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Social Innovation as an open and collaborative environment

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Social Innovation is one of the more discussed topics during the last years. There are several reasons, but the majority are related to the period of uncertainty we’re living, as it revealed the vulnerabilities of the consumistic paradigm.

The weak spots are both in the private and the public sector. The continuous will to feed the capital at any cost is much more than evident in the private sector, while the govenments showed their inability to handle a wide spectrum of emerging social problems, not only at a extraordinary level, but at the ordinary too.

Public health costs and education costs are growing, the urban landscape is facing abandon and decay because of the poor construction and maintenance policies applied during the 60s and the 70s: each city has many districts that need extraordinary care (and cash), and huge urban regeneration plans are common, but most of them focuses on the city centre, leaving the suburbs alone once again.

We’re living the limits of the “growth” as it was coinceived in the past: if the answer to the crisis of the 30s was planned obsolescence, it seems as if the same system can’t be able to solve the problems it created during these years.

However we do not want to analyze the history of the past years here, so let’s try to keep the focus on Social Innovation, starting from a very basic and mainstream definition: the one on Wikipedia.

Social Innovation refers to new strategies, concepts, ideas and organizations that meet social needs of all kinds – from working conditions and education to community development and health – that extend and strenghthen civil society.

In other world, Social Innovation looks like THE solution to ALL of our problems. But these new strategies, ideas, concepts and models still need to be developed: this is another task.

Fortunately, it’s not that hard to define the main characteristics of social innovation if we start from a practical analysis of the case studies that refers to “Social Innovation”. There are precise and clear trends we can take into consideration to re-create the preconditions needed to generate new solutions: in other words, we’re speaking about Social Innovation as a sort of generation and development environment for new solutions, ideas, concepts.

This environment is heterogeneous and not always recognizable, as it is a medium that allows different factors to converge on a specific situation, and each factor has its own complex dynamics: given this assumption, only a “wide” definition of the perfect-environment is possible.

What about its characteristics? Our interpretation of innovation refers more to a re-organization of components/knowledge/skills that already exist in new, original combinations, than to an “invention” from scratch.

The first consequence is simple. Social Innovation does not have a specific domain. This means that we cannot configure nor limit Social Innovation to a specific field, such as technology, health, science, arts, crafts and so on.

However, we can say it’s social because its main aim is to create a strong, positive social impact, and this is the second characteristic.

At the same time, if SocInn doesn’t have a specific domain, it embraces them all. In fact, Social Innovation occurs near the borders of different domains, where there is an evident exchange of information. Here, we could talk of “mutual contamination” between domains.

This exchange is fundamental for our attempt to define Social Innovation. In a closed system, the boundaries does not talk to each other, as the entities within the systems tries to defend themselves, leading to rigidity and omeostacy. This is why it’s hard to gain Innovation in a closed system: any solution to any problem would be considered within the borders of the system. But what happens if the solution is outside?

Here we get another feature: Social Innovation happens when the environment is open and prone to contamination, in a collaborative and shared dimension.

Summarizing our path to SI, this is the list of its characteristics:

  • There is no specific domain
  • It wants to create positive Social Impact
  • The environment is open and collaborative
  • The information are shared

This brief overview on Social Innovation explains why we’re moving from self-centric, closed and formal systems toward wider scenarios, more heterogeneous in nature, open and prone to communication, most of which relies on non-formal environments.

It’s not by chance that the best innovations today occur within collaborative environments, such as co-working areas and incubators, while only few decades earlier we’ve got “inventions” from scientists or experts that worked in closed offices inside formal organizations… as it’s not by chance that today the organizations governed by huge bureaucratic superstructures deals with big problems not only at generating innovation, but even at just recognizing it.

This collaborative scenario explains the continous research of bridges between domains that were considered opposites only several years ago , while today they’re seeking integration.

Along these lines, for example, the borders between profit and non-profit are always less defined; the policymakers face problems to define new jobs; they do not understand anymore what does a designer, an engineer, a social manager do; the citizens wants to take part when defining a solution for their territory, sometimes self-organizing themselves in autonomous communities; it’s becoming hard to read stats and to understand new trends… at least for those who are not in the same mood.

At the end, this mess of complex relationships created by the dynamic vortex of change creates social impact. And this is the aim of Social Innovation, but it doesn’t mean that the transition to new models will be painless.

There are conflicts when two diffent worlds collide, when they do not recognize each other. There are problems when Social Innovation has to deal with those structures, organization and entities that slightly changed from the 30’s to the 70’s, and that from the 70’s to today still tries to solve today’s problems with tools from the past, without even thinking that the humankind may be collaborative by nature.