Social innovation is ultimately meant to addresses complex socio-ecological problems, for example like vulnerable populations that experience poverty. Low income rates by Statistics Canada suggest that our country has an average of 10% of the population being vulnerable.1 If one in every ten people in Canada is vulnerable, then vulnerable populations need to be included as contributors to the solution. We need to re-engage vulnerable populations as active participants to bring about socio-ecological resilience, and include them into our communities and programs – the very programs that are created on their behalf. So, as Frances Westley says, “social innovation not only serves vulnerable populations, but is served by them in turn.”2 Indeed building capacity for social innovation includes engaging vulnerable populations as a key source for the diversity of which resilience needs to grow. Any excluded element of a social system always brings novelty when reconsidered as a diverse aspect of that system. To build the capacity for social innovation, we need to create a balance of building socio-ecological resilience and reengaging vulnerable populations.3 The solution needs to be adaptive to complex processes, and consider a diverse range of input beyond the traditional educated norms.
Westley uses the metaphor of the simple, complicated, and complex processes as analogy. A simple process is like baking a cake; instructions are given that can be repeated by almost anyone. A complicated process, like building a rocket, needs much more expertise and coordination, however, after a successful rocket is first created, the design can be replicated. A complex process is like raising a child – a blueprint for one child doesn’t necessarily work for another; the process is dynamic. Finding solutions to problems like poverty is a complex process, and needs an adaptive answer.
One way to view innovation is to consider the Adaptive Cycle, which is a model for the relationship of transformation to resilience in complex systems. After an idea matures through the growth stage it tends to move into a conservation mode, in which stasis can settle in. It then needs to release in an active way where “non-routine change is introduced,”4 ie, disruptive innovation is used to stimulate change. This often forces the idea to reorganise in a passive manner. On the other hand, slower or passive incremental change builds connectedness, while over the long run tends to end in conservation.
However, in any social system, belief is a key structure that can impede or accelerate the dynamic growth of that system. We have individual beliefs which are influenced by society, and we have societal beliefs that are influenced by individuals. In the North American context we tend to believe that the organisations that are using social innovation to tackle complex problems like vulnerability should be relegated as charities with low wages and minimal opportunities for organisational and personal growth. The outcome of this, is that the brightest minds that are coming out of the best universities that could really make impact are being lured by $400K salaries in tech or business industries and are not willing to make the economic sacrifice of working in poor salaried positions with organisations that address some of the most critical social issues.5 How can addressing poverty be profitable? (other than keeping the poor, poor?). One answer is to use an adaptive approach to engage vulnerable populations to co-discover resiliency for self-reliance towards income generation. When vulnerable populations are engaged, agency and financial independence arise. This is profitable, in a financial way but more so as social capital.
The Arusha program Calgary Dollars addresses poverty by encouraging growth within low income populations. Individuals exchange goods and services within the Calgary Dollars network thereby increasing financial resilience through reciprocity and communal interaction. Relationships of trust are built through in-person contact and the network offers opportunities for social entrepreneurship thus stimulating the local economy.
Social innovation can help programs like these, in ways that support resiliency and ultimately serve vulnerable populations as well as being served by them.
– Mike Unrau
Check out this interesting TED talk on Charities and how they serve vulnerable populations.