(Not) Just Semantics
As RECODE comes to the end of its first year and we start to think about the fall semester, we are taking time to reflect on national strategies for engaging the wider RECODE network into something larger than the sum of its parts.
One theme surfacing from conversations with our various stakeholders is the contested terrain of language. Whether we intend it or not, invariably, there is a lot of meaning attributed to the words we use. This can be problematic when terms such as social innovation and social entrepreneurship do not have agreed upon meanings.
In the true spirit of our work, the challenge we face with maintaining the complexity of the language is also the creative tension necessary to further our collective efforts.
It may be a good time now to hit the pause button and round out these terms from different angles to understand how they have been used, in what contexts, and where they could grab people and where they could rub people the wrong way. In doing so, I hope we can understand how the language has evolved over time, picked up new meanings, associations, and facades, to allow for more sophistication and precision when using them going forward. In the true spirit of our work, the challenge we face with maintaining the complexity of the language is also the creative tension necessary to further our collective efforts.
The term social innovation is beautifully complex and rich with controversy. We at RECODE have generally centred our thinking on social innovation around initiatives, products, processes, or programs that profoundly change the defining routines, resources, and authority flows or beliefs of any social system.
We consider successful innovations to have durability, scale, and broad impact. Some would say that if it is really done right, the specific social problem that you are trying to address will no longer exist in that context. For example, ecological sanitation (ecosan) has been a complete game changer in informal settlements where sanitation facilities are costly, difficult to maintain, and have unreliable water connections. This is due to the ability of ecosan to close the nutrient loop, produce valuable resources from excreta, all the while conserving and protecting water. Eco-sanitation turns the sanitation process on its head; instead of dealing with a problem, you are creating an opportunity.
The popularity of social innovation as an idea has also been met with adversity. With the increasing usage of the term social innovation—without a corresponding shared understanding—there is risk of misuse, or of appropriation for the sake of appearance and general buy-in.
For example, our partners have flagged that they are seeing a ‘social innovation’ label being attached to a transfer of responsibility and accountability for delivering core services of our welfare state, from the public to individuals or community organizations. This dark side of social innovation, a guise for governments to offload responsibility, increases the urgency for developing a shared and well-understood lexicon.
The key thread I am pulling at here is the need to critically question what we label as a social innovation, so not to risk ‘greenwashing’ the term into being meaningless. By doing so, we root the term deeper into our everyday notions, knowhow, and tools so that we can better understand the intricacies and nuances involved in the type of work we do.
Social entrepreneurship falls along similar lines, meaning different things to different people. Many associate social entrepreneurship exclusively with not-for-profit organizations embarking on for-profit or earned-income ventures. Others use it to describe anyone who starts a not-for-profit organization. Others use it to refer to businesses with a social mission that is integral to their operations. While others believe that social entrepreneurship must be inherently socially innovative, and may not need to include a business element whatsoever.
My personal understanding of social entrepreneurship is more expansive—from for-profit, to cooperative, to non-profit, innovative or not, and driven by a strong social mission. And, I think that it needs to be some sort of enterprise. I don’t expect everyone to agree with my understanding, but what is important, is that we understand the variances and ask the right questions. Because if you understand social entrepreneurship to be inherently innovative, you may describe someone like, Al Etmanski, who led the campaign to establish the world’s first Registered Disability Savings Plan, a social entrepreneur. Whereas I would call him a social innovator, because he came up with a new process that changed resource flows to the benefit of our social system, though not through an enterprise.
Rather than shy away from these terms, it is important to engage the different meanings, read between the lines, question what we are labeling, and move forward to generate a culture and practice of innovation and entrepreneurship that is socially and ecologically driven. By embracing this approach with RECODE, we’re aiming to be better positioned to navigate the complexity of systems change in higher education.