Off the sidelines and into the game

Reflecting on the social innovation field: Chris Sigaloff of Kennisland. Views are author's own.

It was about eight years ago that I came in contact with the social innovation movement. I believe it was at the second SIX conference in Lisbon when I was reading the BEPA report in 2010 ‘Empowering people, driving change: Social Innovation in the European Union’ (written by Agnès Hubert). For me, the concept of social innovation was appealing for differing reasons and gave a very helpful umbrella for the work we were doing at Kennisland, an independent think tank for societal renewal based in Amsterdam.

First of all, it shifted the attention from the economy to real life societal challenges. Until then, the focus was on economic growth as the main driver for societal renewal. Secondly, it made it possible to include non-experts and for normal people to have a part in creating a better society. It democratised knowledge, policymaking and innovation. Social innovation not only focused on politicians, academics and senior executives, but also on normal people... workers, teachers, the elderly, students, and migrants, who were not only seen as consumers, but as real citizens. Thirdly, it gave more attention to processes and ways of working (for methods and approaches, such as design thinking, prototyping etc ), rather than just focusing on good ideas, outcomes and end results; thus, it provided space for learning and experimentation. It made it possible to ask questions, instead of just promoting answers.

The fact that there was a lot of unclarity (different definitions) about the term ‘social innovation’ was – although tiring as hell – quite nice. It made it possible to keep it open, ambiguous and a bit vague. As such it could include more than one meaning and multiple meanings at the same time.

We did many projects in different fields, such as education, the social sector, the cultural sector and, of course, across the different sectors. This was never easy since we were always working from the outside in: fighting the system, trying to get our foot in the door, often being perceived as an add-on or just a nice little creative project or worse: ‘an innovation project’ (which usually meant the end of it). 

SIX was a much needed support, a safe haven, the place where you were with likeminded actors, where you could share experiences and gain knowledge, which perhaps explains the  overly inward looking character of the social innovation movement. 

In the Netherlands, in a few weeks time, we have our national elections. And in times of Brexit and Trump, there really is a very big chance that the populist party will win. They are leading in the polls. It’s very scary. There is so much talk about fear, hate, closing borders. The slogan is ‘Make Holland Ours Again’. 

So now the question on my mind is: what can social innovation do to oppose this rightwing movement? What can we do to prevent our country becoming one the most closed countries, instead of the open and liberal country we were once famous for?

Action and positivism

Social innovation actually has the elements that could provide this necessary alternative. Its values are about openness, about inclusion, about empowerment and equality. And its positivism based on hope, instead of on negativism and fear. And on action: doing things, instead of just talking and analysing.

In the Dutch political debate, it seems that social innovation has no real role. I have also remained far from active politics since I do not feel much affiliation with any of the parties. But now I ask myself, have we been so busy setting up experiments, talking about methods and innovating (amongst ourselves) that we distanced ourselves from politics and from the real issues? Have we blinded ourselves by a fake fantasy of ‘making the world better’? Are we losing sight of reality? Are we distracting ourselves from really influencing politics and should we spend more time making the left progressive parties a better alternative? Or even create our own alternative political parties as for example Uffe Elbæk has done in Denmark by setting up the Alternative Party? Or is our work inherently political as it is, since everything we do (empowering teachers, lobbying for open rights etc) is a political act in itself?

So my main question for all of us in the social innovation field is: how can we create an alternative voice, attack some of the current myths (like ‘social entrepreneurship will change the world’ and ‘technology will save us all'), bring back faith to our democratic system and create new appealing visions of the future: where people are not treated as consumers, but empowered citizens, as was stated in the BEPA report.

Kelsey SpitzChris Sigaloff