Monthly Spotlight: Interview with Julie Simon, The Young Foundation

Why is Research in Social Innovation important for you?

Chronic disease, an ageing society, climate change, youth unemployment and a broken economic model – these are just some of the challenges we face. None of these can be solved by new technologies or market based innovations alone. To address these we will need social innovations – new practices, new behaviours, new institutions, new social arrangements etc. So, it is absolutely critical that we better understand how to generate social innovations, how they spread, which are the most effective etc. In my mind, research plays a critical role in better understanding these processes and should help to guide the work of policymakers and practitioners.

What is the biggest challenge for Social Innovation Research?

I think there are two challenges: the first is to make our research and our findings relevant and accessible to those outside academia. Until fairly recently, social innovation was a practice led field. But, there are now numerous projects, institutions and organizations dedicated to social innovation research. This is highly promising but we need to make sure that the borders that separate the worlds of academia, practitioners and policymakers remain very porous. We must ensure that we continue to learn from one another – that research is informed by practice and that policy is influenced by research and so on. The second challenge is to avoid ‘reinventing the wheel’. Since the field of social innovation research is relatively new, there is a danger that projects focus on the same issues – often duplicating work that has already been done. This is especially the case with EU funded projects. We need to ensure better collaboration and co-ordination – potentially by putting in place some structures to facilitate the spreading and sharing of new knowledge.

What result can we expect from SI-DRIVE?

I think SI DRIVE is going to make contributions in two main ways. First the global mapping of social innovations will be a highly useful resource for practitioners and researchers alike. A few years ago, I helped put together the Open Book of Social Innovation. This book listed some 500 methods of social innovation, including methods for generating and testing social innovations as well as the enabling conditions for social innovation. The global mapping will build on these and earlier initiatives and dramatically advance the state of knowledge about social innovation. Second, SI DRIVE will develop our theoretical understanding of social innovation. The aim is to create a general theory of social innovation. This is both highly ambitious and timely – and will undoubtedly contribute to the strengthening and deepening of the field of social innovation research.

Which book or article about Social Innovation should everybody read? Why?

I would suggest two things although neither is about social innovation directly. The first is Carlota Perez’s work on technological revolutions and techno-economic paradigms (Perez, 2009, ‘Technological revolutions and techno-economic paradigms’, Cambridge Journal of Economics, Vol. 34, No.1, pp. 185-202). She writes about the changing nature of innovation – and this has huge implications for the changing nature and new forms of social innovation. The second is the inspirational story of a social innovator – Augusto Boal (see Theatre of the Oppressed and Legislative Theatre). He used theatre as a way of engaging and empowering some of the most marginalized and vulnerable people in Rio de Janeiro. The most interesting thing for me is that he was elected as a City Councilor and used his method as a way of co-creating legislative proposals with the people of Rio de Janeiro.