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Services in social innovation: an apple of discord?

2nd October 2018

“The best is the enemy of the good”, as I was once taught by a professor of sustainability. Theoretical perfectionism can impede practical success. But you do have to make sure that the ‘good’ you’re aiming for is good enough.

While repositioning an apple on a table in Vienna last week, I realised that this conundrum figures quite strongly in the field of ‘social innovation’. Although there is still no accepted definition of social innovation, we can define it here as the pursuit of new strategies and concepts to improve people’s capabilities and meet social needs. Social innovators often aim for the best. But those that aim for ‘good’ (or lower) also like to consider their work social, or innovative, or both. Compare that to calling a product ‘sustainable’ while it’s merely less polluting than the conventional. The question I’m asking here is when something starts counting as relatively socially innovative, and when it becomes truly a social innovation, or ‘transformative social innovation’ as the researchers of the TRANSIT project would call it.

So that’s my question. The Viennese apple, you ask? I’ll come to that now.

Social innovation and service innovation

The Horizon 2020-funded Social Innovation Community project combines scholarship with practice to help support social innovation in Europe. One activity is the organisation of ‘hot topic’ workshops to tease out new insights, one of which I participated in recently in Vienna at the Zentrum für Soziale Innovation. The workshop’s aim was to better understand the linkage between social innovation and service innovation — another one of those concepts — and their relation to both digital and analogue ways of working. I was able to represent the DSI4EU project and throw a bit of Waag’s story into the mix.

The morning opened with all twenty or so participants presenting an object that they brought to represent their involvement with service and/or social innovation. The apple I brought was a reference to my involvement in a food cooperative in Amsterdam, which is an example of social innovation that I deeply cherish. We were asked to locate our items along an axis ranging from ’service innovation’ to ‘social innovation’. I placed my apple at the far ’social’ end of the scale, arguing that in my eyes consumer cooperatives like these don’t start from a service perspective, but go right at the heart of social relations. Most other participants also inclined towards the social innovation end with their stories.

Why discuss both social innovation and service innovation — each complex enough on their own — in one workshop? The organisers argued as follows: ‘Research on social innovation, transdisciplinary as it is, is still seeking its place in the wider context of innovation studies. Social scientists agree that any type of innovation is “also social” as it is created, selected and implemented through social processes.’ In literature it is argued that social and service innovation share many commonalities. Social innovation borrows and translates a good range of its methodologies and tools (such as design thinking) from service innovation, for example, argue Deserti, Rizzo and Cobanli (2018). The workshop wanted to explore these overlaps with a focus on digital/technological aspects — you could say, the focus of digital social innovation.

Collaborative ownership

In the workshop, I contributed the case of the food cooperative (digitally supported by the Foodsoft platform), but also the case of Econobis. Econobisis an administrative tool, under development, for Dutch energy cooperatives. Administrative questions are often treated as an afterthought by energy cooperatives, which will cause pains downstream when a coop gets traction and starts scaling: Who are the members? How to easily charge membership fees? How to deal with shared ownership of a windmill or the power produced — who are the owners and what revenue do they get? Econobis realised that they could unburden energy coops by providing this tool, and at the same time they wanted to remain open-source by organising its development as a cooperatively owned project.

Today we do not have many precedents of collaborative ownership and action to turn to, however. We have become used to markets and governments doing things for us; things that also have become very complex and not something anyone can just easily do in their spare time. For instance, the uptake of renewable energy is high, but community energy is still a fringe activity.

That, to me, sets apart social innovation and service innovation. Social innovation talks about ownership and radically different roles for the parties involved — especially, the citizen and end-user — while service innovation merely changes consumer-producer configurations.

‘Social’, just another service?

Right? Well, the apple never falls far from the tree. Service design, a key tool in service innovation, also aims to deeply rethink relations among those involved in a ‘service’ broadly defined. In the workshop, we talked about the necessity for innovators and stakeholders to really put themselves in the shoes of ‘the other’; otherwise, the potential socially transformative innovation will succumb into mere product redesign. Seen this way, service innovation is potentially socially innovative and encompasses both product innovation and more complex, social reconfigurations around services. This view was brought to the fore by Matthias Weber of the Austrian Institute of Technology, who felt that social rearrangements in the modern economy can always be related to a service situation in some way.

However, during the different rounds of discussion, I noticed that when critical reflections were shared, these all related to the theory of socialinnovation. The participants largely felt — so I observed — that social innovation should be challenged, because there might be power differentials that are not visible just yet but could play out in the near future. The fact that social innovation received this critical attention while service innovation didn’t, was to me a sign that social innovation correctly encompasses many processes and actors (and citizens in their multiple roles), while service innovation has a more limited perspective and simply leaves less space for critical attitudes.

A critical perspective that I introduced myself was soon called ‘old-school Habermasian’ by a pal at the workshop. I asked, is social innovation allowing access to capital for social actors, or the other way around? Since social innovation excels in understanding the social processes underlying service delivery (hello services), in an honest attempt to make the economy more socially sensitive and productive, it also opens up ‘social life’ to economic processes more than before. Indeed we see that social ‘services’ that once were provided reciprocally and for free among people, have over the twentieth century been strongly professionalised and corporatised, and continue to be in the twenty-first century under the guise of ‘innovation’. Similarly, approaches like open source and open data, often perceived as the playground of nonprofit economics, often play out in reverse: they are most successfully deployed as a mechanism for corporations to harvest free innovation rather than share out ideas. This is food for thought for both the service and social innovators to consider.

For all these picky comments on the commercialisation of social life through service innovation, I did glean some valuable insights for the betterment of my food cooperative. By looking so much on the social side of things, we forgot to put ourselves into the shoes of less involved coop members and see to the smoothness of our ‘service’. So at the end of the workshop, when asked to revisit objects, I found myself moving the apple a whole yard in the direction of service innovation.

Interested in finding out more? Sign up for SIC’s final event, “Beyond Imagination: a socially innovative Europe”, on 12–13 November in Seville.https://sicfinalevent.wordpress.com/

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