The ‘Dangers’ of Social Innovation


I’ve returned from an excellent conference at Glasgow Caledonian University. The International Social Innovation Research Conference is billed as the biggest social innovation conference in the world now. With a truly international participation and top speakers, it did not disappoint. After a welcome from the Principal and Vice Chancellor, Professor Pamela Gillies, there were excellent lectures throughout.

One of the most interesting and relevant keynotes was delivered by Taco Brendsen from Radboud University Nijmegen, Netherlands called ‘Social Innovation as a Fashion Show’. From his research undertaken in European cities, he pointed to the dangers of SI being hijacked and instrumentalised. He set about challenging myths about social innovation and we would do well to heed his comments.

He began by dispelling the myth that everything has to be new. He stated that the benefits of continuity can be downplayed and a lot of the newness can be simply repackaging. He felt that the emphasis on newness could be destructive.

He demeaned the absence of failure and the denial of politics in accounts of social innovation. Like a fashion show, he referred to a string of good experiences and continuous inspiration. He pointed to an emphasis on harmony and bridging and non-controversial models – “It’s always Christmas”, he warns. The light can obscure the dark side. Change affects social relations which can lead to conflict. Social innovation implies political and moral choices. Failure can and does happen and it is not necessarily a bad thing.

He went on to say that the social innovation cycle favours big organisations which can professionalise their operation including publicising the scale of their successes at the expense of small and informal innovations which can be downplayed or not recognised. He added that not everything can or should be scaled up.

He felt that evaluations should be improved and the research evidence not instrumentalised and commodified. He felt there was little interest in truly evaluating impact. Again, he returned to the theme of embracing the dark side and ‘showing more of the dirt and the ugliness’ rather than a Disneyfication.

We have been warned!

Dr Mike Calvert (Social Innovation Developer)

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