Open social innovation: the political organization as a platform

Book cover for Comunicació pel Canvi Social

In the last months I have been reflecting — especially in my blog in Spanish, SociedadRed, but also here — on the impact of ICTs on political institutions, and how these institutions are — or, in my opinion, should — adapting to new forms of participation and citizen organization.

I have especially addressed the highly innovative environment of these social practices, and thus (re)approached innovation, open innovation and social innovation but now under the new light of political extra-representative participation, social movements, political engagement and participation that happens “under the radar” of institutions, etc.

A first result of these reflections was my paper “Casual Politics: From slacktivism to emergent movements and pattern recognition”.

What comes now is the result of merging some partial works:

The result of it all is a new book chapter, Innovació social oberta: l’organització política com a plataforma [Open social innovation: the political organization as a platform], published in the book Costa i Fernández, L. & Puntí Brun, M. (Eds.), Comunicació pel canvi social. Reflexions i experiències per una comunicació participativa, emancipadora i transparent. A preprint version is available for download below:

logo of PDF file
Peña-López, I. (2014). “Innovació social oberta: l’organització política com a plataforma”. In Costa i Fernández, L. & Puntí Brun, M. (Eds.), Comunicació pel canvi social. Reflexions i experiències per una comunicació participativa, emancipadora i transparent, 59-75. Girona: Universitat de Girona.


School as a social innovation hub

Notes from the workshop School as a social innovation hub, from the conference Education Today, organized by the Fundació Jaume Bofill, and held in Barcelona, in February 20, 2014.

School as a social innovation hub
Chairs: Eugeni Garcia, PhD in Economics of the Public Sector and expert in education and public management

Poverty is a vicious circle that reproduces inequalities: there is unequal access to most opportunities (e.g. education), there is unequal appropriation of these opportunities, and, thus, coming generations reproduce their status as they unequally benefit from those opportunities. How can the educational system break this vicious circle?

The value chain of education:

  1. The student. At this stage, the family is the actor with a leading role.
  2. Conditions of educability. Besides families too, public policies have a strong role here; the social third sector too, especially in the care and socio-educational fields.
  3. Processes of teaching/learning, second opportunities: the school is of course the one with the leading role at this stage, but also public policies.
  4. Educational success (or failure).

But how do we actually break this vicious circle of poverty and exclusion?

Anna Escobedo, professor at the Department of Sociology and Analysis of Organizations at the University of Barcelona.

What is the role of families. How are these families? How the change of families affect children and their educability?

The context in Spain is that the expenditure in families (or support to families) and education is below the average, and almost 50% of what other leading countries are spending in these areas.

The actual model of the family is two workers and two carers. Less children but more wanted. More negotiating and less authoritarian. Social polarization: couples are made up by people with similar educational levels.

There is a genuine concern or commitment with increasing the implication of the parents in education, in quality time, in dedicating more time to it. And ICTs are also having a significant impact in the education of children and the role of families. The relationship with the teaching staff has also changed.

So, more implication with education but total immersion in the job market is implying a huge difficulty to conciliate professional and family lives. Complementary services led by parent associations within the schools are proving to be a cornerstone for this conciliation: circa 70% of children use this kind of services.

Families — parents and children — should take more part in the making of decisions in the school.

Joan Badia, professor of secondary education and expert in innovation, teacher training and academic planning in higher education.

Schools should acknowledge that it has not all the answers to all problems and situations.

On the other hand, schools should realize too that many issues that do not strictly belong to the field of action of the school (e.g. the situation in the family), do actually have an impact on the activity led by the school. So, the belief that some issues “do not affect” the schools is plain wrong.

Of course, this acknowledgement and realization can only be achieved through a high degree of autonomy from schools, so that they can design their own strategies and actions.

There is a strong need to reinforce strategies that enable second chances.

Marta Caramés, leader of the Paidós Project at Càrites.

Paidós Project aims at providing support to families so they can break the vicious circle of poverty by enabling networks of families. It provides day-centres where families and children can spend time, be given advice on several topics related to education in general and on poverty in particular.

Most of the people benefiting form this project are people that almost the whole day are occupied on sustaining their daily lives: where will I sleep, what will I need. Thus, children do not have a “peaceful” environment where to grow healthy and be properly educated and be cared by.

If families do not understand that education is an investment, then education automatically becomes undersupplied. We have to make it possible that families can invest (time, resources) in their children’s education. To do this, we have to help them in their basic needs, so they can free time now devoted to these basic needs and spend it on their children’s education.


Joan Badia: municipalities should have a major role in the planning of education, more decentralization should be enabled. There are three conditions for learning (from Ken Robinson): diversity, everyone learns differently; curiosity, learning driven by interest; creativity, provide spaces for creation. Different ways for learning within a context: service-learning, multistakeholder partnerships, etc. There is a gap between research and training: education in Spain seems to be lacking a liaison between the outcomes of research and their (non) introduction in training plans.

