Social Innovation: Blurring Boundaries

03.05.2013 Blog

Social Innovation: blurring boundaries to reconfigure markets brings together some of the leading thinkers from the field of social innovation and provides a wide array of perspectives, insights and questions for further research.  It aims to demonstrate the importance of social innovation and to establish that the subject is distinct enough, both empirically and theoretically, to merit further examination.  While the authors largely succeed in this endeavour, the collection would benefit from a more rigorous distinction between social enterprise, social entrepreneurship and social innovation; at times these distinct yet overlapping terms were used synonymously which detracts from the proposition that social innovation is a distinct and worthwhile subject of research.

Nevertheless, this collection of essays is very timely; there is growing enthusiasm and support for social innovation amongst policymakers, researchers and foundations without at times a clear understanding of what social innovation is or what it might entail. This book opens with a useful summary of existing literature on social innovation, including definitions, theoretical traditions and schools of thought, but then takes existing discussions much further, broaching many of the key questions facing the field. The breadth of the subjects covered in this collection reflects the diversity of the field and credit is due to the editors for capturing this richness.

The first part of this collection explores the macro-level context and theoretical traditions of social innovation. Mulgan draws on sociology, economics, philosophy and political science to explore the theoretical foundations and trajectories of social innovation. He argues that social innovation shares its roots with innovation and entrepreneurship in business and technology, but has developed as a distinct form of innovation which is equal to and sits on a par with economic and technological innovation. Kerlin explores the ways in which socio-economic and cultural contexts can aide or impede social innovation, through a cross country comparison of social enterprise. She identifies four different contexts for social innovation and each is explored in detail through an organisational case study. Her findings have significant implications for strategies to replicate social enterprises and innovations across national and regional borders.  Westley et al. use resilience theory to frame a discussion about public policy and social innovation. The authors suggest that governments can catalyse social innovation but that different policies are required at different stages of social innovation. This claim is supported by a series of exploratory case studies. Marée and Mertens discuss the limitations and opportunities in the theory and practice of social innovation impact measurement. In particular, the authors focus on the social value that is not captured by traditional economic performance measurement systems and explore alternative strategies and tools for evaluating impact.

The second part of the book explores some of the strategies and institutional logics of social innovation from a micro-level perspective. Lyon examines the inter-organisational relations between social enterprises in the delivery of public services, and in particular, the conflicting demands placed on them to simultaneously compete and co-operate; Robinson et al. look at the challenges of modelling agency in social innovation; Ataide describes and defines socio-religious entrepreneurship as an emerging and distinct subset of social entrepreneurship; and Cameron explores the position and role of social entrepreneurs within the social innovation ecosystem.

The third and final section of the book focuses on social innovation in terms of climate change and sustainability, with discussions about social-ecological innovation and transformation, challenges with implementing green technologies in a developing context, and the difference between small and large firms, namely ‘emerging Davids’ and ‘greening goliaths’ in forms and visions of sustainable entrepreneurship.

The editors, Murdock and Nicholls, argue that social innovation could represent the next wave of macro-level innovation, on a par with the industrial revolution, or the information revolution. They argue that social innovation could be as disruptive and influential as previous techno-economic paradigms. While it is easy to agree with Murdock and Nicholls’ conviction that social innovation is fundamentally important, their analogy of social innovation as a new wave or paradigm is misplaced – rather, the new paradigm (which has been brought about by new information and communication technologies) will enable and necessitate new kinds of social innovation.  However, whether the new paradigm can be a golden age for social innovation depends largely on whether the powerful industries and organisations of the previous paradigm use the new technologies to strengthen their position, or whether new forces can re‐shape the institutions and structures that will help spread the gains from the new technologies more widely. This raises fundamental questions about power. How can innovators effectively challenge the power of vested interests?  How do power dynamics help or hinder ‘scaling up’? What is government’s role in changing the landscape of power? Hopefully, these are some of the questions that the authors will address in their next publications.