Rethinking Social Innovation between Invention and Imitation

1. Social Innovation: In Search of a Definition

‘Social innovation’ is a bit of a  puzzle. As one of the currently fashionable policy ‘trends’, it emerged out of the conviction that the great challenges our societies are facing today require new methods and strategies. Over the course of the last decade, the field of practices that understand themselves in terms of social innovation has experienced rapid growth. Increasingly, social innovation has become an important reference for national and European policy programs that address questions of ‘sustainability’ as well as challenges in the fields of, for instance, education, health care or social work.

However, there is one great problem that ‘social innovation’ has: nobody really knows what it means. This is to say that social innovation lacks a proper definition. It remains a greatly incoherent body of knowledge and practices that in one way or another relate to a fluffy concept of “improving the world, together.” Programmatic publications such as the influential Open Book of Social Innovation have not changed this situation substantially.  Indeed, there seems to be a widening hiatus between the increasingly grandiose claims as to the capabilities of social innovation (e.g., solving so-called “wicked problems” like world poverty or pulling off “systemic change”) and the ability to come up with a clear explanation of what it is one is actually doing. A closer look at the growing social innovation scene, its organizations, conferences, publications and web-fora leads to the impression that it is held together mainly by a therapeutic belief in the ‘goodness’ and efficacy of one’s action. This, of course, is not a particularly strong foundation upon which a new field of practical expertise can be built, let alone a new policy field could be founded. And the more enlightened quarters of the social innovation scene are well aware of this. Geoff Mulgan, the British godfather of social innovation, recently bemoaned the lack of a serious analytical approach to social innovation. The problem that Mulgan rightly highlights is that without a proper definition of what is/should be happening in this new field, it is impossible to develop assessment tools for of the various practices of social innovation.

In this analytical vacuum three German sociologist – Jürgen Howaldt, Ralf Kopp and Michael Schwarz – now intervene with a rather inconspicuous publication that represents the first serious academic effort to develop a theoretical foundation for the notion of social innovation. The title of the book is Zur Theorie sozialer Innovationen. Perhaps surprisingly, the central reference for their theoretical effort at building a theory of social innovation is Gabriel Tarde’s (1843-1904) micro-sociology of invention and imitation. Until recently, Tarde’s thought was almost completely eradicated from academic memory. It is only since the late 1990s, when the French philosopher Éric Alliez began to republish Tarde’s books, that his work is experiencing a renaissance. As I have followed Tarde’s come-back since its onset with considerable interest, I am quite excited to see how the contemporary interpretation of his thought is put to work in the increasingly influential field of social innovation. The following remarks offer a critical discussion of the current discourse and practice of social innovation, bouncing off Tarde’s sociology in general and the considerations put forward in Zur Theorie sozialer Innovationen in particular.

2. Gabriel Tarde: Invention & Imitation

What makes a late nineteenth, early twentieth century renegade sociologist highly relevant today is the fact that his work is at its very core a sociology of  innovation. However, rather than talking about innovation per se, Tarde approaches the issue through its conceptual ‘neighbors’, invention and imitation. According to Tarde, these are the two constitutive elements of innovation (and, in fact, of society itself). Through inventions, novelty enters into the world. Inventions thus form the material and the driver of social change. Yet, inventions become innovations only by way of imitation. An invention makes, as it were, an offer of novelty to the process of imitation. This is to say that inventions have to be “picked up” by a significant part of the population in order to acquire social significance, i.e., become a “social fact.” Tarde, here, speaks of “imitation-rays” criss-crossing the social fabric. However, imitation is never simply repetition but always includes the possibility of reconfiguration as well. In other words, imitation is always also variation.