Anna Escobedo: parents associations and school councils should have deeper links and work closer. Participation and voting should go hand-in-hand. And we should not only focus on what is wrong, but on what is going well too, so it can inspire others.


Open Social Innovation

Innovation, open innovation, social innovation… is there such a thing as open social innovation? Is there innovation in the field of civic action that is open, that shares protocols and processes and, above all, outcomes? Or, better indeed, is there a collectively created innovative social action whose outcomes are aimed at collective appropriation?


It seems unavoidable, when speaking about innovation, to quote Joseph A. Schumpeter in Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy:

The fundamental impulse that sets and keeps the capitalist engine in motion comes from the new consumers’ goods, the new methods of production or transportation, the new markets, the new forms of industrial organization that capitalist enterprise creates.

In the aforementioned work and in Business Cycles: a Theoretical, Historical and Statistical Analysis of the Capitalist Process he stated that innovation necessarily had to end up with existing processes, and that entire enterprises and industries would be destroyed with the coming of new ways of doing things, as the side effect of innovation. This creative destruction would come from, at least, the following fronts:

  • A new good or service in the market (e.g. tablets vs. PCs).
  • A new method of production or distribution of already existing goods and services (e.g. music streaming vs. CDs).
  • Opening new markets (e.g. smartphones for elderly non-users).
  • Accessing new sources of raw materials (e.g. fracking).
  • The creation of a new monopoly or the destruction of an existing one (e.g. Google search engine)

Social innovation

Social innovation is usually described as innovative practices that strengthen civil society. Being this a very broad definition, I personally like how Ethan Zuckerman described social innovation in the Network Society. According to his innovation model:

  1. Innovation comes from constraint.
  2. Innovation fights culture.
  3. Innovation does embrace market mechanisms.
  4. Innovation builds upon existing platforms.
  5. Innovation comes from close observation of the target environment.
  6. Innovation focuses more on what you have more that what you lack.
  7. Innovation is based on a “infrastructure begets infrastructure” basis.

His model comes from a technological approach — and thus maybe has a certain bias towards the culture of engineering — but it does explain very well how many social innovations in the field of civil rights have been working lately (e.g. the Spanish Indignados movement).

Open innovation

The best way to define open innovation is after Henry W. Chesbrough’s Open Innovation: The New Imperative for Creating And Profiting from Technology, which can be summarized as follows:

Closed Innovation Principles Open Innovation Principles
The smart people in the field work for us. Not all the smart people in the field work for us. We need to work with smart people inside and outside the company.
To profit from R&D, we must discover it, develop it, and ship it ourselves. External R&D can create significant value: internal R&D is needed to claim some portion of that value.
If we discover it ourselves, we will get it to the market first. We don’t have to originate the research to profit from it.
If we create the most and the best ideas in the industry, we will win. If we make the best use of internal and external ideas, we will win.
We should control our IP, so that our competitors don’t profit from our ideas. We should profit from others’ use of our IP, and we should buy others’ IP whenever it advances our business model.

Open Social Innovation

The question is, can we try and find a way to mix all the former approaches? Especially, can we speak about how to have social innovation being open?

In my opinion, there is an important difference between social innovation and innovation that happens in the for-profit environment:

  1. The first one, and more obvious, is that while the former one has to somehow capture and capitalize the benefits of innovation, the second one is sort of straightforward: if the innovation exists, then society can “automatically” appropriate it.
  2. The second one is the real cornerstone: while (usually) the important thing in (for-profit) open innovation is the outcome, in social innovation it (usually) is more important the process followed to achieve a goal rather than achieving the goal itself.

Thus, in this train of thought, open social innovation is the creative destruction that aims at making up new processes that can be appropriated by the whole of civil society. I think there are increasingly interesting examples of open social innovation in the field of social movements, of e-participation and e-democracy, the digital commons, P2P practices, hacktivism and artivism, etc.

I think that open social innovation has three main characteristics that can be fostered by three main actions of policies.


  • Decentralization. Open social innovation allows proactive participation, and not only directed participation. For this to happen, content has to be separated from the container, or tasks be detached from institutions.
  • Individualization. Open social innovation allows individual participation, especially at the origin of innovation. This does not mean that collective innovation is bad or avoided, but just that individuals have much flexibility o start on their own. This is only possible with the atomization of processes and responsibilities, thus enabling maximum granularity of tasks and total separation of roles.
  • Casual participation. Open social innovation allows participation to be casual, just in time, and not necessarily for a log period of time or on a regular basis. This is only possible by lowering the costs of participation, including lowering transaction costs thus enabling that multiple actors can join innovative approaches.


