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UCL Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy


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In the era of SDGs and Grand Challenges should all innovation be ‘social innovation’?

By jochataway, on 20 January 2020

By Joanna Chataway, Rebecca Hanlin and Julius Mugwagwa

Geoff Mulgan, newly appointed Professor of Collective Intelligence, Public Policy and Social Innovation at UCL STEaPP, has an impressive new book out entitled ‘Social Innovation: How societies find the power to change’.  His ideas about social innovation made us wonder: In this era of changing goalposts for technological innovation, should we think about all innovation as to some degree being social innovation?

Innovation image

All innovation aimed at delivering social and environmental targets requires us to think about social factors, organisational change and other contextual realities. It could therefore be thought of as social innovation.  On the face of it, that would seem fine as a premise but with further reflection we concluded that things weren’t so simple.  It is certainly true that in the overwhelming majority of cases, technology alone won’t achieve social and environmental goals.  But, the difference between ‘innovation’ and ‘social innovation’ seems to us to relate to starting points and how technological innovation is conceptualised in relation to broader societal change.  Technological innovation, even when it is related to social and environmental goals, could be thought of as beginning with a scientific and technical focus, whereas social innovation does not.  The nature of this difference is worth exploring in more detail because the policy implications are important.

The idea that social objectives and technological capabilities are both integral to successful innovation is certainly not a new idea. Evolutionary economics, innovation systems and socio-technical regime thinking all approach the interactions between the two realms from various angles.  Ideas about how to integrate these two realms are core to much thinking about how innovation can better address social challenges.  But, there is a difference between starting with technological innovation and then going to the social objectives in order to make technological innovation more effective, and, starting with social objectives.

The way we understand this difference relates partly to our experience with using Nelson’s concept of ‘social technologies’ to think about health innovation some years ago, and in our current project STRINGS and in a recent evaluation of EDCTP that we worked on.

We’ll come back to this but start by very briefly explaining our understanding of what Mulgan means by ‘social innovation’.

What is social innovation?

Mulgan defines social innovation as ‘innovations that are social both in their ends and in their means’ (Mulgan, 2019: 10). So, clearly innovation designed for purely commercial ends are not social innovations.  Nor is public funding for R&D and innovation that is designed to meet economic targets.  Mulgan suggests that the State might not be the best vehicle for a more radical interpretation of social innovation that he is working with. The emphasis Mulgan gives to the importance of both intentions (objectives) and processes (means) needing to be coherent between themselves and with societal objectives is something we agree with. This coherence is not easy to sustain resulting in innovations which may not fulfil social purposes at both means and ends levels.

Embarking on social innovation involves organisational change and often relates to complex changes in governance arrangements. Mulgan’s radical ideas about social innovation involve deep change, and we add that this may entail concomitant change in both ends and means.  He says: ‘The heart of the more radical idea of social innovation is a deeper re-imagining of democracy, with rule by the people also implying the capacity to create options and just choose between competing programmes, parties or leaders.  Democracy, in short, is no longer equated with state power, but is generalised, and also fused with innovation.  The assumption is an untapped capability to govern, in the wider sense, that is dependent on an ecosystem of information, experience and knowledge’ (Mulgan, 2019: 54). All these have the potential to reshape the ends and means with respect to a particular innovation.

From Social Technologies to Social Innovation

One earlier incarnation of a distinction between the different roles for social and technological change in innovation is provided by Nelson and Sampat (2001) who make a distinction between physical and social technologies.  Both are important to innovation as are institutions, the third part of an ever changing jigsaw.  A succinct definition of ‘social technology’ is provided by Nelson, who makes reference to a cooking recipe and explains why the concept of social technologies is useful with reference to the limitations of a written recipe:

“. . .a recipe characterisation of what needs to be done represses the fact that many economic activities involve multiple actors, and require some kind of a coordinating mechanism to assure that the various aspects of the recipe are performed in the relationships to each other needed to make the recipe work. The standard notion of a recipe is mute about how this is done. . . [We] propose that it might be useful to call the recipe aspect of an activity its “physical” technology, and the way work is divided and coordinated its “social” technology.” (Nelson, 2008:1–1)

The concept was useful in thinking about why the development of new Global Health technologies required organisational innovation and involvement of new actors.  We still think its useful but it maintains the idea that physical technologies are at the heart of the list of ingredients and the recipe for change. The challenge is figuring out how actors and institutions configure themselves to make the ‘meal’ come to life, or at least, understanding how the iteration works between physical technologies, social technologies and institutions to change the ‘meal’ that is served.

