Looking forward to Social Innovation / Dans l’attente de l’innovation sociale

By David Phipps (ResearchImpact York)

What is social innovation? If knowledge mobilization (the process) results in social innovation (the outcome), knowledge brokers need to capture and evaluate social innovation outcomes that arise from knowledge mobilization.

Qu’est-ce que l’innovation sociale? Si la mobilisation des connaissances (le processus) conduit à l’innovation sociale (le résultat), les courtiers de connaissances doivent alors identifier et évaluer les résultats de l’innovation sociale qui découlent de la mobilisation des connaissances.

I have recently read four interesting and thought provoking pieces on social innovation.

The Power of Social Innovation (2010) by Stephen Goldsmith presents the lessons learned from a two term mayor of Indianapolis including case studies from education, poverty and housing. This book is also backed up by a website and the author may be found tweeting as @powerofsocinnov.

The Philanthropist (2010) released an Open Access edition (Volume 23, Number 3) of their journal featuring articles about Canadian social innovations. The entire edition and individual articles can be found here. This journal featured articles written by Stephen Huddart of the McConnell Foundation and Frances Westley of SIG @ Waterloo among others.

On February 6, 2011, The Huffington Post published the interview Rahim Kanani had with Judith Rodin, President of the Rockefeller Foundation, on the Evolution and Promise of Social Innovation. There are wonderful stories about social innovation, collaborations and some lessons learned by the Rockefeller Foundation.

“Horizons” is published by Canada’s Policy Research Initiative. In February 2011, Horizons published a number of articles on social innovation and the community sector. This follows their earlier briefing on social innovation that did little more than ask the questions. You can read their analysis and their answers online here by clicking on the left hand menu bar. There are many articles including ones on social impact bonds, public sector innovation and an interview with Louise Pulford of the Young Foundation in the UK.

All of these complement the national work of the Canadian Task Force on Social Finance who tweet as @socialfinance and the international reach of the Ashoka Foundation who tweet as @ashokatweets.

But what is it? What is Social Innovation?

In The Philanthropist, Geraldine Cahill published “Primer on Social Innovation: A Compendium of Definitions Developed by Organizations Around the World”. This includes definitions of social innovation drawn from practice around the world. In 2009, ResearchImpact-York published the following definition:

Social innovation is “the creation or application of research and knowledge to develop sustainable solutions to social, environmental and cultural challenges. Social innovation results in more efficient and effective human services, more responsive public policies and greater cultural understanding.”

It’s a good definition as it links to results but the most elegant definition I read was from Louise Pulford in which she defines social innovation as “devising new and better ways to tackle social problems”. This is simple and easily understood but what relationship does it have to knowledge mobilization (KMb) and the work of ResearchImpact-RéseauImpactRecherche and the many engaged scholarship and research projects underway in Canadian communities and universities?

In our 2009 paper we linked our definition of social innovation (above) to KMb by saying that “KMb (the how) enables social innovation (the what)”. We have recently refined this to say that social innovation is the outcome of the process of knowledge mobilization. KMb isn’t an end in itself. KMb is a process that allows researchers and their partners to develop social innovations which are new and better ways to tackle social problems. At RI-York we have spent 4 years focusing our attention on the process of KMb but without looking we have also supported some examples of social innovations:

  • The Parkdale Activity and Recreation Centre (PARC) Heat Registry. The Heat Registry is a community based innovation that tracks and provides services to poor and vulnerable populations at risk of heat exposure on hot summer days. The Heat Registry is based in part on the research and evidence collected by Tanya Gulliver, a York University Knowledge Mobilization Intern whose research helped the PARC Heat Registry raise operating funds that benefited the community and citizens of Parkdale. The increased risk of heat exposure due to poverty is an example of a social determinant of health.
  • In the summer of 2010, York U and United Way of York Region jointly supported three interns who undertook research to map social assets in York Region. The work of these three interns previously appeared in Mobilize This! on June 21, 2010 and their work provided data and evidence to inform a UWYR Board decision to launch Strength Investments, a new form of UWYR investment that invests in the strengths of coalitions of York region citizens and community groups.
  • Susan Lloyd Swail (former MES graduate working with Professor Gerda Wekerle) was a KMb intern jointly funded by Nottawasaga Futures and MITACS Accelerate program. Her research contributed to the development and launch of the South Simcoe Green Economy to Nottawasaga Futures (see Mobilize This! from April 13, 2010) . Susan is now Manager of their Green Economy Centre that provides knowledge and services to local business to improve and maximize the efficiency of Green Business Practices.

