Toward a political theory of social innovation: collective intelligence and the co-creation of social goods.

Author:Peters, Michael A.
  1. Introduction

    The literature on social innovation grew quickly in the early 2000s and is now voluminous. One definition suggests that social innovation can be understood by the "penetration of business ideas, management practices, and market principles into the world of and nonprofits and government" (Phills, 2009). This American-styled view puts the emphasis on social enterprise and social entrepreneurship, as is evidenced in the work of the Stanford Center for Social Innovation in the Graduate School of Business. In this context, the underlying concern is the creation of social value by solving social problems, where social innovation exhibits both "novelty" and the idea of "improvement." Phills (2009) states that social innovation refers to:

    [a]ny novel and useful solution to a social need or problem, that is better than existing approaches (i.e., more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just) and for which the value created (benefits) accrues primarily to society as a whole rather than private individuals (Phills, 2009)

    Social innovation builds on the back of "open innovation," and also has direct application to government and the public sector. Thus, one recent symposium "Innovating Together: Co-creation and Co-production of Public Services" (1) defined "open innovation," in the first instance, in terms of harvesting ideas outside the firm before applying these ideas to the public sector:

    Open innovation assumes that firms can and should use external ideas as well as internal ideas, and internal and external paths to market, as the firms look to advance their technology. Open innovation, therefore, encourages organizations to search for solutions outside their organizational boundaries. Implementing open innovation in the public sector has a myriad of positive effects, including increased awareness of social problems, more effective practices based on broad citizen experience, and increased trust between government and citizens. This symposium defines open innovation in the public sector in terms of the active participation of citizens. (I prefer the term "engagement"). The webpage goes on to state:

    This involvement is often referred to as co-creation and coproduction. Although these terms were introduced back in the 70s, recently they have gained a renewed interest as a result of technological developments, which have given citizens more control, allowing for new ways of interaction and involvement, particularly in public services delivery. What began as an economic theory, based on social media principles, has more recently become a political theory of social innovation. This theoretical development has, it would seem, been formed to create citizens capable of participating in collective problem solving through co-creating, co-designing, and co-evaluating social goods and services. In part, this initiative trades on the ethos of collaboration, sharing and interconnectivity at the heart of new social media technologies while also recognizing that complex social problems require the mass collaboration of the many, of engaged citizens, especially in times of austerity. These developments have led commentators to talk of social innovation ecosystems and platforms designed to promote a shared public view, to exchange knowledge and to enhance mass participation in problem-solving activities (Nambisan & Nambisan, 2013). The term "smart cities" is associated with a movement towards greater use of digital technologies, which, while enhancing well being also has the effect of cutting costs through the active participation of citizens (Komininos, 2008).

    Christian Bason, the director of the Danish innovation unit MindLab and author of Leading Public Sector Innovation: Co-creating for a Better Society (2010) writes:

    In order to make such paradigmatic innovation much more likely, leaders in government must build an infrastructure of innovation a public-sector innovation ecosystem. The ecosystem is built through four simultaneous shifts in how the public sector creates new solutions: a shift from random innovation to a conscious and systematic approach to public sector renewal; a shift from managing human resources to building innovation capacity at all levels of government; a shift from running tasks and projects to orchestrating processes of cocreation, creating new solutions with people, not for them; a shift from administrating public organizations to courageously leading innovation across and beyond the public sector. (2) The effective creation of such an innovation ecosystem would seem to depend on the extent to which these shifts to create new solutions in the public sector, which we take to include public education, are commensurable with one another; this commensurability at its crux depending on who the concept of innovation is understood. The latter falls on the theoretical problem of whether or not the last three described shifts can be facilitated by the first. An approach that facilitates random innovation may in fact be closer in its understanding of innovation than the systemization of the governance of how innovation is to be achieved--that is unless this systemization is open to random and spontaneous improvements to its own organization. The latter three shifts refer to greater social participation in innovation, greater implication in the problem of innovating and greater opportunities for these parties to extent to scope of the ecosystem. This new participation, implication and extension of interest cannot be framed according to existing notions of cocreation. Working with unforeseen diversity supposes working with new knowledge and knowledge that must resist systemization in order to collaborate with existing technologies of power.

    More and more theorists and commentators are focusing on citizens' value-creation processes (Magno & Cassia, 2014) and reviewing co-creation and co-production as the basis for systematic reform of the public sector. While we see Baston's (2010) formulation of an innovation ecosystem being one that would appear to acknowledge the participation and implication of a bottom-up involvement in co-creation and co-production, not all the literature signals that co-production should be understood to imply this type of involvement. For example, Pestoff (2012), while providing a series of definitions of co-production in relation to what he regards as the crucial conceptual issues, includes teachers and direct citizen participation but makes not room for students as co-producers and collaborators of those who might bring about social change. To avoid this aspect of what co-production might mean is to avoid the problem of embracing the idea that the reason why we are not willing to see students as co-producers of social change during the years in which they are studying might be because the preparation of co-produce, as it were, would involve a political education that the state could not entertain.

    This brings us to the need to state how we understand social innovation. In this context Vorrberg et al. (2014) define social innovation as

    the creation of long-lasting outcomes that aim to address societal needs by fundamentally changing the relationships, positions and rules between the involved stakeholders, through an open process of participation, exchange and collaboration with relevant stakeholders, including endusers, thereby crossing organizational boundaries and jurisdictions (Hartley 2005; Bason 2010; Osborne and Brown 2011; Sorensen and Torfing 2011; Chesbrough 2003, 2006) (p. 2).

    The emphasis in this definition is on the process of open participation by citizens changing the "relationships, positions and rules" among "stakeholders." In as much as the above definition of social innovation seems useful, it equally misses the political point with respect to the ways in which new forms of collective behavior, that are enabled by social media, encourage and promote collaborative problem solving.

  2. Collective Intelligence

    Geoff Mulgan (2014) suggests that while there are some stunning examples of collective intelligence in social media, this field of behavior remains largely undeveloped and untheorized. Mulgan locates this field in the space where institutions and systems become more intelligent, and where the organization of machine learning and human behavior interact to produce collective intelligence. He elaborated this concept via an engagement with Verdansky's concept of "noosphere;" the third phase of collective intelligence that comes, historically-speaking, after the development of the "geosphere" and "biosphere." "Noosphere" refers to "an emergent global realm of human thought" (Levy 2000, as cited in Peters & Reveley, 2014). Mulgan goes on to provide a series of contemporary examples in a variety of fields such as open software, anthropology, politics and so on, as forms of collective intelligence, which can be thought to include "epistemic democracy," concepts of a "global brain," the embodied cognition of the extended mind and the like. He makes a case for a better definition of the concept of collective intelligence and establishes an experimental agenda, referencing the "ecology of tools" that is collectively emerging in sync with the development of platforms on the Internet. Mulgan's (2014) paper is insightful although a little disorganized when it comes to drawing the theoretical connections between the major paradigms that separately contribute to the formation collective intelligence while at the...

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