Challenging the cultural values embedded in technologies: an opportunity for social innovation?
The nexus where social innovation and culture interact is a massively complex, inherently political and relatively uncharted research space. Thus, it comes as no surprise that challenging questions around the interrelationships between social innovation and culture remain to be addressed.
Some of the questions that have preoccupied me of late include: how does culture constrain, mediate and enable the processes of social innovation? How do actors immersed in different cultures relate to the concept of social innovation? How do contrasting cultures across the public and private sector and civil society influence the nature of social innovations?
In this blog I’m going to further complicate matters, by bringing technology into the discussion and posing a further question. How do the cultural values embedded within technologies shape the opportunities for social innovation? Let’s use the example of the smart energy meter to unpack this question a little.
In the UK, £10.9 billion is being invested in the roll out of smart energy meters to every home by 2020, in a top-down technologically driven initiative which the government hopes will enable citizens to “better manage...energy use, save money and reduce emissions”. A cursory examination of government policy reveals some of the cultural values embedded within smart meter technology.
First, rational decision-making is wrongly taken as a given. Once presented with information about their energy use (via a smart meter) people are expected to just change their energy consumption behaviour accordingly. Secondly, the smart meter is one more closed box of consumer electronics in the home. Policy-makers do not anticipated that people will want to customise or develop their smart meters.
So the question arises, can the smart meter be more than a technology, can it be part of a social innovation that reduces energy demand? Personally I’m not sure if this question can be answered yet. Rather I believe that we must await evidence of the subtle balance of positive and negative impacts made by the large scale rollout of such smart meters. Although the participative and empowering features that we would expect to see in a social innovation are far from prominent in current policy.
In the meantime, pending such evidence, it is interesting to explore alternative interpretations of the smart energy meter, which may sit more comfortably with our concept of social innovation. Here we can turn to the open source movement, and the grassroots community of 3000 technologists and environmental activists who are developing and using an Open Energy Monitor (OEM). A distinct set of cultural values, shaped by an open source philosophy, are embedded within an OEM.
First, the development of technologies is a collaborative enterprise, so anyone with the inclination and appropriate skills can contribute to the design and development of the monitor’s software and hardware. Secondly, technologies are designed to be customised, for example the owner of an OEM can determine if the energy consumption data they collect is shared. So is the OEM a social innovation?
Again I am unsure, but in this case I tend towards a yes, as the participative and empowering features that we would expect to see in a social innovation are prominent. Members of the community form new social relationships, they share expertise to address shared challenges, and they learn about the technology that mediates their daily lives.
So where does this brief discussion of social innovation, technology and culture leave us? I believe that it highlights the need for the emerging research agenda around culture and social innovation to embrace a technological dimension. Such an agenda might highlight the opportunities to conduct detailed empirical investigations, exploring how emerging social innovations challenge the cultural values embedded in prevailing technological paradigms.
More generally, we should further examine the intersection of social and technological forms of innovation, and seek to uncover problematic assumptions that technologies are mere instruments of social innovation.
This blog is part of a series of reflections on the issues raised at this year's Social Frontiers conference in Vancouver. To explore the blogs, or find out more information about the conference, visit the event page.