How do we foster decentralization-individualization-casual participation? how do we separate content from the container? how do we atomize processes, enable granularity? how do we lower costs of participation and transaction costs?

  • Provide context. The first thing an actor can do to foster open social innovation is to provide a major understanding of what is the environment like, what is the framework, what are the global trends that affect collective action.
  • Facilitate a platform. It is not about creating a platform, it is not about gathering people around our initiative. It deals about identifying an agora, a network and making it work. Sometimes it will be an actual platform, sometimes it will be about finding out an existing one and contributing to its development, sometimes about attracting people to these places, sometimes about making people meet.
  • Fuel interaction. Build it and they will come? Not at all. Interaction has to be boosted, but without interferences so not to dampen distributed, decentralized leadership. Content usually is king in this field. But not any content, but filtered, grounded, contextualized and hyperlinked content.

Some last thoughts

Let us now think about the role of some nonprofits, political parties, labour unions, governments, associations, mass media, universities and schools.

It has quite often been said that most of these institutions — if not all — will perish with the change of paradigm towards a Networked or Knowledge Society. I actually believe that all of them will radically change and will be very different from what we now understand by these institutions. Disappear?

While I think there is less and less room for universities and schools to “educate”, I believe that the horizon that is now opening for them to “enable and foster learning” is tremendously huge. Thus, I see educational institutions having a very important role as context builders, platform facilitators and interaction fuellers. It’s called learning to learn.

What for democratic institutions? I cannot see a bright future in leading and providing brilliant solutions for everyone’s problems. But I would definitely like to see them having a very important role as context builders, platform facilitators and interaction fuellers. It’s called open government.

Same for nonprofits of all purposes. Rather than solving problems, I totally see them as empowering people and helping them to go beyond empowerment and achieve total governance of their persons and institutions, through socioeconomic development and objective choice, value change and emancipative values, and democratization and freedom rights.

This is, actually, the turn that I would be expecting in the following years in most public and not-for-profit institutions. They will probably become mostly useless with their current organizational design, but they can definitely play a major role in society if they shift towards open social innovation.


Social Innovation (IV). Susanne Stormer: Changing future Health

Notes from the VI Annual Conference of the Institute for Social Innovation, held at ESADE’s Institute for Social Innovation, Barcelona, Spain, in February 20, 2013. More notes on this event: #6ac.

Keynote: Susanne Stormer, Vice President of the Global Triple Bottom Line Management, NovoNordisk
Changing future Health.

Research tell us that people that lived during the Dutch Famine (1943-1944), their bodies “memorize” the state of hunger even if, 50 after, famine is over. Then, the maladjustment between reality (there is abundance of food) and body memory, creates diabetes. And, indeed, ther is n intergenerational transfer of risk of having such health diseases. And what happens during pregnancy is utterly important when it comes to transmission of e.g. diabetes.

Changing Diabetes is a project to prevent diabetes by acting on “vicious” life cycles that increase the risk of diabetes through unhealthy lifestyles. A social innovation approach was chosen when it came to designing and put into practice.

Public-private partnerships were established in Malaysia, the place where to run a pilot project to raise awareness on the risks of diabetes and unhealthy lifestyles. The programme was embedded in the national health system not to disrupt it.


Carmen Netzel: what was the rationale for choosing Malaysia? Stormer: we saw that there was a huge need in the country. The government was ready and keen to have a programme to address the issue. And there already was research thoroughly depicting the state of the question.

Q: what were the difficulties in collaborating with partners from other sectors (e.g. nonporfits)? Do not individuals feel they had their lives invaded? Stormer: on the contrary, people are eager to listen for good advice and guidance if it is good for their health. Related to collaboration, it is true that working with partners from the third sector, it is very important to take your time to build strong and long-term relationships so that the different tempos and sensibilities are in line.

Q: how do you engage with people in telling them that their lifestyles are “not convenient”? Stormer: we call it “food literacy” and the idea is showing people, with real evidence, that there is food that is more convenient than other. And, indeed, people already do know that, so it is about creating an environment that values a change of lifestyle.

Q: how is social innovation and private-public partnerships changing your business model? Stormer: it will not. This initiative is another way of approaching the same mission, which is health, though the core business is about providing medicines (while Changing Diabetes is about prevention).

Jem Bendell: can’t see Changing Diabetes as social innovation, but as corporate philanthropy, as there is no creation of entrepreneurship or social tissue. Stormer: it is right that there is a lack of incentives to challenge and change reality. But the project settles a new landscape over which others can build up things.

Ismael Peña-López: the previous speakers stressed the importance of sharing the process in social innovation. But, shockingly enough, the project “Changing Diabetes” is a registered brand. Can “social innovation” be copyrighted? Are there plans to open up the project and share the procedures and materials so that the initiative can be replicated elsewhere? Stormer: it’s just the name that is registered. Some materials have been shared in the past among partners [personal note: can’t find any materials (of any kind) on Changing Diabetes website, not to speak about any CC-licensed content. Just the ever present ®].


