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Special Issue: Social Innovation and the Capability Approach

Enrica Chiappero-Martinetti, Christopher Houghton-Budd and Rafael Ziegler have edited the first multi-authored discussion of social innovation and the capability approach for the Journal of Human Development and Capabilities. It includes eight research articles as well as three policy briefs.

The first paper in this special issue by Nadia von Jacobi, Daniel Edmiston and Rafael Ziegler (2017) explores the possibility of tackling marginalisation through social innovation, and on this basis criticises a mismatch between EU social innovation policy documents and the policies actually carried out so far. Drawing from work on justice and disadvantage from a capability perspective, the paper develops a conception of marginalization and discusses strategies designed to overcome it. It argues that effective social innovation capable of tackling marginalisation not only depends on the active participation of marginalised individuals but also on addressing the institutional embeddedness of their disadvantage. It then uses this account of marginalization and social innovation for a survey of EU social innovation policy. It discovers bias towards prevailing institutional and cognitive ends – such as putting people into jobs – that belies the transformative potential of social innovation emphasised in EU policy documents. One way of dealing with this bias from a human development perspective is to include marginalised groups in the policy design and implementation processes, thereby incorporating from the outset the ‘doings’ and ‘beings’ they value. As we will see, subsequent papers in this special issue make a variety of suggestions how the goal of such a bottom-up, emancipatory process could be advanced.

Prior to this, a second paper by Jürgen Howaldt and Michael Schwartz (2017), Social innovation and human development – how the capabilities approach and social innovation theory mutually support each other, suggests that some more theoretical groundwork is needed, not least so as to prevent the capture of social innovation in conventional, narrow conceptions of innovation and the economy. For this, recourse to the sociology of Gabriel Tarde and his analysis of social change is helpful. ‘The real causes of change consist of a chain of certainly very numerous ideas, which however are different and discontinuous, yet they are connected together by even far more numerous acts of imitation, for which they serve as a model’ (Tarde cited in Howaldt and Schwartz’s article). Such a sociological grounding leads to a focus on practices and the change of social practices at the core of social innovation. If such change is to be intentional and effective in an ethically ‘good’ way, which social innovation discourse tends to assume, linking practice theory with the evaluative language of the capability approach can stimulate a more reflective use of social innovation, and its consequences for different people, as well as for problems where it is needed most. 

In her exploration of the role of the capability approach in social innovation, Meera Tiwari (2017) reminds us that in spite of the current hype, social innovation is nothing new. In particular, the emergence of the co-operative movement in the nineteenth century around social visionaries such as Robert Owen initiated early on one of the most important social innovations. The example of Owen as an individual experimenting in New Lanark in 1799 with an improved, economic and cooperative process is well chosen, as Tiwari argues that it is the aspirations of people that are crucially important. If there is a space for individual and group articulation of aspirations, this creates the space for social innovations that in turn serve as conversion factors for people to expand their real freedoms. She further discusses this thesis with three examples: self-help groups, M-Pesa and the Indian Freedom Movement under Gandhi.

Following these three papers on the capability approach and social innovation in relation to theories of injustice and disadvantage, practice theory and the analytic toolbox of the capability approach, the next set of papers turn to a challenge that clearly emerges from these papers in spite of their quite different conceptual starting points: how to take the perception and values of people as agents seriously in social change process? How to liberate the creative and emancipatory potential of an innovation process that is not only outcome-focused? The first response to this challenge is offered by Solava Ibrahim (2017) in her paper on Building Collective Capabilities: The 3C-Model for Grassroots-led Development. She notes that the poor need to engage in acts of collective agency to generate new collective capabilities that each individual alone would not be able to achieve. But is there any systematic way to initiate, support and sustain such as process? Ibrahim suggests the 3C: (1) Conscientization; (2) Conciliation and (3) Collaboration. Conscientization, defined by her as a process that encourages citizens to think critically about their realities and nurture their ‘capacity to aspire’ for better lives. This C incorporates the thesis observed earlier in relation to Owen, as well as ex negativo in relation to the failure of EU policy practice to take the ends of people rather than of prevailing institutions as a starting point. The next two Cs focus on the dynamic between individuals, groups and institutions: conciliation seeks to blend individual and collective interest so as to create a common vision; collaboration refers to working with the state, civil societies and donors so as to challenge power relations effectively. The paper concludes with three Ss – success, sustainability and scalability – and the importance of individual behavioural change, collective agency and institutional reform.

