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Social innovation or social self-preservation?

by Alexandre Berkesse Consultant, Professor, Researcher in Organization Management, PhD Student in Philosophy — HEC Montreal and Université de Montreal

I recently took part in one of the largest gatherings of social innovation stakeholders in higher education. More than 500 participants from around the world participated—individuals engaged in initiatives at all levels of the education system—from primary school to university. Below are some of my reflections on the event, what struck me the most, and what I consider priority actions for social innovators.

The danger of glorifying social innovators and their actions

Two typical situations:
1. “I’m a social entrepreneur!”
2. “I started a company/NPO that helps those in need!”
In both cases, people tend to respond the same way: “Wow! That’s great!”

This very common reaction demonstrates that the simple desire of wanting to “do good” for the community represents—in itself, and to our collective vision—a sufficient condition for legitimizing and valuing an action. As though a social innovator’s actions must be intrinsically positive, desirable, and beneficial for the community.
This type of response represents one of the most challenging issues facing the future of social innovation. I’ve participated in visits to many schools and “social enterprises” and many of those experiences confirmed my apprehension. Here’s one example.
At St. Martins Episcopal School in New Orleans, I took part in “social innovation” activities at the elementary level (with children aged 6 to 10) that used Design Thinking tools. Their teacher had traveled to Malawi and brought back photos of several public spaces. For the activity, the children had chosen a doctor’s office and were asked to think about “solutions” to the “issues” they saw in the photos.
Beyond the undeniable pedagogical benefits I observed during this activity, I also noticed significant issues. The main one is that children identified “issues” based on their own comfortable childhood in New Orleans, without knowing whether these were also issues for the Malawians. The teacher encouraged them to “use empathy” to identify the issues. The children then concluded that the elements that were creating tensions in their own lives, were also creating tensions for Malawians (e.g. lack of privacy when talking with the doctor, no TV in the waiting room, etc.).
Having the children identify the issues to work on completely disregards the socially constructed nature of reference points upon which these elements can be characterized as “issues.” The notion of privacy and sense of time during a waiting period are different depending on the culture in which you have been socialized.
Carrying out the activity in this way reproduces the negative effects of the “well-intentioned actions” that we have supposedly been aware of for several years – in other words, the very issues that social innovators are supposed to be working to resolve.
Empathy is an essential skill in helping resolve social issues, but it must not be used solely to legitimize one’s own perceptions of others’ problems, or as a substitute for ongoing collaboration – or the co-construction of solutions – with the individuals concerned.

Investing so much energy and money, and engaging so many skilled and well-meaning people, is socially irresponsible if the social innovation stakeholders do not make a sustained effort to ensure the social relevance of their actions. Good intentions are not enough – we need good actions.

Paradoxes and inconsistencies of social innovators’ values and behaviours

There seems to be an implicit consensus on the code of ethics (set of values) used to evaluate the social issues addressed (education, health, housing, etc.). When participants present a social entrepreneurship project where, for example, their premise is that making home ownership more accessible will improve a community’s quality of life (Emmanuel’s House), no questioning of this premise seems necessary (while it is quite obvious to me that the correlation can be challenged).
While speaking up in order to share a critical perspective on the appropriateness of a proposed solution is possible, it is not encouraged or valued. The development of critical thinking as a key skill for social innovators was one of the central themes of the event, but the use of critical thinking to gain some perspective on our actions in social innovation is not part of the culture.
Moreover, this phenomenon can be seen in parallel discussions where “progressive values” (gender equality, democracy, secularism, respect for other cultures, etc.) are also subject to an implicit consensus. The people who do not share these values are considered morally dangerous to the well-being of the community (Donald Trump’s supporters would be such an example), or insufficiently equipped to realize that their values are inadequate.
While democratic values seem to form a consensus (highly valued bottom-up approach with an emphasis on the obvious premise that all citizens have the right to express themselves), it is paradoxical to note that it is more of a totalitarian approach that is being proposed and implemented. In fact, the values that represent the consensus in social innovation (which are not representative of all communities) are considered superior by their very nature and can (or must) be legitimately adopted in the targeted communities and their moral way of life.
Thinking from the bottom-up, though theoretically valued, is not incorporated in the decision-making mechanisms and does not contribute to the social solutions selected. On the contrary, “thinking from above”—the dominant ideology characterizing social innovation—is just the opposite and is “objectively” voiced in the “neutral” (morally conditioned) tone of evidence and scholarly expertise, which dictates the “right answers”, but especially the “right questions.”

I still haven’t managed to decide whether, with most people’s current capacity to participate in civic life, I would prefer a benevolent dictatorship or a direct democracy. However, if we decide, in the area of social innovation, to act in accordance with democratic principles, we have a duty to be consistent and to accept the possible calling into question – or even the complete reversal – of the universe of meaning that we maintain and in which we enjoy the privileges.

Diversity representative of the familiar at the service of social self-preservation

While the terms “diversity”, “representativeness”, and “bottom-up approach” were used numerous times to qualify best practices in social innovation, the observation of participants and people representing their respective organizations shows us that this ecosystem does not yet function by the principles these stakeholders preach.
Organizers share the responsibility for this situation: they could have, for example, lowered conference fees or offered financial assistance to facilitate access for low-income participants. They also could have proactively invited people/groups who feel that they do not belong at this type of event and who, as a result, naturally exclude themselves. Several options were available to the organizers to reduce – or at least change the nature of – the entry barriers to this event. But they did not do so.
Other systemic issues also significantly affect this situation. I will mention only one example, but it perfectly illustrates the insidious nature of the influence of limited diversity in the socioeconomic and cultural origin of stakeholders in a given area – namely, individual and collective self-preservation.
When a group of people who are not very diverse and do not make room for – or do not value – the calling into question of how this very group operates, their actions tend to create and maintain structures and behaviours that are self-serving. During this event, I noticed that the competencies and personality traits identified as characteristics of a “true” social innovator were basically the competencies and personality traits that this relatively homogenous group of people possess and value.
The consequences of such a dynamic are two-fold: 1) the individuals recruited to contribute to social innovation organizations, or the people funded for their social entrepreneurship projects must match those characteristics (thereby excluding those who do not naturally have them, or who are not prepared to conform to this ideal); and 2) the training curriculum in social innovation shapes – and therefore models – people according to this same canon.
If we do not want social innovation to become an additional tool for the dominant classes (those to which we belong) to maintain their hegemony with a clear conscience, we must foster this diversity, in particular by proactively seeking out those who are excluded from the social innovation domain, and by creating room for questioning the very way we operate.

The discussions will be longer, more complex, less consensual and more awkward, resulting in fewer initiatives, but they will certainly be more relevant with respect to the actual needs of communities – as opposed to their empathetically deduced needs.
This co-construction is vital if, unlike now, the most important beneficiaries of social innovation are not to remain its stakeholders (us), but rather the people and communities that experience these social issues on a daily basis.

Aug 14, 2016 | Tags: ,