When social innovation goes bad

Is social innovation always a good thing? With references to eugenics, cholera and even Wonga, Madeleine Gabriel and Julie Simon from Nesta take a look at social innovation in a new light.

In 1905, respected psychologist Alfred Binet and his research assistant Theodore Simon unveiled their new set of tests for determining children’s intelligence. “Our purpose,” Binet explained, “is to be able to measure the intellectual capacity of a child who is brought to us in order to know whether he is normal or retarded.”

Was the intelligence test a social innovation? Canadian academics Katharine McGowan and Frances Westley think so. In New Frontiers in Social Innovation Research (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), they argue that Binet was influenced by contemporary thinking on genetics, natural selection, meritocracy and pedagogy.

He believed intelligence was innate and could be ‘objectively’ measured. If those of ‘inferior intelligence’ could be reliably identified, they could be separated from ‘normal children’. This was intended to be a good thing: putting the ‘feeble-minded’ in institutions was generally believed to be “in their best interest, as well as the interest of society generally”. 

The Binet-Simon scale caught on. Soon others were coming up with new applications of the test. Among these were Herbert Henry Goddard, who adapted the tests for the American school system, and Lewis Terman, a Stanford professor who further developed the scale to measure adults’ intelligence. 

several US states introduced compulsory sterilisation laws with the aim of stopping ‘undesirable’ people from reproducing

Like many of his peers, Terman was a proponent of eugenics. He believed intelligence testing could be used in “curtailing the reproduction of feeble-mindedness and in the elimination of an enormous amount of crime, pauperism, and industrial inefficiency.” 

Around the same time, advances in medical technology had made safe sterilisation possible, and several US states introduced compulsory sterilisation laws with the aim of stopping ‘undesirable’ people from reproducing. IQ testing, using Terman’s Stanford-Binet scale, was used to determine who should be sterilised.

Binet’s language and ideas will seem at the very least jarring and unethical to modern readers, and Terman’s sinister and dangerous. But at the time, both thought they were doing the best thing for society, and these views were relatively widespread. 

What’s ‘good’ depends on when and where you are

As McGowan and Westley say, perhaps with some understatement, “the story of the intelligence test is not a celebratory one”. But it shows rather clearly that ideas about what is undesirable (problems) and desirable (solutions) can change over time. 

This is partly because of changes in understanding. Over time, we gain new knowledge that can alter the way things are done. For instance, in 19th century London, John Snow’s famous research linking outbreaks of cholera to an infected water pump challenged the prevailing view that cholera was caused by ‘bad air’, and later inspired major changes in public sanitation. So on one hand, we do things differently now because we have a better understanding of cause and effect and more evidence about ‘what works’.

But that isn’t the whole story. We may change the way we do things not just because old ways are shown to be ineffective, but because we now believe them to be ethically questionable. Corporal punishment was banned in UK state schools in 1986 and finally outlawed in all schools in 1998. In proposing the legislation, MP Don Foster argued that not only was corporal punishment ineffective, it “is wrong in principle - it is barbaric and it is inhuman”.

Changes in values can also lead to different ways of framing problems and goals. In supporting children with learning disabilities, we are not aiming to ‘protect society’, as in Binet’s time, but rather to promote inclusion, wellbeing, educational attainment and independence.

Meanwhile, we don’t look back on the eugenics movement and say it’s mistaken primarily because it’s not possible to use knowledge about heredity and genetics to change the characteristics of populations. Rather, eugenics is anathema because we no longer think this goal is desirable (to put it mildly).

Social innovation aims to solve social problems and generate societal benefit, so the question of what’s good and bad for society is fundamental. Sometimes this seems self-evident. It’s hard to imagine ever seeing better health, education or a more inclusive society as undesirable. In some cases, even suggesting that there’s room for debate might seem churlish, or downright contrary. 

But historical examples serve to remind us that actually, our ideas about what’s good and bad are not fixed. In the future, the social problems we’re currently trying to solve might not even seem problematic. We might come to view today’s projects as pernicious and corrosive. There’s a very real possibility that in 20 years’ time, we’ll look back and cringe. 

Innovations create value for some while destroying it for others

Knowing this shouldn’t stop us from acting, but it should give us pause. One practical thing we could do is to ask ‘who loses out?’

It’s well understood within innovation studies that innovations create value for some and destroy it for others. This is most apparent when you think of some of the financial and military innovations of the last century: the atom bomb, subprime loans, credit default swaps. But it’s also true for things we generally believe are more benign. The internet, for example, has facilitated new forms of criminality.