What if the ‘social technologies’ themselves are at the heart of innovation projects?   In that case you start with the need to address societal problems and social change and work back to how physical technologies help or hinder.

The distinction is important when thinking about where energy and resources are allocated.  For example, one of the initiatives that we explored with the help of Nelson’s concept was the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI).  The mission was to develop an AIDS vaccine (a physical technology), and it was thought that a new social technology (a public-private product development partnership, PDP) was needed to do so.

We won’t get into the rights and wrongs of that approach here but, at the time, it was a very different plan and started with the problem of AIDS as a technological and product development challenge which needed both social interventions as well as technical innovation.  It led the way for other PDPs working in other disease areas.  This approach was both technical and social but, it was initially driven with a focus on technological and scientific change – and that probably means it shouldn’t be classified as a social innovation according to the definitions in this blog.  Other approaches to tackling AIDS were more open and involved multiple potential solutions including community driven initiatives.  So, the former is an effort to more effectively direct physical technologies and innovation, the latter sits more happily with the radical definition of social innovation that Mulgan is working with.

Together with several colleagues based in other countries and institutions, we have just finished an evaluation of the European Developing Country Clinical Trials Partnership (EDCTP).  Our report will be published shortly.  EDCTP has some very impressive achievements under its belt and is a powerful illustration of a partnership model for addressing global challenges.  One of the questions that it has had to deal with, though, is the extent to which it defines itself in relation to the end goal of improved global health, or more narrowly in relation to the development of science, technology and physically embodied innovations (whether new drugs or vaccines or a new set of clinical guidelines) which could contribute to global health.

If it uses the former definition, it locates itself as a social innovation project.  If it defines itself as the latter, it is better identified as a technological innovation project.  Both are difficult to get right, both can be valid.  Our evaluation work brought home to us the strategic and operational importance of the distinction.  And, of course, there are political dimensions to these identities.

A sort of answer

So, back to the initial question – ‘in this era of Grand Challenges and SDGs, should we think of all innovation as social innovation?’   Empirically, of course, the answer is a straightforward no.  There are many different types of innovation which currently seek to address social, environmental and economic challenges and not all should be classified as ‘social innovation’.

But, if we view the question and the distinction from a different angle and the answer as important to policy, it is more complicated.  Our answer, based on our initial exploration on the question in this blog, is still a ‘no’.  The current project on Science, Technology and Innovation for the SDGs for example, is focused on complex challenges involving ambitious social and environmental goals.  Achieving the SDGS will require social innovation and, mostly likely, the ambitious forms of social innovation that Mulgan talks about. Innovation in this context needs to be thought of as part of a project that starts with social and environmental ambitions and works back to integrating technological innovation.  It is therefore social innovation in Mulgan’s more radical sense but there will be multiple physical innovations and related research that feed into the overall effort.

Some approaches to Challenge and Mission based projects begin to reflect social innovation as a starting point, while others are still more focused on science and technological innovation.  That latter type also often have social change and social science components built in but the primary focus is on technology as a starting point.  Additionally, scientific and technological innovation aimed at social and environmental change, although it will always have social dimensions and involves social technologies, is not necessarily always related primarily to the end goal and immediate social challenges and problems.

There are many different pathways, road-maps, capacities and capabilities needed and we understand very little about this terrain as of yet.  It is also important to note that some innovations may be more socially embedded than others and if we are thinking about this distinction in relation to policy and change, we need more thoughtful approaches to mapping the nature and extent of ‘embeddedness’.

A key thing is that we learn to think systemically and develop tools for helping us to do that.  STEaPP research projects, MPA and doctoral programmes are working on that.  The ambition isn’t necessarily served well by collapsing distinctions and may be better served by creating more nuanced and useful distinctions.

The extent to which, in addressing the SDGs and other social or environmental objectives, we should start with social change agendas and work back to targeting science and technology in a more focused way is at the heart of some of the major debates in contemporary science policy.  For example, how much money should be allocated to transformative innovation and missions vs. science and innovation which doesn’t have immediate social or environmental goals?  How much resource should go into research aimed primarily at social innovation rather than technological innovation?  Should there be more funding for the social sciences in achieving social change?  These questions are being asked in many quarters and there is no one answer.  Although social innovation seems to us to be under resourced we don’t think necessarily that all funding for technological innovation R&D should be based on social innovation.

We hope that the distinction we’ve begun to make in this blog may be helpful in a small way to the big research and evaluation agendas that we need to create to give clearer answers to questions about the relationship between social and technological innovation.

We very much look forward to Geoff Mulgan joining STEaPP so that we can explore those agendas together.

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