions, feedback etc.) about their current experiences? Or is it about citizens providing ideas that form the basis of future solutions? And second, at what kind of scale can this method operate? Is it one that can engage large numbers of citizens, or is it designed to be used with a smaller group?

As always, we’re keen to hear any comments you might have on the framework. Do you find this a useful way of conceptualising different methods of citizen engagement and participation in innovation? Or do you have other ideas for alternative approaches?