The idea that social innovation can create losers as well as winners is rarely discussed

In fact, this ‘dark side’ is an essential part of innovation. It underlies Joseph Schumpeter’s notion of ‘creative destruction’. He was describing the way in which the old is swept aside by the new – and meant this as a positive thing, as undoubtedly, does any ‘disruptive’ technology entrepreneur. But in replacing the old with the new you are by definition destroying something, whether it’s a process, a role, an institution, a technology or business model. 

The idea that social innovation can create losers as well as winners is rarely discussed, either by academics or practitioners, even though it’s relatively easy to think of ways in which social innovations could be harmful. They could, for example, unintentionally exclude some groups or communities, foster dependence or undermine valued institutions. The use of volunteers in public services, for example, opens up considerable opportunities to shape services for the better, but also raises concerns that it is a ‘cover for cuts’. 

Perhaps more ominously, social innovation might lull us into thinking that we’re solving a social challenge, when in fact we’re just administering a sticking plaster, leaving structures that produce these problems unaffected. German academics Adalbert Evers and Benjamin Ewert, for example, argue that social innovation alone cannot address the ‘social disintegration’ likely to be caused by welfare reform, loosening labour market regulation, rising in-work poverty and precariousness. 

Can we learn something from ‘anti-social’ innovations too?

Ignoring social innovation’s dark side might also limit our ability to learn. Mobile money service M-PESA is a bit of a social innovation poster child, but payday loans company Wonga isn’t usually considered to be an example of social innovation, even though it might fit some definitions. It is, after all, a ‘new idea that meets social needs’.

If we accept that social innovation is not necessarily good or bad, but merely new, then Wonga might fit the bill. It’s a fair bet that most of the self-identifying social innovation community would see its services as exploitative, and that its impact is negative overall. Yet, we could find useful lessons in Wonga’s marketing, its user-friendly interface and how it seems to have removed the stigma from payday loans. 

Whose good is it anyway?

Just as there’s a noted ‘pro-innovation bias’ in academic innovation studies, there’s a similar tendency towards optimism amongst people involved in social innovation. Those involved in this sector are perhaps drawn to it because we believe there is a possibility of changing the world for the better, and even those whose main role is research are usually advocates and not simply detached observers.

Philosopher Roberto Mangabeira Unger writes (in positive terms) about the “social innovation movement”, which he suggests springs from “a faction of the professional-business class in richer and poorer countries”. The people comprising this movement may be diverse in some senses, but they share a common outlook. 

In 2014, Nesta commissioned a survey on attitudes towards innovation in the UK population, which revealed five ‘types’ of innovators: ‘futurists’, ‘romantics’, ‘creatives’, ‘realists’ and ‘sceptics’. In the population as a whole, ‘realists’ are the biggest group (34 per cent) - people who aren’t excited about innovation per se, but place a greater emphasis on ethics and rights than new ideas. Meanwhile, those most likely to be engaged in the innovation debate - the ‘futurists’ - form just 19 per cent of the population. They are more likely than most people to view controversial innovations, like GM food, positively.

Essentially, this means social innovation folks may have a (broadly) shared set of values that are different from many others in society. So we need to recognise that our view of ‘good’ might contrast with others’. 

Curb your techno-optimism?

Innovations can be good or bad, or most likely both. We probably ought at least to allow the possibility that social innovations can be more harmful than beneficial, and stop seeing them as good by definition. Rather than ignoring the potential downsides of social innovation, we could seek to understand them and work out how they can be minimised. 

A recent article argued that there’s no such thing as a ‘green product’: the environmental impact of a product or service depends on how often it’s used, who uses it, what other types of behaviour it encourages, and so on. As such, impact can only be assessed by looking at the product cycle, and weighing up different types of negative and positive impact.

Car sharing, for example, can have a positive environmental impact if it reduces the net amount of car travel (if, for example, people who had their own cars give them up and drive less as a result) but negative if it encourages the opposite (people who didn’t previously have their own cars drive more often). We could take a similar approach to explore the net benefits of other types of social innovation. Indeed, some measurement approaches (like social return on investment) do encourage this. However, it seems relatively rare in practice for accounts of impact to take stock of negative effects. 

We should also be open to the possibility that others might have a different view of what’s good and be willing to challenge our assumptions. Recognising that the social innovation world is probably not representative of society more broadly, we should actively seek out different views on the innovations we’re developing and promoting. 

Arguably, the role of the social innovation movement is not simply to reflect existing social mores but to point the way to a more positive future. Yet as McGowan and Westley put it, we should try and avoid “hubris”. The history of the intelligence test should serve as a lesson and a warning – in our excitement about new possibilities we might be unwittingly causing harm. Being more measured in our claims about specific innovations and their impact is critical to the development and maturity of the field of social innovation – and may mean we avoid repeating past mistakes.

Photo credit: Abi Skipp