Wake up Canada! It’s time to put the “social” in “innovation”

While Canada is only now asking, “What is social innovation?”, the US and UK are well into implementing initiatives to support it. As the August 12 issue of The Economist notes:

Policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic are keen on a new approach to alleviating society’s troubles. On July 22nd Barack Obama’s administration listed the first 11 investments by its new Social Innovation Fund (SIF). About $50m of public money, more than matched by $74m from philanthropic foundations, will be given to some of America’s most successful non-profit organisations, in order to expand their work in health care, in creating jobs and in supporting young people.

The SIF is part of Obama’s Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation.

The Economist article looks at various ways to invest in social innovations, including public/private partnerships, microfinance, grants, venture philanthropy, plus new types of private companies (public interest company in the UK and B-corp in the US). One compelling new tool for investing in social innovation is the social-impact bond. It’s complicated but brilliant because it “provides long-term funds for promising ideas; it transfers risk to private capital markets; and it costs public money only if the scheme provides specific social benefits.”

The article argues that spread (or lack of it) and scope (ditto) are barriers to social innovations. It seems to suggest that social innovations would spread if there was a social innovation “Google”. But this is superficial. Most social innovations are incremental and therefore context specific. For example, there were a number of innovative safe sex campaigns in major North American cities in the late 1990s – but they failed to have an impact on Latino men. The campaigns were aimed at gay men, but some Latino men who have sex with men do not identify as gay. These campaigns, which were carried out on a national level, failed the Latino community because they lacked cultural context. Take home message: it’s not always about money but it is about smart money. Investing with smart money that knows the context of the innovation will help address (or at least explain) scale and scope.

The article also cites British innovations and claims that Britain is ahead of the US as a result of “10 years of deliberate thinking about how government should work with the social sector.”

And then there’s Canada.

In April of this year, Canada’s Policy Research Initiative released its research document, “Social Innovation: what is it, who does it?” This report intentionally poses more questions than it answers. The trouble is the Economist article answers those questions; Canada is only asking them.

Really, Canada? With initiatives like the tri-council’s investments in ResearchImpact-RéseauImpactRecherche, McConnell Foundation’s investments in Social Innovation Generation, and smaller scale initiatives involving the United Way/Centraide or any of those we might see at CUExpo, we need to do more than simply ask, “What is it, who does it?”

$50M would be nice. (Thank you, Barack Obama!) But taking a lesson from Muhammad Yunus, who won the Nobel Prize for his pioneering work in microfinance, we might ask some different questions: what would micro-social entrepreneurship look like? How might collaboration among the public, private, and voluntary sectors make smaller, smarter, and context-specific investments – little splashes that ripple out and have a big effect?

Stay tuned….

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