You don’t need to go beyond the executive summary of Making It Big – Nesta‘s new report on ‘Strategies for Social Social Innovations’ to see just how confused the UK’s leading thinkers are about the subject.
In sentence two we’re told ‘Many social innovations have become part our daily lives – think pre-school education, first aid, e-petitions‘ while in sentence three we’re told that ‘In the developing world, organisations like BRAC and Pratham are approaching transformative scale, starting to solve the social problems they set out to tackle.‘
From this we can deduce that social innovation could be a new branch of an existing sector, an essential basic service or a new method of communicating your views to people in power. On the other hand, it could be a large NGO that provides huge range of different services designed to help poor people.
It may be that it’s not useful to define ‘social innovation’ beyond the suggestion that it’s something with a social aim that seems to work but what about ‘scale’? According to Making it Big: ‘Social innovations can be said to have scaled when their impact grows to meet the level of need‘.
On that basis, pre-school education and first aid are a long way off reaching (worldwide) scale while many would argue that e-petitions reached scale some time before the first one was set up (apologies to radical hippies and Shoreditch libertarians who oppose both pre-school education and first aid but love e-petitions).
No more heroes
Making It Big isn’t a bad report – it’s a good report that reflects a confused situation. As Nesta boss Geoff Mulgan reflected at the recent launch event, 10 years ago the dominant view in (newly emerging) social innovation policy circles was that the UK would see an explosion of Ashoka-model, Richard Branson-style heroic social entrepreneurs.
(He didn’t add that) a few years before that Charles Leadbeater’s The Rise of the Social Entrepreneur had seemed to herald the approach of a disparate army of new social leaders who, between them, would replace outdated public services aided only by five disgruntled local people, a 30 minute crash course on how to do proper business from a kid on KPMG’s graduate scheme and their terrifyingly passionate personality.
It wasn’t a good idea but it was an intellectually coherent one. Unsurprisingly, it hasn’t worked. No heroic social entrepreneurs at all have solved a global social problem (or even replaced a relatively small existing public service) by scaling up themselves and doing their passion. The heroic social entrepreneur model has now become so discredited that at this year’s Skoll World Forum many of the world’s leading heroic social entrepreneurs were refusing to associate themselves with (the heroic image of) themselves.
In the UK, it just quietly didn’t happen. So Making it Big successfully reflects a landscape where we know being a great person and really meaning it is not enough. It does a good job of outlining different potential routes to scale: influence and advise, build a delivery network, form strategic partnerships and grow an organisation to deliver.
Do more vs. doing more good
It’s useful to look at scaling social innovation from two angles simultaneously. One is operational scale. Are you doing the thing you do either in the most efficient way you can or delivering it at the most efficient volume possible? Any of the available routes might be the best one to reach that point.
Have you reached the point where you’re doing something to the greatest possible extent that your skills, the resources available to you allow and the markets – in the broadest sense of the term – you operate within allow you to and are you able to keep on doing it?
Then the social impact question might – at that optimum operational level – does the social bit still work. Do the social returns diminish, why and by how much? Does the service that worked brilliantly for people in Norfolk, work just as well for people in Wales – and does it still work as well for people in Norfolk now you’re trying to deliver it in Wales, too?
Unfortunately, the trade-off between operational and social will probably involve taking a position on some difficult questions. Do you want to make your social good available to the biggest possible number of people or the people who need it most? Clearly, both but what if you have to make a choice?
What if the best way to make your social innovation simple enough for millions of people to use is to make it in a way that means particular groups of people can’t use it? What if ensuring your social innovation fits the market for helping for a particular group of people means you have to design it in a way that means it will never have a wider application?
It’s too much to demand that social innovations need to have entirely solved social problems to have been regarded as having scaled but how do we work out which scale model we should be aiming for if we want to achieve the best possible of operational effectiveness and social impact.
Markets don’t care about your social innovation
What remains under-addressed – both in Making it Big and in current UK social innovation debates in general – is the trade off between (scaling) social innovation as a technical process and social change as a battle for resources.
In Section 4, we’re told by Ted talk hero, Simon Sinek, that “people don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it” and therefore you need a ‘clear vision’ to scale up. The may be a great piece of advice in some contexts but it’s problematic in many of the social sectors.
In the social sectors people often buy what you do – in terms of giving up their time to engage with it – because they’re desperate, lonely, bored, or a combination of all three. That’s also true in purely commercial sectors but, in social sectors, the fact that your service is being used is (hopefully) not enough.
In conventional economic terms, many of the people who most need many social innovations don’t buy anything because they don’t have the power to do so. On the other hand, the people who do have the power – the people who might actually pay for the scaling of your innovation – buy whatever the hell they want irrespective of what you do or why you do it.
Breaking into many major social markets isn’t really about you and your social innovation at all. Do you have a scalable model for helping people back to work in the UK? Would unemployed people like to use it? Frankly, who cares? The Department of Work and Pensions aren’t going to pay for it through their lowest common denominator Work Programme scheme.
Unfortunately, there’s not much room in the think pods at Nesta for discussions that acknowledge the fact that some people have more power than other people, and research that considers how that affects both the kind of social innovations that emerge, and the projects, products and businesses that succeed.
Without that, some good stuff will happen but the broad state of confusion the social innovation world will continue.