Social innovation is needed to change the policies and practices that sits behind many of the issues that have been featured in media lately, such as violence against women, racism, environmental protection, elderly care, mental health, and Indigenous disparities. But it does not seem to be the type of innovation our politicians and policy makers priorities.
Nicolas Schmit, European Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights, wrote in a report that was published in October last year:
“Social innovation is about generating positive societal change. It can play a large role in advancing the EU’s political agenda, which is marked by the green, digital and just transitions and, of course, the recovery from the socio-economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Schmit went on to explain that The European Commission, which is the executive branch of the European Union, “is therefore keen to promote social innovation across a wide spectrum of policy areas”, including diverse areas such as “consumer policy, enterprise policy, finance and agriculture and food systems…so that we can all reap the benefits.”
This European perspective demonstrates a mature understanding about social innovation and its importance in our contemporary political and social contexts.
In Australia, there is still a tendency to prioritise social enterprises, talk about impact investment, link innovation with digital technologies and fintech, or to dismiss social innovation as some kind of wishy-washy idea.
Even though ‘social innovation’ is mentioned (only twice) in the 2017 report Australia 2030: prosperity through innovation, and the executive summary identifies that one action should be to: ‘Encourage social innovation investment across Australia’, it is still not placed front and centre.
Around the same time as the European Commission’s reports was released, our prime minister, Scott Morrison, spoke about the need for innovation in his speech to the Australian E-Commerce Virtual Summit. The PM focused on digital innovation and explained what will make us successful after COVID-19 is ‘the resilience and determination and innovation of the Australian people’.
When we are discussing recovery from COVID-19, strengthening community resilience or addressing the issues mentioned at the start, we need social innovation to explore how new technologies can be used to change and improve practices that are not meeting our needs (or that are leading to disparities).
The European Commission seems to understand this. Not because it is a left or right approach. In fact, the commission contains one member from each member state (currently 27) and they are all from diverse political sides but have to represent the interest of the EU. They realise social innovation is not to be instead of technical innovation, but it is an approach we currently require to ensure other innovations have desired social impact.
If we view social innovation as a process that ultimately seeks to improve human wellbeing through the effective design and implementation of new ideas (can be products, services, or processes), it needs to be evident in the development of new policies, government briefs and feature more in ministers’ speeches and strategic plans looking forward to 2030.
This call is not new: in 2008, there was a submission to the Review of the National Innovation System from the Australian Social Innovation Exchange Working group. The submission argued that Social innovation should be at the “heart of Australia’ s national innovation system”. This did not happen, but it is something recent crises should indicate is more important than ever.
It is true that social innovation is happening on the ground, with organisations such as The Australian Centre for Social Innovation winning government contracts and a mention in the Australia 2030 report, but it needs to be better supported and directed from the top, ideally as a national strategy or direction.
Having worked on government projects as a consultant and now in the education space, I can compare how my university (CQUniversity) approaches and embraces social innovation and how it is missing from the public discourse in Australia.
At CQUniversity, we have both a strong on the ground support for social innovation, and a clear directive from above to embed and include social innovation philosophy in our work. I wrote in The Mandarin last year that we are aiming to embed social innovation into the curriculum by 2023. It gives us — academics and professional staff — license and encouragement to think outside the box. Of course, it is not always easy or possible, but this top-down articulation of the aim is helpful.
This does not currently happen in government or policy circles, and it is not evident in speeches such as PM’s mentioned above, nor is it truly embedded throughout our 2030 vision.
What if we made it easier for people working for and within the government to state that they will engage in social innovation in order to explore ways to implement and apply technologies that can stop violence against women or improve our aged care system or reduce pollution? A new gadget that does not change practice is just a new gadget with no impact.
Because social innovation is what Schmit refers to as a “transversal concept” it does not have specific guidelines for policymakers. Instead, it is first a mindset that needs to be adopted and accepted. People, including policymakers and politicians, need to believe and trust that they should and can engage in social innovation.
This sounds straightforward, and in some ways it is, but it requires everyone to feel they are empowered. Innovation always requires a safe space to be creative. Therefore, it is urgent, and needed, that Australia has a national and bipartisan support to promote social innovation across different policy areas. This would be the first step in ensuring we have the capabilities to deal with future challenges and to ultimate become a more resilient, prosperous, and innovative country.