Sociologists beware

When you enter the labour market social innovation might be waiting for you around the corner!

Innovation, a term that I have encountered countless times before, and most often associated with creativity, initiative, progress and something new, was definitely not what I expected to encounter as I was entering the labour market as a newly graduated sociologist and anthropologist. Innovation and creativity are words that come at us from everywhere, but what do these terms really represent and how was I to deal with them at my new job?

Danijela enters the labour market.

It all started with a small email in my inbox – notifying me that I was recommended by one of my professors to a company looking for the best young social scientist Croatia has to offer. (take note – hard work and good grades do pay off!) The company (Impact House) specialises in social innovation and impact. Lovely. No idea what that entails. Luckily, during the first few weeks, my work included conversations with senior staff as well as a library of reading and I was about to dive into the theory and practice of social innovation – an innovation that responds to needs and changes the world around us.

Danijela uses her analytical skills and impact motivation to tackle working with social innovation.

Since the beginning of my studies, I have been guided by my own, let’s call it, vision and desire to combat inequality in one way or another, to respond to the needs of individuals, to research and evaluate, and then provide solutions to some burning social problems which catch up with us on daily bases – to summarise to have an impact! Luckily as a young woman starting out professionally I could rely on my skills, and acquire work-related knowledge as I began to explore and support innovation and impact projects at work. Completed study of sociology and anthropology, allowed me to look at society through an anthropological and sociological lens – people’s lived experiences, perspectives and relationships – to explore and learn social needs, forms of interpersonal relationships – and contextualizing them within broader historical, cultural and political-economic structures and processes. A wide range of theoretical knowledge has enabled me to recognize capillary social inequality in the ordinary daily life of an individual as well as at the macrostructural level. Impressive, no? But, be aware, dear reader, that social innovation and impact is not all (social) glamour. It will take a spoonful of the organisation, a bucket full of emailing and a lot of Zooms. But, when all of that is in service of supporting women in Tanzania to come up with coconut briquettes for cooking, I’m in.

Danijela faces social innovation head-on and comes out a winner.

Here is where I wanted to share with you interesting things I have found out about social innovation.

Social innovation as a phenomenon has always been present in human history as an expression of human resourcefulness to respond to needs and increase the quality of life.

However, social innovation as a field of study is relatively recent. Innovation has spiked since the mid-2000s, mostly in the Anglo-Saxon (Western) context. There is a wider range of definitions of social innovation concept, but all these definitions refer to the interpretation of innovation as changes, new ideas, products, services that are motivated by the goal of meeting a social need. These definitions demonstrate that the concept of social innovation can be approached in a variety of ways.

What is crucial for your idea to be innovative, is to be new in the context where they appear and to respond to a particular social problem/community need. To come up with a new idea – innovation – it is important to determine the problem you want to solve, what kind of utopia you would like to achieve with this innovation, and to identify clear assumptions and obstacles to this goal, where is the inevitable component of a high degree of risk. Social innovation in this sense is seen as disruption – disruptive towards the routines and structures prevailing in a given system or local community. The disruption that will result in an impact.

Although not every innovation may have an exclusively positive social impact, it is still based on the lived experience of individuals and seeks to respond to their needs. Given the diversity of contexts, social and cultural pathways of different individuals, communities, responding to one need, may negatively affect someone else’s. The impact doesn’t necessarily include a macro or structural level, which is extremely difficult to achieve, but it is enough to restructure relations between a group of people, in a smaller community…such as impact in the neighbourhood, at school, in a group of peers, in a nursing home, in a factory, impact of inclusion… for a very small disruption and adjustment can lead to large and significant impact!

This is why we should talk about social impact hacking.

I learned just that at Impact House Consulting on their example of one great inclusive innovation – the ROUM project – as the first Roma rescue center for abandoned objects in the world. It’s about space where Roma artists, craftsmen and women and non-Roma artists, together, use waste in order to produce bespoke, high-end pieces of art for interior design. Since the Roma, as an ethnic minority in the Republic of Croatia, are marginalized and discriminated against, this innovation brings discarded people and objects from the margins to the very center of society. It’s all about social responsibility!

Danijela goes from the study of sociology to engaged sociology and decides there is a bright future not just for her but for the “social” in “social innovation”.

It was in social innovation as such, that I recognized the vision of sociology and anthropology, a vision conveyed to me by anthropologist Tim Ingold (2018).

The contribution of sociology and anthropology lies in the ability to transform lives. Human life is social: a constant and collective process of figuring out how to live. „Every way of life, then, represents a communal experiment in living“ (Ingold, 2018: 20) and innovations contribute to that experiment and represents a planned intervention in the social construction of reality with a goal of changing it for better, often for those who need that change the most. It is here that the importance of anthropology and sociology is emphasized, which will give us an answer to the question of how to make life sustainable with less inequality. Here I see the possibility of cooperation/unification of social sciences and social innovation, cooperation that would educate and transform our living world!

Sociological perspectives in the field of social innovation contribute benefit with their ability to identify generative social dynamics, practical, material and ideological contexts, implications and difficulties encountered by people as they seek to „innovate“. Engaged sociology is defined as using sociology as a tool for improving society and, luckily, that is exactly what my new job is. With a lot of emailing, zooming and Excel sheets, of course.

This blog was written by Danijela Paska following her early experiences working at Impact House and with a bit of help and advice from her mentor, the Impact House founder, Tamara Puhovski. Following her early experiences of not meddling too much with her mentees work.