VI Annual Conference Institute for Social Innovation (2013)

Social Innovation (III). Presentation of the study: “Co-innovation: keys to learn how to innovate from the alliances”

Notes from the VI Annual Conference of the Institute for Social Innovation, held at ESADE’s Institute for Social Innovation, Barcelona, Spain, in February 20, 2013. More notes on this event: #6ac.

Maria Prandi, Researcher, Institute for Social Innovation, ESADE
Juan Cano, Entrepreneur and consultant, Semilla Consultores Ltda, Bogotá, Colombia

Co-innovation: innovation through collaboration.

Matrix of innovation based on two axis: technology, and business model. When both have radical advances, we find radical innovation. When both make slight advances, we got incremental innovation. When one factor advances radically and the other just slightly, the outcome is semiradical innovation. Radical innovation is found in mobile phones, where both technology and business models advanced radically. Semi-radical innovation is found in GPSs or digital photography, where only one factor (business model in the former, technology in the later) advances radically and the other one slightly.

Social innovation chooses the most effective among the existing solutions and increases the capacity to innovate socially, because it addresses real needs and/or people’s demands.

In the third sector, social innovation produces new services and outputs along with new sources of income. In the public sector, social innovation is again new public services, along with new policies. The informal sector (non-institutional or non-organized citizens) can provide, with social innovation, new ways of collaboration, along with new ways to adapt to difficulties. In the academic sector, the two axes of radical innovation are connecting science and technology and the ways to train in competences.

Benefits of social innovation:

  • More opportunities for generating ideas.
  • Broader answers to social needs.
  • More efficient, quick, real, agile solutions.
  • Coordinated increase of the society’s capacity to act.

Some conclusions on social innovation:

  • In social innovation the creative process is as important as the interaction with other actors.
  • Social innovation takes place when different sectors overlap.
  • Social innovation can be learnt and, over all, can be shared.


VI Annual Conference Institute for Social Innovation (2013)

Social Innovation (II). The technology sector as a driver for social innovation

Notes from the VI Annual Conference of the Institute for Social Innovation, held at ESADE’s Institute for Social Innovation, Barcelona, Spain, in February 20, 2013. More notes on this event: #6ac.

Round table on technology enterprises as a driver for social innovation.

Ismael Peña, Professor of Law and Political Science of Open University
Network society and social innovation

Sofía Fernández, Director of Social Responsibility and Innovation in Telefónica and Project Manager of M-Inclusion

Mobile broadband and massive adoption of the mobile Internet have disclosed huge opportunities to act and work without any barriers of space. So, what are the incentives that should be put into work so that there were more mobile applications for development and e-inclusion.

We are already finding many examples in apps addressed at solving issues related with health, gender, governance, rural development… and the interesting thing is that there is a market for that, meaning: it is no more about giving money away, but about investment. There can or cannot be profit, but at least economic sustainability can be reconsidered under a very new light.

M-Inclusion is a cooperative framework to encourage the use of innovative, user-oriented, and affordable mobile solutions supporting social integration in Europe and Latin America.

The “divides” are not separate rooms of poverty, but overlap systematically.

It is important to see what are the challenges not only from the technological point of view, but also from the users’ point of view (e.g. accessibility).

We are trying that applications that usually can only run on smartphones can be run on cheaper/simpler terminals.

Patricia Pólvora, Ericsson Response Communications Officer
Ericsson Response

Ericsson Response is a corporate volunteering programme to help humanitarian organizations to communicate, usually in natural disaster situations: what is the necessity, what should we focus at, what are our best partners, what are our values, what are our goals, what is the vision of the whole project. The idea behind Ericsson Response is providing what Ericsson is best at — and/or better than anyone else — and let everyone do what they do best: no overlapping, no competition. Just see where value can be added.

Social innovation is about solving needs, and solving needs is about solving specific needs. And we have to find the best partners so that the addition can create synergies: 1+1 cannot be 2, but 1+1 has to be 3. Nonprofits should learn the language of businesses and of “for-profits”.

After food and water, communication is among the most important needs.


Pere Losantos: how is knowledge generated in e-inclusion projects reverting in the core business of the firm? Sofía Fernández: it is the job of the non-profit wing of the company to engage the for-profit wing, raising awareness on the benefits of cooperating in finding new markets, new ideas, new partners.

Carmen Netzel: does Ericsson Response act only in emergencies, or also in situations of “structural poverty”? Patricia Pólvora: only in emergencies. Which means that Ericsson Response works non-profit with NGOs in humanitarian relief, but Ericsson works for-profit with governments and telcos to develop country-wide and stable infrastructures.


VI Annual Conference Institute for Social Innovation (2013)