In Asia and the Pacific, where almost 60 percent of the world’s population is concentrated, economic growth continues to surpass expectations. Even so, approximately 1.7 billion people—out of a regional population of about 4.4 billion and a world population of some 7.4 billion—remain poor when measured against a US$2-a-day benchmark.
What is more, here as elsewhere, human activities are taxing the environment, hastening the depletion of energy and natural resources and fueling climate change. With aging societies, these trends could both erode recent development gains and impair those to come.
In 2011, the Asian Development Bank cautioned in Asia 2050: Realizing the Asian Century that the region’s rise is not preordained. The study pointed out an increasing inequality within countries, which could undermine social cohesion and stability; the risk for some countries of getting caught in the ‘Middle Income Trap’; intense competition for finite natural resources as newly-affluent asians aspire to higher standards of living; rising income disparities across countries; global warming and climate change, which could threaten major urban areas, agricultural production and coastal populations; and poor governance and weak institutional capacity faced by almost all countries.
The study also advised that these difficult issues are not mutually exclusive: they can affect one another to exacerbate existing tensions and conflicts, or even create new pressures that might threaten asia’s growth, stability and security.
Despite the efforts of Asia’s leaders, which require coordinated action at national, regional and global levels, a myriad of challenges clamor for resources and beg for new concepts, paths and approaches. How can a development model that is based essentially on only two actors—the market and the state—deliver more social value?
Social innovation is key
Social innovation, broadly meaning new ideas that effectively meet social needs, can potentially help address the exigent agenda of the 21st century.
There is hope that social innovation can expand the reach of markets, not necessarily replace them, so that more people might reap rewards or at least make a living from applying their entrepreneurial mindsets to complex social problems.
By improving the welfare of individuals and communities, social innovation should find a home in the continuum of human affairs that comprises mainstream business, sociallyresponsible business, inclusive business, voluntary mutual assistance organizations, and kinship and family networks (a list to which many would add religious organizations); else, all will continue to expect that the public purse should fill deficits.
So far, however, the enthusiasm for social innovation has exceeded its effects. There has not been a lack of good ideas, even if little to date compare to the outreach of the Grameen services that Muhammad Yunus introduced in the 1980s.
Political economic analysis, which investigates the interaction of economic and political processes in a society, would make social entrepreneurs appreciate the power and authority of groups—counting the interests they hold and the incentives that drive them—in conducing particular outcomes; the role that formal and informal institutions play in allocating scarce resources; and the influence that values, ideas, ideologies and religion have on shaping human relations and interaction.
The larger snag relates to scale: successful innovations have spread slowly in the face of old ideas, practices and precedents, because to deliver significant change, social entrepreneurs must understand then alter the social systems that engendered the situation in the first place.
Bearing some of these in mind, in 2007, Geoff Mulgan et al. identified entry points for action in the report Social Innovation: What It Is, Why It Matters and How It Can Be Accelerated. Their catalogue of requirements for success featured leadership and structures suited for innovation; finance focused on innovation; policy frameworks that encourage innovation; dedicated social innovation accelerators; national and cross-national innovation pools; and research to enhance learning.
Additional items might have related to education in, say, participatory techniques and specific training; citizen involvement and buy-in; systems of cooperation between business actors, local public entities, civil society and nongovernmental organizations; the recording of good practice from model cases; and new forms of evaluation that give greater attention to social impacts.
To begin with, it would have been a good thing to agree on a common definition of social innovation: a wide variety of activities falls under the label—more democratic, inclusive and less linear ways of doing research, new strategies for class management in schools and new forms of communication in political processes— and contributes to fuzziness. Focusing and narrowing down on underlying variety is imperative if one is to efficiently support related practices and facilitate their measurement.
This, dear nonprofit, civil society, corporate social responsibility, philanthropy and social enterprise friends, gives reason to think harder about the real value of the social innovations we flaunt and how we might make that bigger.
Passages from the Nobel Lecture of 2006 come to mind. while accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, Muhammad Yunus made it clear that: “We get what we want or what we do not refuse. we wanted to go to the moon, so we went there. We achieve what we want to achieve. If we are not achieving something, it is because we have not put our minds to it.”
He went on to add: “We create what we want. What we want and how we get to it depends on our mindsets. It is extremely difficult to change mindsets once they are formed. We create the world in accordance with our mindset. We need to invent ways to change our perspective continually and reconfigure our mindset quickly as new knowledge emerges. We can reconfigure our world if we can reconfigure our mindset.”
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Asian Development Bank or its Board of Governors or the governments they represent.