Tarde’s work entails a more complex and dynamic understanding of society than classical sociology: instead of the (relatively obvious) description of social macro-phenomena (Durkheim’s social facts) he is interested in the explication of their constitutive micro-phenomena. “[I]t is social changes,” Tarde says, “that must be caught in the act and examined in great detail in order to understand social states.” Social changes are brought about by the interplay of invention and imitation. It is of great importance in the present context  to emphasize that invention and imitation are not strictly separated categories. Tarde’s sociology does by no means correspond to the popular belief in heroic inventors who ‘disrupt’ the otherwise harmonic flow of social processes. It is true that he sees in imitative repetition the basic principle of society. However, this imitative repetition is always subject to small modifications and reconfigurations. What’s more, even the inventions themselves are not conceptualized by Tarde as singular events but are the outcome of combinations or alterations of previous ideas or inventions. “With Tarde,” Howaldt et al. write, “inventive adaptation and disruption of imitation-rays is by no means a rare or eruptive phenomenon.” Rather, – and here they provide a wonderful cascade of quotes from Tarde’s Les Lois Sociales – it is

“’petty, individual revolts against the accepted ethics, or through petty, individual additions’ (86) to the precepts of the dominant ethics, ‘minute accretions of image-laden expressions… due to some personal initiative, imitated by first one and then another’, ‘out of a seeming nothingness, – whence all reality emerges in an inexhaustible stream’.  ‘Imitation, which socializes the individual, also perpetuates good ideas from every source, and in the process of perpetuating them, brings them together and makes them fertile’.”

On the basis of their engagement with Gabriel Tarde, Howaldt et al. provide an initial and emphatically “non-normative” definition of social innovation, as “an intentional reconfiguration of social practices. This does not exclude, on the empirical level, normative orientations and notions of socially desirable outcomes.”

This is, obviously, a rather cautious definition of social innovation and such caution is absolutely appropriate. Given the current conceptual confusion within the field, social innovation needs to be approached in a very careful and step-by-step manner. Let us begin to disentangle this confusion by identifying and isolating the conceptual elements that a meaningful definition of social innovation cannot take as its point of departure.

3. What Social Innovation is not: 1) Technological Innovation

The first step, I think, would be to distinguish social innovation from the currently dominant technological understanding of innovation. Tarde is indeed helpful here as he shows how “the richness (and specificity) of modern societies cannot be represented by a maximized number of artefacts and technologies.” While the fact that technological artefacts are always embedded in a network of social practices is certainly a commonplace, it is  not a very common one among our innovation experts, researchers and policy makers. Even in the field of social innovation itself, one finds often an illegitimate equation of technology and innovation. In many cases, the understanding of social innovation is such that the ‘social’ in social innovation is provided by a real or imaginary social problem while the ‘innovation-part’ comes from the application of a new – often digital, web- or social media based – piece of technology. A great example of such confused reasoning can be found in “Play2Work Europe,” Amsterdam’s current entry to the Bloomberg challenge, a social innovation award tendered by New York’s former mayor and media mogul. In order to innovatively respond to the challenge of rising unemployment among graduates of technical colleges, Amsterdam’s social innovation scene came up with an approach that targets these kids via social media, inviting them to join a gaming platform that helps develop the skills their schools were apparently unable to convey to them. The winners of the game are then taken into an off-line coaching program and connected to great professional opportunities all over the world. Let us ignore for the moment the fact that this smacks of a social media powered variation of “The Apprentice” and the degrading effect this would have on the youngsters who have to game their way into a decent job opportunity. Let us also overlook the attempt at depoliticizing a fundamental societal issue – the care for the young generation – by turning it into a design challenge for software engineers and game designers. The fundamental problem lies in the carelessness with which an innovation-effort that would deserve the qualification ‘social’ is short-circuited here by way of a  cheap digi-tech effect: “I game thus I innovate!” seems to be the motto of this project and all else becomes secondary.

Educational games have of course long become part and parcel of modern education. Learning, at its core, is creative imitation and play is known to be a particularly effective way of learning in this sense. And if gaming as the digitized form of play can contribute to more interesting and innovative learning environments, that’s great. However, this will only be possible – and this is true for this project as much as for any other social innovation effort – if technologies like gaming stop being an innovation fetish and instead, are  embedded within a very clear understanding of the complexities involved in the social problem one would like to address. Only then can a role be assigned to technology, that is, as a means of social innovation. It cannot be – and this seems to me to be the status of the current discourse – that technology serves as a token for the innovativeness of social innovation, used to play to the policy Zeitgeist in order to generate funding for ostensible “change-making.”

