By Rustam Khan
May 13, 2021

At a time when disasters lurk around the corner for humanity, many have claimed the idea of social innovation as a golden nugget that fuses for-profit ventures with Samaritan intentions. Flagships in technology, finance, and fossil fuel industries have all promised to join society’s struggle against climate change, racism, rising economic inequality, and social disparities.

Although the roots of social innovation (SI) go further back in time, businesses have fairly recently sought to co-opt SI language in their public image. They have done so in different ways, for example by establishing special funds and by actively employing terminology such as “green finance,” “impact investing,” and “sustainability.” Such language indicates the supposed rise of a new awareness about corporate responsibility and the realization that traditional business cannot go on as usual. Ecological, social, and governance (ESG) investing has become a true financial behemoth on its own.

But is social innovation truly a corporate revolution that offers a middle ground between profit-chasing and addressing deep-rooted social and environmental concerns? In Winners Take All, author and former New York Times columnist Anand Giridharadas finds that such do-gooding language should make us wary.

MIT has not remained silent in these trends. Like any other major academic institution around the world, it launched its own “social entrepreneurship” programs, including the 2015 Solve Global Challenges with the support of the Office of the President. A more unknown example is the IDEAS Social Innovation Challenge — launched back in 2000 — that aimed to inspire community-oriented projects among MIT students.

Last September, I joined IDEAS as a Graduate Community Fellow for different reasons, one of them being my curiosity about grappling with theoretical and historical research questions in a practical space. IDEAS was an exercise in collective organization. It entailed outreach, organizing workshops and events, and bringing together and talking to volunteer mentors, reviewers, judges, and speakers from multiple time zones. Given the diverse background of the operations and participants of IDEAS, the definition of “social innovation” was necessarily interpreted in numerous ways.

In the avalanche of attention to the concept, from academic to public debates, there is some consensus that social entrepreneurship differs from normal business. At least part of the profits need to be channeled into educational, social, and ecological goals. One example is an enterprise, not far from where I grew up, that employed people with disabilities on its assembly lines. By doing so, it promoted the rights of a systematically excluded social group while still operating on a for-profit business model.

My purpose here is not to come to final terms with the definitions and uses of SI. Still, there are assumptions often attached to SI that go unquestioned, both among dedicated practitioners and newly-founded ventures that present themselves as part of the solution to the world’s problems.

Adrienne Buller recently remarked that those that employ SI language, from high-flying stars in Davos to young British investors, often fall dramatically short from actually committing to their promises. Even worse, Buller “found that of the UK’s ‘climate-themed’ ESG funds, a third hold stakes in fossil fuel companies, with several invested in Exxon.” The story would be no more different in the case of big pharma and tech giants. So, “the transition to a sustainable economy,” says Buller, “should not be seen as an investment opportunity for the asset-rich; rather, it should be understood as an urgent opportunity to rectify the forces of inequality and injustice driving environmental crisis.”

Part of the problem arises from the elasticity of the terms such as “ethics,” “sustainability,” and “impact.” Who decides what is ethical and sustainable, and for whom? On what terms and for how long? Put a Marxist philosopher, an indigenous land activist, and a Sloan MBA graduate in the same room, and you’ll come to radically different understandings of what counts as proper (social innovation) conduct. Also, “measuring” impact has never been an easy or uncontested game. For example, the fight for the reduction of poverty has always been deeply marred in political and ideological structures that legitimize the unequal distribution of power and wealth in the world. Deciding who’s poor, who deserves aid, and who gets lifted out of poverty always varies radically according to the political nature of setting benchmarks and validating progress.

Furthermore, there aren’t universal or loophole-free institutional agreements that could uphold and correct business activities as ethical, sustainable, and impactful. The labyrinthine and expansive structures of global corporations and supply chains and international legal regulations make it virtually impossible to codify and police the ethics of social innovation.

Second, social innovation also emerged at a time when the idea “knowledge economy” became fashionable. With the rise of the IT and biotech industries, among others, innovation has become a guiding indicator of understanding and judging the well-being of our societies. Innovation has become a somewhat indispensable term to understand how we have evolved historically. In the last three decades, the imperative of innovating for the sake of innovation has also steeped much of the theory and practice of SI, without really questioning whether it is justified, desired, and necessary for those whom innovation is supposed to help.

In the eyes of historian of technology David Edgerton, this innovation-centric vision of history has been wedded to a rigid, universalistic account of modernity. In addition to completely muting subaltern subjects that have ensured the higher living standards of a privileged minority, such a recent reading also sees historical engines of change almost exclusively in elite spaces of innovation and invention (say, for example, Silicon Valley). If we instead take a “use-based” understanding of technology, says Edgerton, then we’ll come to see a global and alternative history of how people have organized and improved their lives through objects and processes that are often forgotten. These include bicycles, sewing machines, and the refrigerator, things that radically improved our quality of life.

Many IDEAS participants often grappled with the term innovation, at least when we problematized its unwarranted use. In the past years, many teams have proposed incredibly advanced technological solutions to social and ecological problems. The idea of solving complex issues with an app, a drone, or AI is undoubtedly fixated. Yet, the “there’s-an-app-for-that” philosophy often ignores the contexts of the many issues that we experience for ourselves or for others. Not everything needs to be reinvented when confronting a problem, as Luke Jordan at MIT’s Governance Lab would suggest. Nor is technology value-free, as Virginia Eubanks has shown by stressing how high-tech tools perpetuate the oppression of poor racial classes in the U.S.

Another issue is the problem of outsiders trying to intervene in a place that is wholly foreign to them, justified through an Orientalizing logic, as Binyavanga Wainaina argued in his sarcastic and epic essay “How to Write About Africa.” The echoes of colonial discourses are sometimes very nearby. From another angle, Wudan Yan reminded us how “parachute science” (i.e., Western scientists scavenging for empirical data in the Global South without ever acknowledging and contributing to the local communities they depend on) is a reality. Eyal Weizman similarly reminded us of how humanitarian interventions perpetuate violence through a language of compassion.

“The marginalized feel the sting more because they are seen as charity cases and their knowledge does not count,” Madeleine Avignon explained to me. Avignon, whom I met through IDEAS, co-founded the grassroots organization COFHED in Haiti for community engagement and development through a variety of rural-based projects. Asked what often strikes her in work on the ground, she explained how “the myopic lenses” of experts and consultants often leads to the perception that the poor and the marginalized are unable to participate in the process of betterment. “If social innovators could learn to see marginalized communities more from an equity point of view, maybe some of the impact of the legacy of colonialism and paternalistic ways of treating the poor could be lessened,” she said.

“It’s not a competition, but a program that presents a challenge and call to action to students. There are no winners, but rather grant recipients or awardees.” You’ll hear these words most likely from Assistant Dean of Social Innovation at MIT Rebecca Obounou, who has been transforming IDEAS into a collaborative initiative that acknowledges and challenges each of these issues. IDEAS tries to differentiate itself from the many other entrepreneurial programs that focus their goals on short-term results and raising capital funds.

Social enterprise and innovation are indeed exciting ways of rethinking the problems and solutions to endemic issues in society. Yet shirking the need to question the knowledge and contexts within which we operate, as well as failing to acknowledge and genuinely challenge the deep legacies of oppression from the past (e.g., race, colonialism, gender, and economic), throws social innovation into the basket of exonerating tools at the hands of the most powerful.