Transatlantic Perspectives on Social Innovation
• University Alliance Ruhr (UA Ruhr)
• German Center for Research and Innovation (GCRI)
On October 6, 2015, the University Alliance Ruhr and the German Center for Research and Innovation hosted a panel discussion on transatlantic perspectives on social innovation. It is a topic of increasing importance in today’s global society, though, as one of the speakers noted, it’s “a concept everybody likes, but nobody is quite sure what it means.” To another speaker, social innovation can be defined as “a novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, or sustainable than existing solutions and for which the value created accrues primarily to a society as a whole rather than to private individuals.”
Prof. Dr. Josef Hochgerner, Senior Strategy Advisor at the Centre for Social Innovation and a University of Vienna professor in sociology, and Prof. Jürgen Howaldt, Director of the Central Scientific Institute at the Technische Universität Dortmund, shared their experiences in the academic examination of social innovation. Kriss Deiglmeier, CEO of the global social enterprise Tides, drew upon over 20 years of senior executive experience spanning the business, social enterprise, nonprofit, academic, and philanthropic sectors. The evening’s moderator Eleni Janis, Director of the Social Capital Desk for the New York City Economic Development Corporation, touched upon how she aims to foster and strengthen social entrepreneurship throughout the city.
Hochgerner kicked off the evening with an introduction to the concept of social innovation and its increasing popularity internationally in recent years. Anticipating a recurring question of the evening, Hochgerner pointed out that no one has agreed on a consistent definition of social innovation yet. His definition stated that social innovations aren’t necessarily always well-intentioned, illustrated by the example of equivocal security measures. He then introduced his 4-i-process of social innovation development to the audience. The path of social innovation can be characterized by an emerging idea, an intervention targeting change, and a follow-up implementation of this measure, which ultimately leads to an impact. Hochgerner also identified different mindsets regarding social innovation in Europe and the U.S. According to the Viennese scholar, European officials are trying to ensure and amend the welfare of society by utilizing a policy mix that connects public businesses and civil society practitioners in which social innovation works complementary to pre-existing social systems. U.S. practitioners, contrarily, act in a more business-driven manner in a ’lean government – big society’ paradigm, which leads to a more compensatory system.
Kriss Deiglmeier then discussed how the systems-level approach from Stanford tried to identify ideas that led to positive impact, with such examples including microfinance and fair trade. In contrast to Hochgerner’s interpretation of the term social innovation, Deiglmeier’s definition had a more positive connotation. However, common ground could be found in her proposed ‘stages of innovation.’ The process of social innovation she described resembles the 4-i-process Hochgerner presented and consisted of the following steps: defining the problem and opportunity, generating an idea, piloting and creating a prototype, and lastly, diffusing and scaling the idea. According to Deiglmeier, the most challenging barrier in this process can be identified as a ‘stagnation chasm’ between the pilot prototyping phase and the diffusion and scaling of an idea. “Intentions would not die, they just didn’t grow,” Deiglmeier explained. To help these ideas scale, it is of particular importance to identify these stagnation chasms. Deiglmeier then highlighted one of the main consensuses of the discussion: to ensure the success of social innovations, organizations need to commit to cross-sector collaboration. That’s where future innovators should devote their energy, Deiglmeier emphasized. She also urged: “never mistake a clear view for a short distance,” especially when it comes to scaling up ideas and negotiating with corporate collaborators. Regardless of whether an individual is an entrepreneur or a philanthropist, that person needs to get past the ‘short-term mindset.’
The last of the three speakers, Jürgen Howaldt, began his presentation with an appeal to broaden the general understanding of the term ‘innovation.’ The predominant technological point of view, he argued, should be adapted to a bigger picture view with social innovations perceived as coequal. According to him, during the transition from an industrial to a service-based society, an innovation system requires the inclusion of social innovations, as technological innovations will not solve social problems alone. Not only should companies be encouraged to operate as relevant actors, but so too should universities, research institutes, and individuals. According to Howaldt, three major challenges exist pertaining to social innovation: establishing cross-sector collaboration for a supportive framework, setting the concept high on political agendas, and building up a social innovation infrastructure. “The most urgent and important innovations in the 21st century will take place in the social field,” he said, concluding his speech by depicting the importance of social innovation as a concept for social change.
In addition, the three panelists discussed the differences in public and private approaches to social innovation and where their opinions diverge. Hochgerner highlighted the innovation capacity of civil society. In particular, he referred to favorable intersections of civil society with public authorities where the scaling of ideas could ultimately take place. He advocated for a strong government with incentives for businesses to incorporate social aspects into their programs. Deiglmeier instead saw the role of civil society as more limited and credited businesses with having the most potential to drive social innovation forward. According to her, the institutional logic of the public sector with a bureaucratic mindset will ultimately hinder the scaling of ideas. Howaldt expressed the need for a systematic framework for public policy making and the necessity for strengthening university research. He depicted joint-ventures between social enterprises and for-profit organizations as promising trends, but underlined the need for real impact and criticized the use of social innovation as a marketing strategy. The speakers agreed on the importance of involving communities in the process of social innovation.
During the Q&A with the audience, questions revolved around ways to improve funding and share knowledge, the role of technology, and the segregation of technological and social innovation. The speakers and audience then continued the dialogue during a reception in the lobby.