What is citizen engagement in social innovation?

What is citizen engagement in social innovation?

06.06.2013 Blog

Later this summer as part of the TEPSIE project, we’ll be publishing a set of reports on citizen engagement and social innovation. In this post we give a snapshot of some of our thinking on this topic. 

What is engagement?

Citizen engagement and public participation are two terms which are often used interchangeably. They refer to a broad range of activities which involve people in the structures and institutions of democracy or in activities which are related to civil society – such as community groups, non-profits and informal associations. 

We can identify three defining features of engagement or participation:

  • People take part in engagement activities voluntarily – participation can be incentivised, but it cannot be coerced.
  • Engagement requires some form of action on the part of citizens – participants are not simply passive recipients.
  • Participation and engagement activities are usually directed towards a common purpose or goal. This means that they are often strongly connected to a social mission.

Citizen engagement in social innovation refers to the many ways in which more diverse actors can be brought into the process of developing and then sustaining new solutions to social challenges – essentially how citizens can be involved in developing social innovations and in social projects which are innovative.

Of course this understanding of ‘engagement’ only makes sense where we are engaging people in something. The concept is therefore most applicable for social innovations where there is a clear driver of the process, such as a public sector body, social enterprise or development agency that is driving the innovation activity and needs to incorporate more views, ideas and resources. To this extent it is distinct from the broader concept of citizen action – much of which is highly relevant to social innovation. Indeed, some of the most radical activity within social innovation happens outside of an institutional context. When people collaborate to share resources or information via online networks, or take part in new models of support and care, or set up informal community groups, it makes little sense to think of them as being ‘engaged’ or drawn into an engagement process. Rather, their action itself constitutes the social innovation. (And it is this form of citizen action that our colleagues in the TEPSIE project have looked at in their recent paper looking at informal networks of social action in response to financial crisis Greece).

It is clear that citizen led and collective social action is critical to the generation and production of social innovations. However, it is also true that institutions play a vital role in driving social innovation. These organisations need to understand how they can effectively engage people in the production, implementation and evaluation of social innovation projects. In our papers to be published shortly, we take this organisational perspective.

Why is citizen engagement important for social innovation?

Engaging people will always be a necessary feature of the development and implementation of innovation that genuinely meets social needs. There are a number of key reasons why this is the case.

  • Engagement is often necessary to better understand social needs.To develop solutions it is first important to identify the challenges and problems that need addressing. In some cases, where it is citizens themselves who develop an innovation, needs and challenges will already be well understood. But often those driving an innovation process are civil servants, public policy makers and non-profit leaders who do not experience these problems and challenges first hand. Citizens themselves are best placed to articulate these challenges. Citizens are experts of their own lives: they have information about themselves that no centralised bureaucracy can ever have, namely, knowledge of their own needs, desires and experiences. The tacit knowledge that citizens hold is therefore critical to the innovation process.
  • Citizens can be the source of innovative ideas. In many cases, citizens themselves hold the relevant knowledge and skills to develop effective innovations. Engagement processes, such as citizen competitions and co-design processes, can help to uncover these ideas.
  • Engaging citizens introduces divergent thinking which helps to find novel solutions to complex problems. Diverse perspectives add particular value when we are trying to solve tough problems. This is because people with different perspectives have different ‘heuristics’ or methods and tools for finding solutions. Diversity is especially important where the problem at hand is complex: if we only look to experts with similar perspectives and heuristics, then they are likely to ‘get stuck in the same places’. A diverse group of solvers will not. Research also suggests problem solvers who are ‘marginal’ in some sense  – e.g. they have expertise in a very different field of study, or are in some sense distant from the ‘establishment’ in their own professional community – aren’t bound by conventional thinking which means that they are often able to approach a problem with novel insights.
  • Citizen engagement can increase the legitimacy of projects and decisions. Where citizens have been involved in the design, development and implementation of a social innovation or in a decision making process relating to that innovation, the innovation is more likely to be seen as legitimate than if it had been developed without such a process. 
  • Citizen engagement is necessary because of the nature of the social challenges we face. Many of these social challenges are ‘wicked’ or complex problems that defy linear, top-down policy responses. This is because complex problems, by definition, do not have a single ‘end’ or a ‘solution’. Consequently, there is greater importance attached to the process of managing complex problems than trying to resolve them per se.  Addressing many of these complex challenges requires behaviour change. For example, in order to mitigate the effects of climate change, we will need to cut our energy use and conserve what is used through recycling and re-use. Solutions to wicked problems therefore cannot be delivered in the way that commercial products are delivered – they require the participation, co-operation and ‘buy in’ of users.

Activities we identify as engagement or participation in social innovation differ considerably in their character: some are individual (e.g. making a donation); some are collective (e.g. taking part in a demonstration); some involve a long term or formal commitment (such as being a school governor) while others might only be done once or twice, or on an informal basis (such as signing a petition or some forms of volunteering).  These activities are all forms of engagement that relate to social innovation, but their connection to specific innovations will vary. For example, some types of activity are closely related to the initial development of a social innovation, such as taking part in a co-design process. Others will be more about sustaining or delivering that innovation, such as being part of a time bank or being on the board of a social enterprise. There are also a host of activities that might not be connected to particular innovation projects but play a vital role in raising awareness of a social need and driving calls for innovation (for example, taking part in a campaign, signing a petition or joining a protest).

We suggest it is important to break down the rather unwieldy concept of citizen engagement to think instead about different functions it can play in social innovation. In developing a framework for a set of case studies to look at specific engagement activities we have suggested three functions of engagement in social innovation:

  1. Providing information and resources: One of the functions of citizen engagement is for citizens to provide information about their needs, preferences, ideas and opinions. This information is critical at every stage of the innovation process – from the earliest stages of identifying needs and potential solutions to the later stages of evaluation. At every stage, feedback loops are essential in refining and improving the solutions being developed.  Information can be gathered using traditional forms of qualitative and quantitative research but there is now a multitude of platforms which enable people to provide information directly about their own needs, preferences, locations, experiences and so on.  This category also includes the provision of resources such as time and money and therefore also includes participation in the form of volunteering and donations. These activities are often essential in sustaining social innovation projects.

  2. Problem solving: Other activities bring people together in order to solve collective problems. Engaging citizens can introduce divergent thinking which is often crucial to problem solving. Also, there are some challenges which cannot be solved without the co-operation, involvement and support of those involved. This is the case, for example, where solutions to particular challenges involve citizens’ own activities and behaviours (for example, self management of chronic disease, lifestyle choices around diet and exercise or new models of care). These are situations where things cannot be done for or to people but need to be done with and by them.  Activities which fall under this category, for example, include competitions, co-design workshops, social innovation camps, hackathons and certain kinds of deliberative processes.

  3. Taking and influencing decisions: A third function of citizen engagement in social innovation concerns decision making. This kind of activity goes beyond deliberation by giving citizens significant influence or power over decision making processes; it refers to activities where people have direct involvement in, control or influence over decision making processes and/or the implementation of those decisions. These are often on-going forms of interaction rather than one off events. Activities include formal governance roles, for example within a co-operative or a social enterprise, participatory budgeting or participatory planning.

Our case studies use this typology to explore different instances of citizen engagement and to illustrate in more detail both the potential value and risks associated with these different types of activity. It is through a better understanding of specific varieties of engagement that we will gain an understanding of how they can best be used in the development and implementation of much needed social innovation.

Photo credit: James Cridland on Flickr