Jasmine CY Lam
While social innovation (SI) has garnered fascination from the public, non-profits, businesses, and the government, its emphasis on cost-cutting, efficiency, and novelty may lead to an increase in social exclusion.
Although there still is no consensus on the definition of SI, it is generally agreed that SI is a “novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just than current solutions,” and that its successful implementation could “bring about transformative change in addressing societal challenges.” A key understanding of SI is that it is an “innovation in social relations,” able to transform “governance systems and community dynamics in different life spheres… as well as the articulations between them.”
On both sides of the Atlantic, senior policymakers are discussing the potential and application of SI in social policy. The European Union’s largest Research and Innovation programme, Horizon 2020, has made SI the core of its funding model. In the United States, the White House has established an office dedicated to developing Social Innovation and Civic Participation.
While progress in Canada has been relatively slower, actors across different sectors in Ontario have begun to work on creating an SI policy framework in order to learn more about SI and build partnerships to solve social challenges. Collaborators on this framework include the Social Innovation Generation at MaRS, Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation, Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration, and the Ministry of Children and Youth Services. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Economic Development and Growth has increased investments in SI, particularly though the form of social enterprises. According to Ontario’s renewed Social Enterprise Strategy, the province will be investing over $6 million on social enterprises with the goal of “reducing poverty, protecting the environment, and building stronger communities – all while creating jobs, growing revenues, and attracting investment capital.” At the community level, non-profits are also taking the lead to foster and incubate SI by establishing organizations such as the Centre for Social Innovation.
However, there is a downside associated with SI. Scholars have found that the mainstreaming of SI may have distorted its original intent by potentially increasing social exclusion. The lack of SI measures and indicators further complicate efforts to determine the impact on inclusivity, resulting in limited research on how and why SI can lead to increased levels of social exclusion.
As the states around the world continue to cut back on social services, and non-profits and businesses assume the responsibility to deliver these services, the values of the traditional welfare state may be challenged.
In order to critically examine the role and impact of SI, we need to understand the context under which SI came to prominence. In response to increasing state retrenchment and budgetary cuts to social policies, SI emerged as a counterbalance to these pressures. SI was constituted as a “’new’ approach to solving the crisis of the welfare state, by creating new jobs in the ‘cheap’ social economy and reorganizing the welfare system…”. This approach is particularly appealing as SI solutions are responsive, diverse, flexible to public demand, and are not only more effectively, but drastically cheaper. SI draws on the unique space between non-profits, governments, and businesses, and have the potential to eliminate “‘old’ and ‘bureaucratic’ (primarily publicly owned) institutions in favour of ‘new’ and ‘innovative’ (primarily market style) programs.”
As the states around the world continue to cut back on social services, and non-profits and businesses assume the responsibility to deliver these services, the values of the traditional welfare state may be challenged. This scenario is already occurring in Italy, where SI is increasingly used as a strategy to tackle social challenges, and the state has moved towards decentralizing and marketizing its services. This has led to an increased diversification of supply and stratification of its social services, where the “poorest localities and the poorest people” are “increasingly excluded from access to social services or have access to inadequate ones.”
In Canada, as our government moves towards a digital strategy to deliver programs and services, we need to critically examine what that means for rural populations in Canada that have limited internet access, and reconsider budget cuts to public libraries that provide internet access to marginalized groups in urban areas. While the recent announcement from CRTC has declared high-speed internet a basic service for all Canadians, their declaration does not address the affordability of internet, which in itself is a hindrance to internet accessibility.
As SI continues to assume a larger role in the delivery of social policies, we need to abandon the idea that SI exists solely as a cheaper and more efficient way to solve old challenges.
Society must continuously find new ways to improve on traditional methods of delivering social goods and policy. In this search, it is paramount that social innovators keep inclusivity central to the design and implementation of its services. As SI continues to assume a larger role in the delivery of social policies, we need to abandon the idea that SI exists solely as a cheaper and more efficient way to solve old challenges. Rather, inclusion and social equality should be the top priority of any socially innovative activity. After all, social challenges are complex, involving citizens who have been left behind in our system. While we endeavour to find more efficient and effective ways to address societal challenges, we must put the needs of those who are most disadvantaged first.
Jasmine CY Lam is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance, and holds a BA Hons in Political Science and International Development from McGill University. She has over 4 years of professional experience in the non-profit sector, with a passion to develop and implement effective policies and solutions that tackle social and equity challenges in Toronto and in Canada.
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