Hey my friends, it is Christmas time, here is one thing I have been thinking about a lot recently as I am about to return to Berlin. Why is the world so shit and what can we do about it? The more I looked around, the more I saw friends and others point toward something that infuriated me: ‘Social innovation’.
So what follows is just a little bit of non-academic ranting on precisely this topic. I am sure smarter people than me have written and thought about this. If you know good reading on this topic, please be in touch, tell me what I get wrong, what I oversimplify. Okay, let’s do this.
(Hint: Social innovation, not a fan…)
Have you ever thought about why businesses use the language of doing good? Why the latest start-up presents itself as an altruistic alternative to old corporate capitalism but at its core is virtually the same thing? Have you ever wondered why most people who talk about disrupting the system are very white and very privileged? And their organisations often reflect that: already privileged people in positions of power, unpaid interns, bosses working against unionisation. Rule of thumb: If you don’t know what your colleagues earn, and collective bargaining is nonexistent, chances are it is the same old bullshit just with with nice packaging. Your bosses don’t order late night pizza because they like you, but because they like you working late.
Still, this is a great pitch. It is nice to read about value driven capitalism, of impact investing and of the tide of wealth that lifts everyone. It is so comforting. We are children of capitalism and from an early age we have been taught that capitalism, freedom and democracy form the holy trinity of human progress. So a part of us wants to believe we can make the world a better place from within the logic of free-market capitalism. Because we cannot imagine a world outside of it.
This idea of benevolent capitalism dovetails perfectly into the notion of social innovation. Over the past years, I have observed something curious. A lot of my friends and people I’ve met at various do-good events, at co-working spaces and meet-ups, all end up speaking the same language when they talk about their non-profit endeavours. The language of innovation, of iteration, design sprints, of products and of costumers. The latest pictures of social innovations flood my social media feeds with pictures of whiteboards and post-it notes. And they all say, more or less, the same thing: Only through social innovation can we make the world a better place. We need visionaries who find new solutions that fit our modern lives and the transformative processes brought about by technological change. To find these solutions we need design thinking.
We tend to think about the world as being shaped by great individuals and the movements they lead. And we imagine ourselves being these people which makes us fallible to the hubris imagining ourselves as innovators, as THE one person to finally figure shit out. And the whole ideology is designed to convince you of this, the spaces in which you meet are called ‘social innovation labs’; as if social problems are scientific issues that can be fixed. Find the formula, get the input right, control the variables and you will have the desired outcome.
And that is ultimately my beef with people who think the solution to our earthly problems lies in social innovation. You cannot ignore the past for a fresh start on an empty whiteboard. But the idea of social innovation needs to ignore the past. It depoliticises any problem by removing its actual cause from the equation and pretends that innovation will be the solution regardless. It focuses on the micro, and ignores systems of oppression, of internalised behaviour that enables inequalities throughout societies. Within the delusional logic of social innovation it is possible to feel like you are making the world a better place, while you actually help to maintain and profit from the status quo.
Embracing the notion of social innovation provides multinational corporations and foundations funded by the super rich (the enablers of our economic, social and ecological decline), with a way to polish their image and to deflect legitimate critique. But you cannot have it both ways. Even if Deutsche Bank now says they do some ‘impact investment’ as a side hustle, they are still really busy laundering dirty Russian money. And if you make that choice to work for them because you like nice things and money, that’s your choice and you can make that choice. But then don’t fashion yourself as a person who makes the world a better place. Just because you are working for the ‘social accelerator’ or the ‘impact hub’ or the ‘social innovation lab’ that is funded by these companies.
Look, I am a white privileged dude. During the height of the so called ‘migration crisis’ in 2016/2017, I kind of convinced myself that we who rescued people in the Mediterranean, were the vanguard of activism. We even got a price for being young innovators from a respected newspapers. I got to stand on stages and tell a bunch of my peers about our work. This shit felt great. It took me some time (and a concerted effort of European governments to stop our work and criminalise the rescue of displaced populations) to get off my high horse and accept the much simpler, harsher reality.
As emphatically as we were celebrated in the beginning by the (political, editorial, economical) establishment, as quickly we were dropped because it became clear that our activism was actually challenging the status quo. Now my colleagues, my friends are the target of the Italian judiciary and they face serious jail time. We have rescued more than 14.000 people from dying at sea, we have influenced the public debate, yet we have barely made a dent. Nothing in our experience is unique. Nothing we did was innovative. The fact of the matter is that there have been many people before us who and there will be many people after us. We can only hope to carry the baton as far as we can and hope someone else picks it up.
The world is difficult and life is hard, so don’t make things harder than they need to be. The single mother who gets squeezed ever more does not need social innovation, she needs money in her pockets. If we have rising levels of homelessness we don’t need to invent fancy new low-cost shelters but look at Finland and try to do the same. Migrants are dying at Europes’ borders every day, there is no technocratic solution for this horror. ‘We’ are not meeting our climate targets, not because ‘we’ are simply falling prey to humanity’s flaws but because the German coal industry (and others) are systematically killing the political process towards this aim. No amount of innovation will get us out of this possibly world-ending political shit-show. There are no simple solutions to dealing with this. There are no shortcuts. What we need is determination and the ability to muster political will to challenge existing power structures.
You don’t need innovation to do that, you need a fucking backbone.
Additional reading and listening