On "impact"

30. Dez 2019

Speech by Klaus Schuch on the occassion of the social innovation impact prize award ceremony 2019

Impact is a word which you hear everywhere. Impact, however, is not a buzzword, it is not a voguish bubble; it is a real concern. We're talking about the negative impact of climate change and the positive impact of policy interventions to mitigate these negative effects. Impact is not confined to a certain policy arena. The notion of impact arrived also in research and technology policy. And as a researcher I have to get used to ask myself - according to John Brewer from the Queen's University - three basic questions:

  1. Who are the users of my research?
  2. How do I engage with them?
  3. What could be the effects of this engagement?

While the timeline between research and actual impact usually is a longer one, with several bifurcations mediated through transfer and knowledge accumulation processes, the attitude towards impact in the field of social innovation is much more demanding. Problems are right here on the table: they are identified; so let's tackle them and find solutions which help immediately and which - in the best case - are well structured and sustainable. The winning project of this year's EU Social Innovation Impact Prize fulfils both aspects. It shows immediate impact and it is so well structured, that we can be certain that it does not create one-off impact but recurring and accelerating impact.

Academically speaking, social innovation is defined as new combination or figuration of practices in areas of social action, prompted by certain actors or constellations of actors with the goal of better coping with needs and problems than is possible by using existing practices. An innovation is therefore social to the extent that it varies social action and is socially accepted and diffused in society (i.e. the SI-DRIVE definition).

This means, in other words, that a social innovation has to be firstly intentional. Contrarily, we talk about social change if the observed changes in society are not directly intentional or at least cannot be traced back to certain agents or if the agent's landscape becomes blurred and unclear. Greta Thunberg is an agent. 'Fridays for Future' became a social movement with a clear intention and a purpose. But it is not a social innovation, because neither Greta nor 'Fridays for Future' provide solutions, because social innovation is not their task but advocacy, and being children they also lack capacities. Instead, they are rightly appealing to politicians, business-makers, consumers and the civil society - to more powerful agents -  to change course. To provide solutions for a certain problem which work, however, is a second property of a social innovation. So we have as properties of a social innovation by now, first, "intention" and, second, "solution" and there are of course also additional properties. A social innovation has to work in the arena of social action and has to have foremost a 'social purpose' and it has to be more than just a brilliant idea. A social innovation needs to be accepted and diffused in society or parts of it. This means, a social innovation has to be used! The scale of social acceptability and use varies. Some social innovations target only local groups of a few people, while others potentially address thousands. Scaling-up is an interesting aspect, but in my view only of secondary importance as long as positive impact occurs for those who are intentionall targeted.

To select among several inspiring cases the most impactful one was a challenging task for me and my fellow jury colleagues. The European Social Innovation Competition calls for inspiring ideas, but the starting point for these ideas varies. Some ideas are from close to scratch, like the last year's first prize winner 'Ulisse'. 'Ulisse' had this brilliant idea to develop a European digital platform that fosters international sign language education by creating, marketing and promoting travel experiences designed by deaf people for deaf people, exclusively in international sign language. Other ideas, however, advance already from a more stable structural basis and can be, for instance, additional modules to an established social innovation practice. As jury members we have had to assess the relative progress towards impact generation and have had to take, thus, these different starting points into account. Although we discussed this problem a lot, our selection of the impact prize winner from last year's EU Social Innovation Competitions was a relatively easy one. And it was unanimous.

The winning project is truly a social innovation and it generates traceable social and economic impact as well as a positive spirit. This project works successfully with a beneficiary group, whose integration in our society and economy is important, from whom we can also learn and use their capabilities. The way in which they forward this integration is socially different than traditional integration activities. It is empowering and participatory. In this sense, the winner of the EU Social Innovation Impact Prize is truly a social innovation in its ends and in its means.

Dr. Klaus Schuch

ZSI - Centre for Social Innovation, Vienna

Here you can find more information about the winning project 'More than one perspective'.



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Tags: social innovation

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