Processes of innovation within the social economy

I am writing this blog post from the heart of the social innovation academic debate in Europe: The 3rd International Social Innovation Research Conference taking place in London. To my surprise, this year has also seen the number of practitioners contributing to the academic debate increased and their contributions and the dialogue generated well received.

Social innovation is the great promise of our time, not to say that is the only hope in which some of us are relying to compensate the disparity between the scale and urgency of our problems and the imaginative solutions that are flourishing in different corners of the world, proposed by ordinary citizens like you or me.

I have had the privilege of studying the topic of social innovation and of social enterprise innovation with some rigour for the last two years, thanks to a, yes, ‘innovative’ studentship that places students in organisations working in the field. My organisation, based in London, is called Locality and is the membership organisation for community enterprises, development trusts and settlements in the UK. Their long term aim has been creating a community anchor in every single neighbourhood, a place where people with talent for social change can converge with those in need.

The rationale behind my research project goes as follows: Almost every aspect of social enterprises, from its emergence and mission to its more operational dimensions, has been deemed innovative by someone, somewhere. And going beyond the organisational spectrum, social enterprises are also understood to play a major role in the broader process of social innovation. Those interested in finding these assertions only need to look at the most cited pieces of some of these prolific authors: Clayton Christensen, James Phills, Andrea Westall, Charles Leadbeater, Geoff Mulgan, Robin Murray, Stephen Goldsmith. Or contact me for a detailed bibliography. I think they have all helped us to structure our understanding, to gain legitimacy and to advance the field of social innovation. But these same authors point towards the need for more rigorous, extensive, context-specific and historically aware research on how the innovation process takes places in the social field, how does it happen.

Other questions that arise from this study are:

What types of innovation can be found within the social economy?

This first sub-question will serve to develop a typology of innovation within the social economy. It is also expected to reveal information about the motivations that drive innovation: efficiency, sustainability, visible opportunities, users, public policy, ideology or funding are some examples of the motivations that are likely to be encountered which deserve further examination.

What is the role of networks, peer learning and inter-organisational relationships within the process of social innovation?

Where there are examples of innovation, this research is also interested in understanding the networks and the learning processes underpinning them, and how have these relationships been built up. I have been examining issues of trust, power and competition as they are also likely to influence the trajectory of innovations.

What prevents some organisations from innovating?

The problematic aspects of community enterprises which stifle innovation are also worth consideration. Intrinsic and diffusion-related challenges weaken innovations from their beginning and should be observed to open up the possibility of overcoming them.

Attempting to answer these questions, I have been using a mixed methods approach. This dwells primarily on 7 ethnographic case studies of innovative initiatives (some organisations, some programmes) within the social economy in London. I have also been interviewing social innovators, experts and entrepreneurs around the UK and asking them what were the critical incidents, the micro-processes and the tipping points that helped them conceive novel solutions. Finally, I have also managed to use data from a survey of community enterprises for two consecutive years (adding a longitudinal perspective to the study) asking them, among others, if they have introduced any new product, process, programme or ideas and where did they get the idea from.

So far, my findings point towards the unpredictable nature of the innovation process and to the discreet and almost personal character of those moments, encounters and impetuses that ended up providing fairer solutions. Most of the examples that I am coming across are improving the world on a small and localised scale, emerged out of frustration and impotence and are struggling to secure their way in a wider context of public spending cuts and scarcity. Many grew stronger through friendships secured at university or previous jobs. This has little to do with the open model of social innovation proposed recently by some thinkers, almost a formula for achieving systemic change, regardless of your background.

This is the first post of what we hope will be a platform to connect students, exchange opinions, ideas and references within the intellectual tradition created and supported by the EMES European Research Network. The world needs more multi-disciplinary research networks like EMES, which encourage dialogue, cross pollination, constructive feedback and which reminds us that there are many of us out there trying to imagine and to build a fairer society, almost  a new political economy, more collective, more inclusive, where many can reap its benefits.

Posted by Maria Isabel Irurita

María Irurita (Middlesex University, UK) is a trainer and a certified advisor on issues related to business and financial planning for social enterprises and is also conducting a funded PhD on processes of innovation and peer learning within the social economy in the UK.  Previously Maria worked as a CSR manager within a community investment foundation, as mentoring coordinator for a refugee integration programme and as frontline advisor of various community initiatives. Maria has been supporting EMES with their social media strategy since February 2011.

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2 thoughts on “Processes of innovation within the social economy

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  1. Hi Maria – after reading your blog post (yes, a bit delayed!) i am sorry not to have connected with you at the ISIRC in London last month. I am in the early stages of my PhD, aiming to settle on my final thesis topic early next year. I am still working full time at the moment and related to this role my interest is in social innovation and social enterprise, and i am looking at a particular focus on useful roles for the public sector. A number of the authors you mention are informing my thinking at this early stage, and your discussion indicates similar interests. I would welcome the opportunity to stay in touch with your work and also any bibliographic material you may be willing to share. I am based in Sydney, Australia. Joanne

  2. A good start for this Blog Maria. Interesting findings so far in your research and good that you are also sharing part of your methodology, which can help other SE researchers to think different ways of approaching this subject. After reading your post, a question came to my mind related to innovation and your methodology. Have you incorporated or studied any unsuccessful social innovations? are they any public failures of social innovation that you can analyse? As you know, I am interested on knowledge sharing and knowledge management in SE, and found that not research is done on unsuccessful cases of SEs that can help a big deal to understand them. Hope my post on February would discus some of my initial findings.

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