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Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

Measuring and mapping social innovation

Last week I was in Krakow in Poland chairing the plenaries at the European intersectoral summet on research and innovation.

The event was organised by Atomium, an organisation I've been involved in setting up, which brings together 25 of the top universities across Europe and 25 top media organisations.

The aim is to provide an outlet for the best young researchers to explain their work and collaborate on big challenges such as ageing or climate change.

Some big hitters are behind it and the programme included Angela Merkel, Giscard D'Estaing and Felipe Gonzalez as well as scientists like Tim Berners Lee, until the Euro crisis took its toll.


A highlight was the unveiling of REIsearch, a new platform developed by Atomium's Chief Technology Officer Massimo Marchiori. 

Massimo invented Hypersearch, the underlying technology behind Google and P3P, the internet's main privacy protocol. 

REISearch will provide a platform for researchers to work together, carefully combining some of the best elements of social networks with very smart search tools that will help people keep in touch with the latest thinking in their areas of interest.

A Galaxy of Intellects

Poland was probably the right place to be in a week when the Euro looked as troubled as ever. 

It's now the most optimistic country in the Western world, in its third decade of freedom, with a strong economy that's blithely ignored the crisis and stable politics. This is one of the places where the people really have never had it so good.

The event was held in the Jagiellonian University, home to a galaxy of intellects from Copernicus and John Paul II to Andrej Wajda, a stunningly beautiful reminder of Europe's scholarly past.

It's also a reminder of what can go wrong:  Krakow is only a few miles from Auschwitz and there's barbed wire over one of the university's doors to commemorate the day in 1939 when the Nazis closed it down (a scene captured in Wajda's brilliant recent film Katyn).

Theories of social innovation

The physicist Wolfgang Pauli once complained of a theory that it was so poor it wasn't even wrong. I used his example to kick off a talk to a gathering of the global academic community involved in social innovation.

Social innovation is beginning to come of age as a field, but the academic work is still a long way short of Pauli's exacting standards. There are very few theories or hypotheses that are sharply enough defined to be tested, and proven right or wrong.

One reason is that practice has run well ahead of the theory. That was why a lot of the recent work on social innovation has concentrated on mapping and analysing what's happening in practice as the best route to understanding the field. 

It's led to a set of ever simpler definitions (the favoured one now is 'innovations that are social in both their means and their ends'); a shared picture of hundreds of methods in use around the world and some of the common patterns, for example around scaling or intermediaries; and a growing body of knowledge about policy[1].  

The paper I've just written went back a step to the theoretical traditions that can help the field to become more rigorous. 

It looks at everything from Darwinism and complexity theory, Schumpeter to innovation studies, Hegel to the pragmatists. Its ultimate aim is to encourage others to answer Pauli's challenge and develop theories that can be tested against the evidence.

Any comments and criticisms would be most welcome.

Measuring social impact

It's sometimes said that you can't manage what you don't measure, though I fear for the sanity of anyone who actually believes this and hope that they don't apply it in their own lives.

But there clearly is a virtue in measuring what organisations do and developing more systematic tools to compare the effectiveness of different approaches, especially for things like public health, job creation or drug treatment. 

At a rough count there are at least 1000 methods for measuring social impact in use around the world.

The problem is that most are used more for public relations than to guide decisions and they usually rest on quite flimsy intellectual foundations, an issue I explored in more detail in a recent article for SSRI.

A session at NESTA brought together many of the organisations working in the field including the ESRC, NCVO, NPC and Views.

There was general agreement that we shouldn't try to create a single measure.

Nor should we encourage measurement for its own sake - some quite small organisations have done wildly disproportionate audits and SROI analyses. 

But with the advent of new funding flows like Big Society Capital, and new social investment funds coming from the European Commission, we do now need some shared architectures for understanding value.



[1] Open Book of Social Innovation


Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Chief Executive Officer

Geoff Mulgan was Chief Executive of Nesta from 2011-2019.

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