Not an ordinary definition of social innovation
I was invited to deliver an inspirational talk called “Why social innovation?” at OPENSociaLab in Novi Sad, the European capital of youth 2019. Going through participants’ motivation for attending the event, it was clear that the audience was more involved with social innovation than I am. So I chose to challenge the perception of what social innovation is and what it can or could be.
Breaking the term “social innovation” down
Rephrasing the definition by Google, “social” is relating to humans as a specie organising ourselves for living together in communities. In this sense, everything around us exist because we are “social”. Roads that take us to places, the electricity that enables the internet, the food we don’t grow, but eat, to the clothes we don’t make, but wear. All of this has happened because we, human beings are constantly optimising our living together on communal planet Earth.
From this perspective, it’s obvious that “social” has been around since homo sapiens stood up on two feet. Cavemen started the fire, invented the wheel, beer, clothing, money, farming, you name it. It is pretty unbelievable how quickly the drive to optimise our living together has brought us from then to now. Actually, if we compress the cosmic time from the Big Bang to now into a single-year calendar, primates appeared at the party just 10 seconds before the New Year’s Eve. So in cosmic terms, it took us mere 10 seconds from domesticating the fire to space travel. Not bad, huh?
What is innovation in this context?
For the majority, innovation has everything to do with AI, AR, VR, deep learning, deep tech etc. etc. And of course it’s true.
Longevity is around the corner
Scientists have discovered telomerase, an enzyme that is immortal as long as it has food. Telomeres are glue for chromosomes so they deteriorate with every split of a cell, thus basically causing ageing. Mice given telomerase lived 30% longer! 30%!! Only cancer is preventing us from using telomerase to prolong life now. But not for long! With medicine leaping in cancer cures, longevity is much closer to reality than we might think.
Teleportation is technically possible
It sometimes feel like we live in a science fiction reality today. Did you know that it is already possible to teleport an atom? Not in a material form, but to replicate exact information from one atom to another one million miles away. Pair this first steps of teleportation with laser technology and we will soon, at least in cosmic terms, be able to inhabit distant galaxies. Think about it. From making the first fire 10 seconds ago, to inserting life in different galaxies in less than 5 cosmic seconds from now. Why just 5? Because of exponentially accelerating technology.
Changing form of money
Oh and let’s not forget blockchain. If Facebook succeeds with Libra coin, which it probably won’t, it will be the end of the money as we know it. Bitcoin can’t do it. Ether certainly can’t do it. If anybody has a shot at taking crypto to mass market and banking the unbanked for real at scale — it is Libra coin. And what comes next? Not that I don’t have contradicting feelings about Facebook owning the new generation of money or that governments would allow it, but what is government without controlling the money…? I will just leave it there.
Can innovation be simple?
These are all great examples of innovation that will change human history forever. What about simpler things? Can simple things like SMS or better — wool be examples of innovation? It turns out that innovation doesn’t have to be high tech and involve teams of developers or scientists. It can be something as simple and basic as SMS subscription service for pregnant women in Africa delivering consistent health and sanitation tips to save millions of babies and their mothers across the continent (MomConnect).
It turns out that a wool fabric soaked in bee wax, Jojoba seed oil and pine resin can be an innovative way to get rid of plastic from our fridges. Vaskainis is making this wax soaked wool cloth for preserving freshness of food in our fridges. It reduces waste AND gets rid of plastic particles from our food. Tell me this is not social innovation!
Climate change has been first mentioned in 1950s. Plastic is being mass produced since 1940s. So, why has social innovation become a prominent term only recently?
7 billion people and growing
Cutting the more complex out, the answer is two-fold. For one, the planet has reached 7 billion people on the 31st of October 2011. Even if we consume only 1 product wrapped in plastic a day and each take only one 5km motor vehicle ride a day, that’s 7 billion pieces of litter and 35B km travelled on a polluting vehicle a day! A DAY!! Can you imagine this? And more importantly, can you leave only 1 piece of waste a day? In this case scale is the worst enemy.
Society is moving upwards on Maslow’s pyramid of needs
The second part is a bit more complicated. Humankind is moving upwards the Maslow pyramid of needs. Throwing a piece of litter out of a car window was totally normal 20 years ago in a post-Soviet Lithuania. Situation is similar in Asia now. Just worse as they have much more things wrapped in plastic to consume compared to post-Soviet Baltic States. People simply can’t be concerned about litter, global warming or equality when they are hungry, when they don’t have clean drinking water or have to fight for their lives. That is impossible. Period.
Nobody on the first two ladders of the pyramid cares about social change and making positive impact for others. We become concerned about the wellbeing of society only when the essentials of our own lives are satisfied.
The world has never been so well-off
In the book Factfulness Hans Rosling analysis data to show how the world is in a much better state than we might think. The mortality rate of children below 5 has never been so low. Education has never been so accessible to so many people across the globe and men and women spend almost the same amount of time at school. We’re better off now than we ever were almost on all important metrics. There have never been so many people in this planet who are moving towards or are already on or above the 3rd ladder of Maslow’s pyramid. And it creates a network effect. This might be one of the reasons why millennials are seeking meaning in their work and are more concerned about social issues compared to other generations.
Seems like the future is bright. Can we give up now and wait for things to sort themselves out?
No, because there are still too many people who don’t understand that change is permanent and being able to change for better can give meaning to life like nothing else.
To make social change formal, in 2015, UN countries adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals. The best about policy makers coming onboard is that there has never been so much money coming from governments to support social initiatives worldwide. It means that governments now should be putting the planet before commercial gains.
Unfortunately, not all the governments are like that. Recently a relative in the US told me that they don’t need to insulate houses because they can afford to pay for heating, unlike us in Lithuania. But he totally missed the point. Lithuanian government has adapted sustainability standards for housing to protect nature from unnecessary heating in winter and cooling in summer and to save fuel and energy. Obviously, gas companies are not happy about it. However, constraints create immense opportunities for new industries. This particular regulation in the EU is fostering innovation in housing industry where chemistry is doing miracles. We even have self-healing concrete! Can you image, roads and bridges that fix themselves!
In addition to policy makers, social innovation would not be possible without businesses investing billions into social practices. We could argue that businesses are to blame for all the pollution and global warming in the first place. For almost a century now, businesses were heedlessly concerned with bottom line and making a profit regardless of the impact of their actions on the planet. Why do we still hear stories about factories polluting nearby water reservoirs? Why do we still drive petrol fuelled cars when the first electric car was invented back in 1823–1835? MONEY and POWER. The two most destructive forces that are leading our actions. Still.
Luckily, corporate social responsibility has become a thing as well. And even if Google has invented a lens to measure sugar levels in blood not only to help people with diabetes, but also to collect more data, I’m OKEY with that. I choose every little step towards positive change, regardless how small or big it is. Because if 7 billion humans and millions of companies take that little step every day, the effects compound.
Social innovation is everywhere
Taking the existing seemingly unrelated and making something new or using it in a completely different context. That is how we got from stone tools to steam engine, computers, rockets and understanding space time. We are continuously innovating by building up on previous work by others and looking for ways to improve the existing. Because social innovation is in our DNA.
We are all social innovators every second of every hour striving to do the best we can in organising ourselves for better living together. And this progress is impossible to stop or pause.
Regardless of all the clime change, bad actors disregarding morals over money or power, I believe in innate good in each of us — social innovators. Without it, we wouldn’t have been able to get to today. So as long as we all produce one litter less a day, the future is freaking exciting and I would love to live another 100 years to see how all of this evolves.