Searching the Pathways of Social Innovation


The Evolution of Social Innovation analyzes a series of historical case studies of transformative innovations, and their implications for the study and practice of social change. They include both what today would be considered “good” and “bad” innovations. I’d like to share a very high-level summary detailed discussions, aiming to be as simple as possible and no simpler.

We started our project with an insight from Brian Arthur’s discussion of technological innovations: that discoveries and novel combinations across domains triggered innovations, often cascades of innovations. We wondered if we identified historically successful moments of social change (a law is passed, a threshold tips behaviours, practices, and even products from the exception to the norm), would we be able to backcast to an origin point, and find similar discoveries and combinations?  We expanded beyond Arthur’s focus on technological and natural phenomena, and included social phenomena, which we modeled on Durkheim’s social facts – things people believe to be true and therefore influence or direct their behaviour (including norms and social values).  For illustration: John Newton’s realization, while abroad a slave ship during a wicked storm in 1748, that all those on ship – slaves and their slavers – would probably die. He turned to religion and abolition, informed by his newfound understanding of mutual humanity and the possibility of redemption (the Grace in his famous Amazing Grace).

The origins of new social phenomena and their pathway from barely expressed idea to catalysts to normalcy proved fascinating.  We were deliberately broad in our selection (in terms of problem domain, not sadly geographic scope), from the legalization of birth control pills in Canada and the United States, the creation of the American National parks system, Indigenous rights in Canada and the internet, to some less commonly-thought of social innovations, such as financial derivatives and joint stock companies, to some truly awful social engineering – the intelligence test and Canada’s residential school system.  When we worked backwards from the ascendancy of each, we consistently found they grew around an entirely new social phenomenon (some shift in understanding of how society should be structured, who was entitled to be included, etc.), often but not necessarily informed by scientific discoveries or technological inventions.  This included the more technical innovations, like the internet and derivatives, which proved to be the prophetic starting conditions.  In the case of the internet, the tension between control (the military) and libertarian (counter-culture programmers) impulses continues with the internet today, captured in practices and processes that character the medium.

The simple conceptualization of a new social phenomenon is insufficient to trigger a transformation: its expression in new products, new processes and new approaches creates a catalytic effect, drawing new attractors and new collaborators.  Although the underlying social phenomenon that underpinned the national parks was conservation, which Sierra Club founder John Muir advocated in the popular press, railroad companies proved valuable to the parks’ creation, seeing in them revenue (tourist passengers) and easier to negotiate for land (if the federal government owned the land, in the form of a park, it would be easier to work with than thousands of individual farmers).  The railroad companies were not the only partner for the park advocates (Outdoorsman Teddy Roosevelt was President and had the power to create national monuments, including parks, through that office), but this unlikely connection between parks and railroads was crucial to the former’s growth into a system.  These kinds of unusual or unexpected alliances appeared frequently in our cases, from a concern about male venereal disease driving access to women’s reproductive health, to Calvinism, a lack of arable land and a war with Spain driving Dutch economic experimentation.   This also highlights an important common theme we identified: the effects of large-scale efforts like wars to release many forms of capital and permit experimentation.  Many of the ideas we saw that leveraged these large efforts were at best tangential – who would immediately connect young American Doughboys (First World War soldiers) and housewives looking to manage their families? – but were able to capture a niche, or resources, or even the imagination of a peoples looking to redefine what it means to be a member in a time of upheaval.

Lastly, a caution: we deliberately included in our study efforts at transformation that veered much closer to social engineering than social innovation, including the Intelligence test and Canada’s residential school systems.  In both cases, the dreamers, designers and implementers believed that they were building a better world, but informed that belief with a hierarchical, exclusivist world view, and explicitly excluded those most affected by their choices: the mentally handicapped, the poor, and Indigenous peoples, especially children.  Evidence of failure was ignored or disregarded, sometimes for decades, damaging generations.  While few current social innovators see themselves in these programs, there is a constant risk of making decision for a community, privileging ourselves and our goals, at the expense of those most affected by the changes we propose.

Perhaps the most important observation we made was that time is a crucial variable in understanding a social innovation’s pathway to normalcy, and its long-term consequences (both good and bad).  The historical actors we looked at rarely lived to see their ideas become a reality, let alone the norm; actors worked like relay racers, transferring the baton across time, skill sets and scales.  Ultimately, short time frames are an ill-fit to study transformation. This should not, paradoxically, be off-putting for those interested in transformation however: look for possible and extant combinations you can leverage for your goals, how might you contribute to the growth of an idea? Who might be crucial allies, even unexpected ones, you can turn to? And how are you defining who is at the table, contributing their views?  Transformations require imagination, commitment and time, as well as humility, but they have happened – we are all the product of them.

By Katharine McGowan, Assistant Professor of Social Innovation at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Canada. She, Frances Westley and Ola Tjornfo edited The Evolution of Social Innovation.  

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1 thought on “Searching the Pathways of Social Innovation”

  1. Katharine, Great to see this book available. Thanks for your comprehensive review. Very timely in support of emerging work on evaluating social transformations. Kudos.

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