Tarde’s understanding of innovation is helpful here as it exposes the reductive nature of the popular belief that the innovativeness of organizations, cities, regions or nations is a function of the number of technological artefacts they are able to generate. According to Tarde, technological artefacts are merely one dimension or element in the process of (social) innovation because they are always embedded in social practices. There can be no doubt that technological artefacts give important impulses for the emergence of new social practices. Yet, they can only do so because they have themselves emerged out of social practices in the first place. “According to Tarde,” Howaldt et al. explain, “technological innovations can be described as one aspect of innovations in society that have temporarily become the centre of attention due to prevalent flows of invention and imitation. They represent a particular form of inventions/discoveries, taking on the guise of artefacts (machines, computers, cars. etc.).”

This is to say that whenever technologies and technological artefacts become part of the innovation game, we cannot take them at face value, we cannot understand them as innocent ‘things’. From a Tardean point of view, one would have to explicitly ask for the social genealogy of the particular artefact and inquire into the “beliefs and desires” that brought it into existence. In terms of a reflexive practice of social innovation, this entails the demand for at least an awareness of the economic, cultural, ideological etc. forces that have shaped the technology one uses for one’s particular purpose. In other words, the field social innovation would gain enormously both in terms of legitimacy and efficacy by making a habit of critically analysing the social contexts of the technologies it uses. In fact, I think this would be a precondition for a timely practice of social innovation deserving of its name.

4. What Social Innovation is not: 2) Entrepreneurial Innovation

Another problem that a timely definition of social innovation is confronted with is the strong economic/entrepreneurial connotation that the notion of innovation entails. Today’s usage of the term seems still largely determined by Joseph Schumpeter’s Theory of Economic Development (1964) that developed the famous notion of “creative destruction.” What drives the process of creative destruction according to Schumpeter are innovations as successful adaptations of “new combinations of means of production.” For Schumpeter, it is the entrepreneur who is the linchpin of innovation. Today, this belief in the heroism of the entrepreneur has captured once again the imagination of the innovation scene – from the most conservative policy bureaucrats to the greatest enthusiasts of social innovation. Not least the enormous popularity of ‘social entrepreneurship’, ostensibly defined as doing social good by using the market as vehicle, bears witness to the strong entrepreneurial thrust in the dominant understanding of innovation in general and social innovation in particular. There is nothing wrong with this per se except, perhaps, for the fact that much of social entrepreneurship fails its own entrepreneurial aspirations by massively relying on sponsorship and government subsidies.

Social entrepreneurship promises to overcome the dualism between market and social progress. That this is indeed possible has been demonstrated by Muhammad Yunus, Nobel laureate and founder of the Grameen Bank that gives micro credits to the poor in Bangladesh. People who would otherwise never receive funding for their projects get a chance to improve their lives by building a small business etc., while the bank lives off relatively small interest rates the debtors are able to pay. Yunus innovated the logic of development aid and basically single-handedly founded the practice of social entrepreneurship. The problem is that what works in the field of development does not necessarily work as easily in other fields as well. Bringing together the logic of the market and social progress turns out to be a bit more difficult in practice than the proponents of social entrepreneurship want to make us belief. The reason for this is simple: there is a fundamental logical conflict between entrepreneurial/economic innovation on the one hand and social innovation on the other. Within the economy, the necessity to innovate is a result of the logic of competition that requires – today at increasingly shorter intervals – the introduction of new products and services (for consumption) as well as the renewal of machinery and processes (for production). While for Schumpeter as well as for every self-respecting business man or woman success in the market place is a sufficient criterion of progress, for the proponent of a meaningful notion of social innovation, it isn’t. Innovation in the economic sense  quite obviously is one of the major drivers of the logic of economic growth that causes many of the problems social innovation is bent on solving. It stabilizes the system rather than setting off processes leading to “systemic change.”

As the example of Yunus as well as a number of others show, there are cases in which social progress and economic innovation can overlap. Yet, in order for this to happen and, more importantly, to have an understanding of when such an overlap can be defined in terms of social innovation, one first needs a robust definition of social innovation. Given that social entrepreneurship defines itself by straightforwardly invoking the Schumpeterian definition of innovation (see for instance this definition by the Skoll Foundation) it seems appropriate to assume that the practice of social innovation needs to find such a definition in the first instance by keeping its distance from entrepreneurship – be it social or otherwise.

