Collaborative Social Innovation

Not all forms of collaboration is what we define as collaborative social innovation. Collaboration is a collective term that covers all kinds of collaboration, while collaborative social innovation defines a certain form of collaboration. Kind of the same way as the word fruit is a collective term for all kinds of fruit, while the word apple is reserved to describe only, quite naturally, different kinds of apples.

Collaborative social innovation is a form of collaboration which is characterized by equality between people across different sectors. People who are employed in positions within the public sector collaborate with people in what we refer to as the civil society (see below). These actors within the civil society have their own experiences, or are close to people with experiences concerning needs that are not covered in the welfare society. In an equal collaboration across sectors, these people work together to solve identified challenges. The civil society is a term we use to frame people and organizations which are not public or private (commercial). Within the civil society we find individuals, networks, loosely connected groups and conventional voluntary organizations. 

But then we need to get back to the fruit basket for a moment, because even if apples are a type of fruit, we know there are different types of apples. The same is the case with collaborative social innovation. Even though we now know that it's about equal collaboration across (at least) one sectoral boundary (public sector/civil society), there are several forms of collaborative social innovation within such an image.

Collaborative social innovation can take place along an axis. On the one side it's about collaborative partners getting together in order to understand the problem together - and from that, develop different perspectives regarding how the problem can be solved. On one side of the axis there is therefore a great deal of conversation going on. On that side, it's mostly about understanding it together. How should we really see this problem? Are there other ways of seeing it than the perspective we already have? Have we gotten ourselves stuck in a pre-understanding? Eventually we can move together, towards the middle of the axis. Then the more strategic considerations take over. We then ask ourselves; how can this problem be solved now that we have new ways of understanding it? In other words, we enter the phase of ideas about solutions, and then we move towards the phase of planning; who can do what, when, with what kind of resources and so on? From experience we know this is a time when lots of post-it-notes and flipover boards are being used all around in rooms where there is brainstorming going on. But so far, not much has actually happened. It's when we start moving towards the other side of the axis that what we define as collaborative social innovation actually starts in a practical manner. Then it's all about taking into use measures and solutions which are thought out and planned - a phase containing implementation. Because it is definately possible to produce solutions together, and implementing them, not ending the collaboration after the ideas have been created.

As we can see, the term collaborative social innovation can cover all the parts along the axis, from developing a common understanding, identifying the problem that needs to be solved, strategic planning and ideas for concrete solutions, and all the way over to where solutions are produced, distributed and implemented. From the thought process which could involve a sort of collaborative social innovation (ad hoc) think tank, via the drawing board, to the production hall, so to speak. A collaboration regarding understanding and strategy is what is referred to as co-creation. In our handbook "La oss gjøre det sammen!" (Let's do it together!), we call it - in Norwegian terms - "thin" collaborative social innovation, not because it's less valuable or more vulnerable, but because it's only the beginning of something that can become "thicker". When we move on to a kind of collaboration that deals with implementation and production of services, and it's done through working across sectors, as previously mentioned, it's referred to as co-production. In Norwegian terms, we call it "thick" collaborative social innovation, but it's not "thick" if it only includes the last stages along the axis. This is an important detail, and not just a semantic trifle! It's an important prerequisite in our understanding of collaborative social innovation that actors within the civil society are not invited by actors within the public sector to take part in co-production exclusively, meaning the production and implementing of services. For co-production to happen within the definition of collaborative social innovation, there needs to be an earlier phase which contains a common understanding of the challenge(s) which are to be dealt with. In other words; there is always a phase of "thin" collaborative social innovation before entering the "thick" phase. If not, it's more proper to speak of another form of practical or technical collaboration which is easier to arrange, and maybe more common, but which does not have the same potential when it comes to involving and activating people within the civil society. Actually, if people from the civil society is invited to implement ideas and measures that have been developed by the public sector on its own, there's a risk that the process can take the shape of instrumental free labour, or an unbalanced use of the resources within the civil society as a means to achieve others' (the public sector's) goals. And that is not collaborative social innovation.  

Film explaining collaborative social innovation

The film below ("Petter and Pernille solve a problem", in Norwegian) illustrates in a simple and good way what collaborative social innovation is.


A profile of collaborative social innovation

A profile of collaborative social innovation concerning socially innovative work contributes to develop democratic values across sectors and expertise. It's not until new ideas lead to a sustainable solution to an identified social problem - when the solution is implemented and seems to work - that we have a social innovation. Therefore, an innovation is both new and useful, and thus it is often made use of. It's when an innovation is made use of that we can talk about the entrepreneurial dimention in innovative work. 

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Let's Do it Together!

Read our handbook here.