A guest post from Dan Gregory.
For a few weeks now, an exchange I read on social media has been nagging away at me.
Venerable Australian academic and social innovation expert Nicholas Gruen was quoted at a conference saying that “No country has significantly scaled a piece of social innovation”. Then US social impact investment expert Steve Goldberg heartily seconded this, saying that “Social innovation has not scaled. Full stop.”
At the time I thought this was just a bit strange. I wondered for a moment how schools and hospitals fitted into Nicholas and Steve’s worldview but didn’t think much more of it. Perhaps something was just lost in translation. But the thought still nagged me.
Then David (who is kindly hosting this blog as, unlike me, he knows how to enable comments on WordPress) mentioned he had seen the same exchange. Then this week I discovered my proposal to be part of the Maintainers Conference was successful. For more on the conference see here
My proposal is focused on how charities, voluntary and community groups and social enterprises across the UK undertake essential maintenance work every day, sometimes ignored and forgotten. Yet meanwhile, the Government and many funders and financiers tend to get rather more excited about innovation and the digital, creative, incubator-based social ventures which all sound very exciting and promise radical change and transformation. The UK seems to be in the midst of a pandemic of disruptive social innovation hubs, accelerators and incubators. This seems to me like a sort of fetishisation of innovation.
This prompted me to wonder – is my confusion at Nicholas’s and Steve’s comments linked to these two very different perspectives? Perhaps the quiet work of suburban or rural community-based charities is being ignored? Perhaps what happened 100 years ago when social action led to the birth of the welfare state is just all a bit boring and far away? Perhaps it’s just not interesting to Steve and Nicholas? Does a passion for a narrower, more instrumentalized version of social innovation today distract us from the wider, more organic role of social action and social enterprise in shaping markets and the state over the long term? Urban tech disruption hubs are cool and exciting, right? Right?
Perhaps always looking forward for the next exciting innovation explains Steve’s and Nicholas’s blindspot for how schools, hospitals, food banks, homeless shelters, charity shops, recycling projects, credit unions, citizens’ advice bureaux, fundraising marathons, bike workshops, co-operatives, unions, libraries and babysitting circles have reached such a scale today to become part of the very furniture of our lives. Perhaps scale is boring?!
Or are Steve and Nicholas right that social innovation has really never scaled? Is the blindspot mine? What am I missing? Steve? Nicholas? Help!