Social innovation isn’t a new idea, but it is fashionable, particularly since EU Commission president Barroso has taken up the idea as a rallying cry. It is clear that innovation is far more than developing a new product and bringing it successfully to market, as innovation policy has it. We can’t ignore the far more interesting and difficult realm of the new social relations that are needed to support such new phenomena of consumption.
But what is social innovation? Is it more than another of the periodic rebranding exercises that lay down an every thicker palimpsest of buzzwords: local employment development, community economic development, local development… local employment initiatives, local initiatives for development and employment… corporate social responsibility, social responsibility of enterprises, territorial social responsibility… co-operatives, community co-operatives, community businesses, community enterprises, social enterprises, social entrepreneurship, social businesses, even social business enterprises…
It’s hard to choose among these, so how do we decide which are worth more than the others? It seems we have to go back to first principles. Who benefits and who controls? If social innovation as a process is “the design and implementation of creative ways of meeting social needs” then it is about ways of:
– listening to society as it voices what it needs
– deciding which is the appropriate vehicle to meet those needs, whether through state action, business or community action
– enabling people to act for themselves to meet as many needs as possible
To build new initiatives you need communication networks, that allow messages to circulate efficiently, and joint projects to be built up incrementally. Responsive communication can certainly be helped by new technologies – collaborative tools like wikis and YouTube. But it also relies on structures to put productive activity within the feedback loop, to put citizens in charge of economic activity.
Of all the flavours of participative democracy, it is co-operativism that has consistently, for 114 years or more, provided this bedrock. It delivers economic and social benefits to people whom it values as individuals. That’s why social innovation should have a large component of co-operativism, and the co-operative movement should give its all to promote social innovation.