Coordinator Civic Explorations Programme
On a taxi out of Johannesburg airport, I was greeted by two mega billboards. One asked: ‘Social innovation: why can’t we put energy to sleep at night?’ The other: ‘How can we make seawater fit for drinking?’ They turned out to be billboards from Hitachi. Hitachi prominently uses social innovation to brand its corporate identity. Something similar happened to a colleague few weeks ago, who saw giant signs along the road about social innovation sponsored by the Emir of Qatar.
Follow #socialinnovation on Twitter and you’ll quickly find out that the social innovation buzz is indeed a truly global phenomenon. I think there are many reasons for this, some more interesting and contested than others. Among the more obvious is a global feeling that our “knottier” social and environmental problems require new solutions. Another is the logical consequence of the society we live in that tells us ‘Innovation is good and necessary!’
But the term says very little over either substance or method. There is an ongoing battle over how to define social innovation and how to frame it in this day and age. Some, I guess Hitachi among them, argue that social innovation is merely an extension of corporate innovation aimed at “fixing” social problems. Others go as far as to put social innovation on a par with longer term shifts, such as enlightenment and industrialisation. Some say it’s a kind of sector, referring to emerging policy-frameworks, funding structures and organisations that make use of the term. Others, like the Stanford Social Innovation review, refer to it as a collection of (new) methods for change.
This confusion (as well as issues of hype and fashion) must be familiar to us, for exactly the same debates have gone on for decades about “development”. Is it about rights, needs, freedom, growth or happiness? Is it charity, or is politics? Is it about the underdeveloped South playing catch up with the North? Or is it about enabling societies or organisations to carve out their own paths? Is it about fixing the world to ensure minimum standards (the MDGs), a mere neoliberal scapegoat to exploit the have-nots, or is it about a collective search to advance the human condition everywhere?
At Hivos we know where we stand in the development realm. For us, development is about power and politics: citizens should be in the driver’s seat. And increasingly, we realise that development issues concern all of us, not just the South: democracy, equality, the environment, sexual diversity, women’s empowerment, food security, freedom of speech, sustainability, and so on.
In recent months, many Hivos colleagues, partners and board members have asked what it is that we exactly mean by social innovation. And when the board has considered positioning Hivos as a “social innovator”, many have asked, ‘Why trade in one contested concept – development organisation - for another?’
The short answer to the last question is: ‘Yes, why should we?’ Trading labels or spicing up policies, processes and job descriptions with a social innovation sauce is a rather hollow exercise. Our future as an organisation requires a deeper, yet much more subtle shift. And that refers to the first question. What kind of innovation, or should we just say change, are we looking for? Leaving aside the jargon for a moment - what’s our task?
If we look critically at our humanist values in this day and age, then it’s obvious that more of the same is not making things much better. The current Western model is obviously no longer a viable end point.
We need to free ourselves of the persistent mindset that pushes us to engage in more of the same change instead of deeper and better change. That is not to say that the decent efforts going on for change all over the world are useless and should be thrown away. But we have to move toward new and fresh repertoires of transformational action.
Hivos sides with initiatives and actors that see issues like inequality or loss of biodiversity for what they are: complex, contextualised problems that defy easy fixes and ready-made solutions. We have always believed in what many agree is now key to survival: lots of little bets. The search is on for critical ideas, impulses and connections to make these thrive at scale. It is a global search. What’s more, it’s increasingly likely that the better answers will come from unexpected corners. As Marco Steinberg recently suggested about inner city development, if you want yesterday’s answers, go to New York City; if you want tomorrow’s answers, go to Santiago de Chile.
Critical interlocutors are key in this quest: actors who can combine the local and global, the online and the offline, the marathon runners and the sprinters of change. Actors who can stimulate collective action to match the complexity and global scale of these issues. Can Hivos be that organisation?
Yes, we can. And in a sense, we’re already half-way there. That’s why our best times have yet to come. We’ve done it for decades and we’re good at it.
Yet we’ve done it largely within the confines of the development sector. Hivos needs to remove the straightjacket of the aid game and the division between North and South. We do not want to be just another mainstream NGO for the next 5 years. We should dare to take at least one foot out of the civil society camp and connect with progressive actors in other sectors, like the New Institute in Rotterdam, Kennisland or Al Jazeera. Again, this does not mean we stop doing all of the good work we do now. Rather, it is about venturing outside our comfort zone to try making the critical connections and adopting the strategies that others use successfully for prompting change, be they labs, impact investments, unruly protest or other methods that might work.
And what applies to the actors we work with also goes for the methods we’ve used. Most of our work has been built on a solid portfolio of re-granting funds from North to South. Although this remains important, Hivos could become much more strategic at answering questions that to date we’ve mainly dealt with intuitively: Where do good ideas come from? How can they be nurtured into institutions and initiatives that work? How do they tie in to larger agendas and movements, and how can we constantly learn and reflect critically so as to maximise impact and outreach? Money - and banking - remains important, but as part of a broader portfolio of strategies for change. We already have all we need to play that banker’s role well, but for that bigger picture, we’re less well-equipped in terms of skills, systems and corporate culture.
Seen in this light, our track record in a sector that continues to be battered over alleged lack of impact and effectiveness might be far more than a glass half-empty. With our ideas, skills and experiences, we are rapidly finding new allies, interesting insights and the energy that is so sorely missed in our sector.
The Hitachi billboards I mentioned at the beginning allude to the kind of “knotty” issues that fit our mission. So if all we want to do in the future is exactly what we’ve always done and in the same way, there’s no need for new labels. However, if we believe it’s time to evolve, then let’s strategically use “social innovation” as a lens to broaden our network of allies and our repertoire for action for exciting decades to come.