The second response to the challenge comes from Joel Matthews (2017). In his paper Understanding Indigenous Innovation in Rural West Africa: Challenges to Diffusion of Innovations Theory and Current Social Innovation Practice, Matthews notes that even with a switch to social innovation, a modernist approach to innovation diffusion frequently prevails. An example is the idea of technology transfer, externally devised inventions diffused by local innovators. This approach is not only problematic, Matthew argues, it also overlooks a genuine source of creative responses: innovation processes originating in marginalised communities themselves. Drawing on a case study of rural farming in West Africa, he makes the case for a discovery-based model of innovation within indigenous communities, and questions the prevailing focus on scaling up.

In a third response, Almas Mazigo (2017) turns to action research. His paper, Enhancing social innovation through action research: evidence from an empirical study in the fishing sector of Ukerewe District, Tanzania, presents a series of group meetings he organized with stakeholders in the fishing sector. They were designed to provide the participants with opportunities to reflect on individual and collective challenges, and to propose and discussed novel ideas, strategies, services and products. We would like to highlight specifically his findings on ideas and how the fisherfolk were able to change their framing: from poor actors to ‘constrained wealth creators’. This change in perception of social status is no doubt an important aspect in regard to the aspirations concerning individual and collective capacities. Accordingly, this contribution adds the role of action research in social innovation and the capability approach.

The next paper by Victoria Pellicer-Sifres, Sergio Belda-Miquel, Aurora López-Fogués & Alejandra Boni Aristizábal (2017) contributes grassroots innovation to the discussion of social innovation and the capability approach. Grassroots innovation here refers to networks of activists and organizations generating bottom-up solutions for sustainable development, i.e. the innovations originate from and primarily operate in civil society rather than in business. In their paper, Grassroots Social Innovation for Human Development: An Analysis of Alternative Food Networks in the City of Valencia (Spain), the authors discuss such innovations in relation to agency, purposes, drivers and processes and their specification in terms of the capability approach. On this basis, they propose a novel framework – Grassroots Social Innovation for Human Development – for improved understanding of bottom-up, transformative social innovation processes.

In the final paper, Information technology, innovation and human development: hospital information systems in an Indian state, Sundeep Sahay and Geoff Walsham (2017), turn to a mega-trend in innovation: information and communication technologies (ICT). They ask how innovations based on ICT can contribute to human development. For this, they note that ICT itself involves technological, social and institutional innovation and then explore how these innovations can contribute to human development. On this basis, they study the development and use of a hospital information system in Himachal Pradesh, India. They identify three processes of relevance for human development: strengthening processes to include the disadvantaged, empowering the patient and making communal voices count. Their framework has wider applicability for the analysis of ICT-based innovations and human development.

In conclusion, this special issue, while based on independently written contributions and notwithstanding the diversity of cases and insights, still suggests a shared story. To overcome marginalisation, exclusion and poverty in any meaningful way it is necessary to include the marginalised in projects, programmes and policies by devising them with rather than about or for them. If this is to be effective, the challenge is to liberate reflection and imagination from narrowly economic and political perspectives and from cognitive and institutional pressures to ‘fit’ people into prevailing structures with the attendant risk of merely reproducing ways of doing and being. To this end, in their different ways, the contributions in this special issue suggest that there is a need to pay attention to perspectives and voices from indigenous groups, civil society groups, and the working poor: both as individuals reflecting on their needs and aspirations, and as members of groups and social networks. As such reflection processes, group formation, and insertion in institutional change cannot be taken for granted, not least as there are countervailing pressures for more rapid, disruptive change that shortcuts such potentially slow and at any rate multi-voice, co-determined processes, the role and responsibility of scientists are a tacit background theme throughout these papers. Taking a step back, social innovation research emerges as one way to complement the long-standing tradition of capability research on manifest injustice and basic justice and with it, to use a Rawlsian term, the most disadvantaged groups in society (Sen 2009, Nussbaum 2006, Rawls 1999). It complements the search for improved principles and accounts of justice and equality with a bottom up actor-perspective. Given the malleability of the concept of social innovation, and the difference between rhetoric and practice it permits, as an also evaluative perspective the capability approach can critically accompany social innovation discourse so as to help it stay ‘on track’, and remain focused on urgent issues within a global perspective.

It is therefore fitting that, in addition to the research papers just outlined, this special issue also includes three policy briefs: one on creating economic space for social innovation by proposing a series of policy considerations from the CrESSI research project on social innovation for human development (Ziegler, Molnár, Chiappero-Marinetti and von Jacobi 2017); another, drawing on the research project EFESEIIS, on enabling ecosystems for social enterprises and social innovation (Biggeri, Testi and Bellucci 2017); and a third on social innovation in Latin America (Domanski, Howaldt and Schröder 2017) based on research carried out in the project SI-Drive.

Read all the contributions.


This project has received funding from the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme for research, technological development and demonstration under grant agreement no 613261.

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