Again, I am not at all suggesting that there is anything wrong with entrepreneurial innovation. Rather, what I am suggesting is that social innovation needs to find a way to free itself from its entrepreneurial bias if it wants to distinguish itself emphatically as social innovation. Entrepreneurship, just as technology, can only come in as a second step, only after we know what we are doing when we are innovating socially. Tarde opens an avenue for understanding social innovation that leaves the Schumpeterian entrepreneurial hero behind, instead emphasizing the infinitesimal social forces of both, invention and imitation that generate innovations as social facts. As Tarde writes in the concluding chapter of his Les Lois de l’Imitation, an innovative society is characterized by the heterogeneity of its social practices. With regard to our present society, it seems very important to not equate social heterogeneity with that of the market or technology start-ups. In Amsterdam, for instance, we know very well that much cultural sector innovation of the last decades has one way or another come out of the city’s lively squatting culture of the eighties and nineties (although it reaches much further back). The social innovation scene in its current, rather limited form could never generate similar impulses. This is by no means a failure of those fine individuals who are working very hard to get their social innovation projects off the ground. Rather, it is a problem based on the mentioned biases that impose limits on the diversity of the projects that come out of the social innovation scene.

5. Rethinking Social Innovation with Gabriel Tarde

So far, I have mainly referred to the problems of social innovation as a still emerging yet increasingly influential social practice. These problems, I have argued, have to do with a lack of conceptual clarity regarding what social innovation can effectively entail, what its goals are and how they can be achieved. Gabriel Tarde’s sociology of innovation helps us understand that a meaningful theory and practice of social innovation can neither start from technology nor entrepreneurship. Luckily, Tarde also gives us some clues as to a timely reconceptualization of social innovation.

According to Tarde, the only path to a meaningful notion of social innovation inevitably leads, as it were, through the notion of imitation. Imitation provides the key to understanding the emergence of novelty as a social fact in society. This might seem paradoxical but the paradox is quickly resolved if we take into account Tarde’s non-repetitive understanding of imitation that always already includes inventiveness by way of infinitesimal variations, additions, adaptations, and so on. For Tarde, imitation is the fundamental mode of social process, the ‘mechanisms’ on which the existence of every society is based. As no society is entirely static, there must also always be – in the words of the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze – a difference within the repetition. What we need to take away from Tarde is the fact that it is not the great heroes – be they inventors, entrepreneurs or, indeed social innovators – who bless the repetitive rest of society with their brilliant feats. Rather, it is the multiplicity of tiny inventive imitations that at some point lead to a temporarily stabilized event that we then denote as innovation. In the light of Tarde’s own accomplishment (which, of course, is not at all his own as he inventively imitates a multiplicity of antecedent ideas, theories, fragments) we have to contradict Isaac Newton’s famous proclamation: rather than “standing on the shoulders of giants,” we are surfing the waves of imitation that rise and fall according to the beliefs, desires and affects that criss cross what we call society. In other words, it is the processes of imitation themselves that go pregnant with the seeds of novelty, “like intestines in which secretly develop the types and laws of tomorrow.”

Understanding the emergence of novelty in society in terms of inventive imitation implies a much more modest notion of social innovation. While it is certainly possible to give impulses for social change or try to orchestrate – within certain limits – the multitude of inventive repetitions, “this should neither be equated with the idea of creative destruction nor lead to an exaggerated notion of radical, discontinuous innovation,” as Howaldt et al. caution us. Tarde’s sociology suggests a more nuanced view of social innovation that recognizes the value of existing social practices and avoids any false hopes for intentional “change making,” “deep impact,” or even “systemic change.” Changing existing social practices implies long, contingent processes that follow their own rules, i.e., with reference to Tarde, the laws of imitation. And it is not just Tarde’s theoretical explorations that lead to such a conclusion. In fact, the entire project of modern sociology bears testimony to the highly problematic nature of attempts at controlling or intentionally steering processes of social change. What policy makers and practitioners will definitely have to let go if they want to come to a meaningful and practicable definition of social innovation is the misconception that social change can be instigated and ‘driven’ by a limited group of professional social innovators whose job is the invention and propagation of new social practices. Such an idea of intentional social change is simply nonsensical. Modeling social innovation on a process of “prompts, proposals, prototypes, sustaining, scaling, systemic change” illegitimately reduces the complexity of social change to the logic of successful internet start-ups. Luckily, society does not yet function entirely according to the rules of Silicon Valley.

