Social Capital and Innovation



I like this diagram – I like diagrams generally when they tell a story, I like the collaborative generation of diagrams as a means of coming to a shared understanding of something complex. This particular diagram appeared in a Communities and Local Government piece on Sub-National Review; something that won’t interest a lot of people but the fall out of which will, in the end, affect us all – but “hey ho” to that, back to the diagram.
The reason I like it is not that it particularly describes my beliefs or thoughts or my approaches. It’s because it describes an approach which was meant to bring together approaches to economic development by recognising the contribution of everybody from the Regional Development Agency to the Third Sector and the Communities that they serve. Instead it had the unintentional side effect of creating an apartheid approach which marginalised community based approaches and social outcomes because it was seen as a twin track approach with the economic drivers at the top and the social drivers at the bottom.

I’ve dug this out because of all of the interest in Social Capital and Digital Inclusion recently and a comment I made on David Wilcox’s Blog piece about a NESTA event called Re-boot.

“Reading through blog posts and looking at this proposed event I am conscious that people move easily between social and economic as if they were the same thing. I don’t think that they are. They’re linked and have dependencies but they’re not the same so I can only appeal to people to be clear about what they mean. “

Thinking about this led me to dig out a think piece by John Field who was, at the time (2006), Deputy Principal of the University of Stirling, called “Social Networks, Innovation and Learning: Can Policies for Social Capital Promote both Economic Dynamism and Social Justice?” . I won’t go into the obscure route I came by this or why I read it but it does attempt to look at where innovation arises from social capital which in turn arises from learning communities and how this might be different, or similar, to innovation in a knowledge driven economy. There’s a copy here:  johnfieldfebruary2006 FYI but I’m not recommending it as a good alternative to the TV.


I also revisited Eric Von Hippel’s piece “Democratizing Innovation”. This was written in 2005 but still holds true today. Hippel attempts to look not only at how collaborative approaches lead to better innovation but also how innovation arising from social capital can cross over into the commercial world – a more holistic view of a knowledge society. There is a very good 15 minute video where he goes through this on the NESTA site:

Much of this works well with the things that Clay Shirky and Charles Leadbeater are saying now. The power of collaboration and the role of digital tools in making it faster and easier are making us re-visit the role of social capital building and the benefits to be derived from that. Leadbeater’s Core, Contribute, Connect, Communicate and Collaborate has echoes from Hippel’s Lead Users and Innovative Communities.

So what are the emerging themes? Well it’s very hard to do! Really! The bridging capital as well as the bonding capital that Will Davies refers to in his RSA piece is important. Social Capital has the power to isolate and to reinforce perceptions in a negative way just as easily as it can empower. Early writers on Social Capital saw it as a way of reinforcing social position and maintaining the hierarchy not as a way of engaging and including. It needs an appreciation of and a considered approach to risk, its outcomes are unpredictable, it can promote inequality, it can stifle innovation by re-enforcing expectations and its concepts and language are not well defined, as hopefully, this piece shows. What this means is that approaches by those people who know who they are working with are going to be best. Working with and not to, bottom up, not top down.

For me the big theme is to be holistic. Let’s not fall into the trap, intentionally or otherwise, of separate tracks of development, one for the economy and one for social capital. This is a knowledge society, not just a knowledge economy.


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