This past week, I’ve had some experiences where thinking deeper about labels and categories have led to a deeper understanding of myself. Oh, the beauty of semantics.
Where I am on the Social Impact vs. Social Innovation scale
I’ve had this feeling for awhile now — that I am still unpacking all the assumptions the world has about what it means to be a designer & a social entrepreneur & working in the social impact space. It’s like I went to grad school, and I got thrown onto this ride, and mostly I like the people and ideas I’m around, so I stay on the ride. But now I’m in the middle of this ride, and I’m starting to question: am I on the right ride?
(I am watching Vi Hart videos in the background as I am writing this blog post, and therefore my sentences are semi-frantic run-on’s like hers. :D )
So we were having a conversation the other day about all the language we use when we talk about HourSchool and its vision and its theory of change. The words “social innovation” came up, and Ruby distinguished between working for social impact where we could all go volunteer at a soup kitchen and have an impact on our community vs. social innovation which means we want to change people’s ideas of learning and create a scalable platform that could end up changing the way people live and see the world.
I had been throwing “social impact” and “social innovation” around interchangeably, and this day I realized they are different. Social innovation spurs paradigm shifts, entails systematic changes, and evolves the way people do things. (Think Kickstarter, think Stripe, both unimaginable 10 years ago.) And I realized this distinction is a deeper way to think about the struggle I’ve been having in thinking about scale.
The idea that an artist or a person works at a particular scale always stuck with me from Twyla Tharp’s Creative Habits book. You’re either writing detailed-short-story-character-sketches or epic-sprawling-metaphysical-parables. It’s just the focal length that’s wired into your DNA; doesn’t mean you can’t stretch yourself, but it’s good to honor your natural way of looking at the world. I’ve been trying to apply this metaphor to the idea of entrepreneurship — is scale the difference between the owner of a mom-and-pop-shop vs. the head of a corporation, the difference between a blogger with an Etsy shop vs. an international fashion designer? Is scale the difference between a community organization like Theatre Action Project vs. Acumen Fund?
No. The difference isn’t merely scale. The difference is intention: social impact vs. social innovation. With the lower cost-of-entry and higher potential reach of technology these days, social entrepreneurship has become attracted to scale and social innovation; that’s why all the pitches you hear include some version of “this is going to change the world.” This is why Hub LA feels the need to create a new term: social impact professional. They want to be inclusive of those working in the social enterprise space, but also want to make room for those people working with non-profits, those working deep at the community level, those supporting the social entrepreneurs–because they believe innovation happens when all these different people are able to collaborate. This article by Echoing Green’s Lara Galinsky entitled “Not Everyone Should Be a Social Entrepreneur” made its rounds earlier this year and resonated with me because I’ve always suspected I’m not a social entrepreneur. I just didn’t know what else to call myself coming out of a grad program in “Interaction Design and Social Entrepreneurship”.
Names are important. Definitions are important. They help us define who we are, what we allow ourselves to do, and how we tell our stories to the world.
I’m still not sure whether I want to work toward social impact and/or social innovation, but I’m glad I realize the difference now. It helps me frame my world, and the new ideas and projects that come into it. I’ve always been more drawn to the projects that go really deep within one community. I believe that the change that comes from long-term relationships, empowered co-creation, and shared accountability has better chances of being responsible. When you’re talking about social impact, you are talking about people’s lives, and I believe we as designers and entrepreneurs owe our communities the commitment to see the results of our work/experiments/prototypes/projects through to fixing the muck-ups and sustaining the successes. I’ve never been able to see how to do this with large-scale social innovation projects. There is always a struggle to go from proven social impact (with one local community) to large-scale social innovation (replicating the results in new contexts) when you’re dealing with services. Tech sometimes leap-frogs the latter…but maybe even tech solutions need to go from impact to innovation — proven in small scale before taken to large scale.
Though I’m drawn to it, I’m not comfortable working solely on the social impact level when I’m forced to stay within the confines of an existing system which I don’t agree with. Nor am I comfortable (yet) thinking on the “change the world” scale of social innovation.
Although language is very important, action also helps us define who we are over time, so this is definitely a work in progress.
(Even though AC4D’s program is in “Interaction Design and Social Entrepreneurship”, I’ve also been trying to unpack the “interaction design” label as well. It confuses everyone when I introduce myself [including myself], but here’s at least some language that helped me clarify how to talk about the value design can add to the work that changemakers do: an article and conversation with Sarah Brooks about the role of design in the movement toward sustainability. They don’t specifically use either “social impact” or “social innovation.” I believe design has a role to play in the work of both.)