Social Innovation and Governance: A Quick Glance



social-innovationThe idea of innovation, certainly not new to development practitioners, is again picking up steam. In fact, it has become a buzzword that is now permeating many discussions and development conversations.

The Arab Spring and other social movements in both developed and developing countries brought back to the forefront not just the catalytic importance of new ICTs but, perhaps more importantly, the centrality of democratic governance in fostering sustainable human development. Now more than ever, we need to strengthen (and in some cases build) the bridges between public institutions and the people, the latter having a voice that influences the former. Public institutions, in turn, must be capable of responding effectively and transparently.

Nowadays, what is perhaps new is the more vital link between innovation and democratic governance.

For many, innovation seems to be driven by technology alone. While this might be the case in some instances in the development field – remember the Green Revolution? – This is not always true. From a development perspective, a critical issue is the diffusion of innovations, that is, the uptake by intended beneficiaries of the new solutions furnished by development practitioners, the private sector, and many others. A vast development of literature on this topic already exists, but it seems to be on the back burner of most ongoing discussions.

Today, we also hear quite a bit about social innovation, an idea that has existed in various incarnations since the 1860s or so.

What is different today?

While innovation was usually associated with “stuff” happening in industrialized countries in the recent past, today, we see a shift toward developing countries. In other words, innovation is now taking place on a larger scale in countries that traditionally were not known for being members of the innovation “club.” India and China are good examples, as is Kenya. And there are many others.

A vital aspect of the new innovation wave in the South is that it is linked to development gaps, perhaps unintendedly. Concerted efforts are now being made to address critical socio-economic and governance gaps with new solutions created internally. Here, local social innovators play an essential role.

The rapid evolution of mobile technologies has provided fertile ground for this new innovation wave. By the end of 2014, it was estimated that almost 5 billion mobile phone subscribers lived in developing countries—and this number is growing. The same data indicates that Asia and Africa are the fastest-growing regions. Although these numbers are impressive, let us not lose sight of what is happening behind the scenes.

United colors 16Why is this happening now? First, the barriers to entry for producing, distributing, and consuming new tools and solutions have been dramatically reduced in the last five to seven years. Second, many innovative solutions developed countries furnish do not reach the bottom of the pyramid, nor are they designed for such a purpose. There is, thus, a latent demand, a captive market for affordable and “pro-poor” innovative solutions that can rapidly diffuse if price points and priority needs are satisfied. Third, the new technologies foster interactive communication tools that, in principle, give voice to those who had none before; now, they can become active participants in decision-making processes, not just traditional consumers. The latter is indeed a governance innovation.

Kenya is an excellent example of an innovative economy in a developing country. Well known for crowdsourcing with Ushahidi and mobile money with M-Pesa, it has surged by responding to specific socio-economic and political issues. Kenya is also deploying innovative solutions for health, agriculture, and education with the support of local social entrepreneurs, many of which are women. Indeed, a culture of innovation is flourishing in the country. The same is happening in several other developing countries.

In these cases, social innovation is happening on a bottom-up basis. Local community members with adequate skills get involved by trying to address specific issues the community confronts. Many of them are, in turn, members of these communities and thus have the trust of local stakeholders. However, the government is still marginally involved and has yet to fully embrace these efforts. Nevertheless, the critical issue is the sustainability of most of these efforts now embedded within the communities as project ownership is local.

However, issues of replicability and scalability remain. Governments could play a catalytic role by supporting and piggybacking on these efforts. Governments could directly support social innovation by creating strategic multi-stakeholder partnerships, moving beyond traditional public-private partnerships.

On the governance side, social innovation promotes three fundamental principles: participation, transparency and accountability, which are the core pillars of open government. Together, they demand the involvement of both governments and stakeholders who, working together as partners, can strengthen the public sphere and enhance democratic governance in developing countries in the medium term.

Cheers, Raúl

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