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Social innovation: surveying the world

The Economist Intelligence Unit recently undertook an interesting project to create a global index on social innovation, funded by the Nippon Foundation. It aims to show the relative position of many countries on conditions for social innovation, policies and finance.

The US comes first overall; the UK comes first for policy; and Canada comes first for finance. Detailed rankings are offered, and comments are made about relatively strong performers (like South Korea) and surprisingly weak ones (like Spain or Japan).

It’s to be welcomed that the EIU has shown an interest and I hope this is the first of many. Other indices of innovation like the annual INSEAD rankings of overall innovation systems have helped to focus countries’ attention on their relative weaknesses.

But there’s plenty wrong with it, which would need to be fixed in a new version.  The study suffers from the many confusions which I thought had been sorted years ago, eg on the differences between social entrepreneurship and innovation, and between social innovation and social investment, and the index doesn’t get its definitions quite right (I still favour the simple one – innovations that are social both in their means and their ends).  

It’s a fairly US-centric, and Anglophone, worldview (which is perhaps why the US comes out top and the UK second). It’s drawn on the views of people rather detached from the practice, mainly in consultancies and universities – quite a problem in a field where practice has been well ahead of theory.  And technically it’s a lot less sophisticated than the best modern indexes – like Nesta’s European Digital City Index which draws on the OECD guideline – using a rather random array of indicators, from the very broad (government social spending and press freedom) to the quite narrow (laws for social enterprise or social innovation research). It doesn’t use evidence-based weightings of different factors, and doesn’t use any of the new digital tools that can be used for mapping sectors (see for example the methodology section of TechNation).

Most of its value lies in the discussion – the prose assessment of what’s happening around the world – rather than the index. Much of this is useful. But here too there are obvious weaknesses – for example, missing the important policy moves being made in countries like Malaysia, or missing the radical, and deep-rooted social innovation underway in Spain (that’s marked down because these aren’t led from Madrid).

But as a first cut it’s undoubtedly useful, and hopefully can be improved in a next version.


Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Chief Executive Officer

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

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