Earlier this month, researchers from across Europe and as far afield as Australia, China, and the U.S. met at the University of Oxford to debate and discuss developments in the field of social innovation.
Despite being a third of the size of the previous year, the fifth International Social Innovation Research Conference (ISIRC) still pulled together almost 50 papers, all offering international perspectives on topics such as social investment, social impact measurement, and organisational hybridity.
Held within the Said Business School, this year’s conference was open to the same criticisms the Skoll World Forum faces, in the respect that it discusses real world problems such as poverty in the contradictory setting of a glamorous and historical university. But despite sharing the same location, the conference carried nowhere near the same price tag, enabling researchers from academia, policy, and practice to attend and present their latest work. All set out to provide an overview of social innovation in their respective countries, based upon empirical evidence rather than political rhetoric.
The conference started with a paper looking at the barriers to, and potential of, impact investing in Germany. Based upon a literature review and their own empirical research, Gunnar Glanzel and Thomas Scheuerle of the University of Heidelberg highlighted how impact investing remains an emerging and under-resourced area in Europe’s largest economy. Yet, as it continues to develop, there are increasing tensions between the language, culture, and personality traits of investors and investees, which are jeopardising the likelihood of social innovators accessing the finance they require.
Their analysis also suggests that the increased emphasis being placed upon impact measurement in Germany and elsewhere could actually undermine impact investment opportunities in the long-term, as it takes away the scarce resources social innovators have for creating social impact in the short-term.
This paper, and many others that followed, served to challenge the political rhetoric coming out of many countries with regards to how social innovation should be supported and financed. In particular, several tenets of neoliberalism came under attack throughout the conference with regards to their role in social innovation – such as the role of competition, deregulation, and the role of the individual.
For instance, a team of Finnish researchers from Lappeenranta University of Technology examined Global Entrepreneurship Monitor data from across the world to show that the more egalitarian a country is, the greater levels it has of entrepreneurship. Greater individualism was more likely to produce negative effects.
With cuts to public spending feted as an opportunity for social innovators across Western economies, research from the University of Northampton challenged the reality of public service spin-outs in the UK, and in particular the rationale that spin-outs lead to public services more responsive to their user’s needs.
The research found the reason most services spun-out was because existing staff wanted to retain control of their service, and that private sector consultancies were heavily involved in shaping what these services looked like after they had been spun-out. When looking at the main sources of income for these spin-outs, for most, the majority of their income is made from the public agency they span out from.
The growing interest amongst policymakers and financiers in innovative solutions to social problems continues to be welcomed across the world, though the general consensus at ISIRC is that research can hold such power to account, ensuring the developing policy framework in this area reflects the reality experienced and lived by practitioners worldwide.
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