Social innovation in its current form also requires a shift in perspective with regard to its ethical aspirations. It is absolutely wonderful that the social innovation scene is populated by so many individuals who genuinely want to “change the world for the better.” The question is whether the notion of innovation actually lends itself to such an ethical charge. The above discussion of the technological and economic connotations of the concept of innovation has highlighted the challenges that the use of the term ‘innovation’ for ethical purposes involves. These challenges cannot be solved by simply putting ‘social’ before ‘innovation’. The simple and perhaps unfortunate fact of the matter is that the notion of innovation is absolutely inappropriate to distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘evil’. We have to understand that the logical difference on which innovation operates is that of ‘old’ and ‘new’. It really is as simple as that. The normative quality that the proponents of the current practice of social innovation assume ignores the ambivalence and context dependency that applies to social innovation just as much as it does to technological or entrepreneurial innovation. There is no theoretical or practical reason why social innovations should be assumed to be ‘good’ in the sense of being socially desirable.

Social innovations per definition have no ethical direction. This is why there is politics. People have struggled over centuries to put in place political institutions that allow for at least a minimum of (democratically legitimated) social steering. The fact that these institutions do not function as efficiently and effectively as we would like them to, that they might even have become corrupted by anti-democratic interests, motivations and so on, does not mean that it has suddenly become possible to bypass the complexities of social life by way of intentional social design processes. However, the problem with understanding social progress in terms of designing  processes that lead to ethically desirable ‘change’ is not only lack of efficacy. In a way, the opposite is the case. We can currently observe the installation of policy programs, particularly at the European level, that adopt exactly the ethically overstrained notion of social innovation I am trying to criticize here. There is an acute danger that if such a practice becomes politically institutionalized, it is going to support the tendency of what Evgeny Morozov calls “solutionism.” Particularly given its uncritical relation to technology, social innovation could easily deteriorate into an ideological strategy on whose back the most authoritarian programs of, say, smart city technology could be implemented. Dave Eggers The Circle, while perhaps wanting in certain aspects of literary quality, nonetheless provides a brilliant illustration of this logic.

None of this is meant to contest the enormous importance of social innovation. I wholeheartedly agree with its basic proposition that the challenges our societies are facing today can be more effectively confronted by mobilizing what Maurizio Lazzarato once called the social “powers of invention.” I also agree that we are seeing forms of social emancipation enabling citizens to more actively engage with their social environment. Beyond political opportunisms à la “big society” and the like, there is indeed an innovative potential inherent in today’s civil society that needs to be tapped for the transformation of the lingering institutions of industrial society. What is at stake here, as Jana Rückert-John rightly puts it, is “to enable citizens to take on a kind of responsibility for the future that is different from the individual responsibility perpetuated by neoliberal discourse.

In this sense, the importance of social innovation could hardly be overstated. It would be brilliant if social innovation could grow into a practice that is modest (and honest) as to its capabilities, with less ethical hyperbole and a good portion of suspicion against the temptations of economic and technological reductionism. A promising point of departure for such a development lies in posing this important question anew: how to develop and sustain the “powers of invention” in our societies? Our discussion of Gabriel Tarde’s sociology of inventive imitation suggests that an effective response to this question should  be motivated by the desire for a maximally open and divers society. In practical terms, this would probably entail multiple forms of advocacy for social groups and initiatives that do not fit the templates of economic or technological innovation. In such a scenario, social innovation would become an institution of meta-activism that works like a guardian for endangered social practices. Subcultures come to mind but also all sorts of cultural, artistic, economic and other experiments. The focus would shift from the problematic practice of designing ‘solutions’ for social change – which, as we have seen above is predicated on a reductive understanding of the relationship between invention and imitation – to an approach whose goal is the facilitation of a high degree of social serendipity. Instead of trying to do the impossible and establish the invention of social change as an isolated disciplinary field, social innovation could thus become an area of activism and policy that stretches throughout much of the social fabric. Paradoxically, such an non-ethical reorientation would also lead social innovation to a new, more realistic and rather exciting definition of a possible ethics: that of being a counterforce to the neoliberal and technocratic tendencies of social standardization.