As we grow in our KMb efforts we need to evaluate on outcomes (social innovation) as much as on process (KMb). We first wrote about social innovation in our 2009 paper. Now that more people are writing about and acting on social innovation we will also update our thinking and re-energize our actions to capture and evaluate social innovation outcomes as well as KMb processes.

ResearchImpact-RéseauImpactRecherche is still Canada’s knowledge mobilization network but now we know that we need to articulate those social innovations that emerge from our KMb efforts.

numbers, numbers, numbers

In a world consumed with quantitative evaluation, don’t forget the power of words and stories to demonstrate impact.

In his book, The Power of Social Innovation, Stephen Goldsmith (@powerofsocinnov) has many good messages for social entrepreneurs and social innovators, but one message that sticks is that it is important to ensure that “excellent doesn’t become the enemy of the good”.  By this he advocates that evaluation should not constrain innovation.  Evaluation is important but systems of social innovation need to look beyond simple numbers to see quality.

York’s KMb Unit has lots of numbers (counting since 2006) to demonstrate its activity, but these fall short of demonstrating impact.

211:     # faculty involved in York’s KMb activities.  This represents about 14% of York’s total full time, tenure/tenure track faculty complement

149:     # graduate students involved in York’s KMb activities.  This represents students involved as interns and in research projects with faculty and community partners

139:     # information sessions for faculty and students.

162:     # information sessions for community/government agencies.

195:     # agencies involved in KMb partnerships.  This represents agencies participating in projects, KM in the AM and other KMb Unit events.

369K   ($) Funding community agencies raised in collaboration with York’s KMb Unit activities.

771K   ($) Research contract funding from partners for collaborative York U research projects via the KMb Unit.

15M     ($) External grant funding raised by research teams that engaged York’s KMb Unit to assist with KMb plans.

3.2M    number of web hits.  Web hits is a measure of traffic but not of engagement; however, it tripled after starting on twitter.

124:     number of ResearchSnapshots posted at http://www.researchimpact.ca/researchsearch/.

1642:   number of tweets.  For the week starting November 15 @researchimpact received 15 retweets or twitter mentions from

657:     twitter followers.

162:     delicious bookmarks (http://www.delicious.com/ResearchImpact) using

239:     tags (http://researchimpact.ca/resources/bookmarks/).

199:     blog posts on Mobilize This! (https://researchimpact.wordpress.com/) with

167:     comments from readers who read an average of

3,658: views every month from May-Sept 2010.

These numbers may or may not be impressive but they only tell part of the story… and not the most compelling part.

We recently held a meeting of researchers, graduate students and front line service providers from the York Region Children’s Aid Society (CAS) to get feedback on a CIHR funded project exploring the use of social media to mediate knowledge mobilization.

Words tell the story that numbers cannot:

“social media offers the opportunity to step away form my day to day and into the larger picture” (CAS employee)

“this project gave me the ability to connect to other practitioners and to researchers” (CAS employee)

“any tool we have to get information out in useable ways that fits with our staff is good” (CAS manager)

“this experience informed my choices about future research directions” (York U graduate student)

“it was validating to receive feedback from a researcher” (CAS employee)

“it is important to know that my research has a benefit” (York U graduate student)

“social media facilitates knowledge exchange with community partners” (York U researcher)

The York U and York Region CAS participants have deepened their collaboration by receiving funding from the Ontario Ministry of Children and Youth Services.

These stories and their continued collaboration illustrate the benefits of social media and knowledge mobilization for researchers, students and front line practitioners.  Numbers can’t do that.