by Geoff Mulgan
23rd December 2019

Social innovation is the deliberate invention of new solutions to meet social needs. In his new book, Social Innovation: How Societies Find the Power to Change, Geoff Mulgan, a pioneer in the field, argues for matching research and development in technology and science with socially focussed research and development.

This extract from the book shows how we only see a fraction of the potential social imagination around us.

The more we know, the more we realise the near-infinite variety of galaxies around us. They are vastly greater in number than anyone imagined a century or more ago. Something comparable has happened in the social realm. We have slowly come to appreciate the vast variety of possible societies and social arrangements. There are many common elements – families, hierarchies, states – and some convergent trends. But for every generalisation there is an exception, and one of the virtues of anthropology is to make us see our own normal social arrangements as strange, the result of random luck rather than nature.

If we imagine social evolution as a branching tree of possibilities, then only a tiny fraction of those possibilities have ever been travelled. We catch glimpses of what might be possible when we visit another country or city, or look at cults and communes, or read science fiction, but they’re only glimpses.

In the conservative view, what is is, because nothing else can be. It’s a view asserted forcefully, until what was impossible happens and becomes everyday, and the lines are redrawn. Most possible social arrangements wouldn’t work, or last: brittle, intolerant hierarchies; anarchic egalitarianism; pure market capitalism. All of these turn out to be unstable. But there is still a vast possible social space full of options that could be viable.

We can explore some of this range of possible social arrangements at the macro level through imagining utopias and political programmes, and at the micro level with ideas about a new park, a housing estate, a way of curing or teaching.

But social imagination of this kind has been constricted and constrained. Until recently only a tiny minority believed that they had any right to design and imagine how a society could be organised: for the vast majority social arrangements were a given. In any case, you need skills and resources to imagine, design and then implement something radically new, which is why many of the 19th century’s most influential imaginers were aristocrats (like Kropotkin or Tolstoy), or benefited from a patron (like Marx).

One group who did have the licence, and the time, to imagine were the social scientists. Nineteenth-century social science was full of optimistic designs for the future. But 20th-century social science, by contrast, became backward looking and sceptical. The price for seeing itself as a science was to focus on the evidence, which by definition meant sticking to things that had already happened, and explaining why they were as they were rather than how they might have been different.

Some groups, by contrast, are happy to explore and imagine, and are rich in resources to do so: around technology business there are numerous think-tanks, foundations and conferences, funded to let their imaginations roam. Their view of the world, and the future, which is usually male, technologically determinist and slightly bullying in tone, asserts itself confidently and visibly on the world. By contrast, the imaginary of other groups – poorer, female, Southern, rural – is less visible, and more tentative, for the simple reason that they have fewer resources to play with.

I’m convinced that we see only a fraction of the potential social imagination around us and are all worse off because of this. I like to think of the analogy with homes. In the past most people built homes just like everyone else, without space, literally or metaphorically, for much variation. A tiny handful with great wealth were given the freedom to design their own palaces and gardens, and in some cases could let their imaginations run riot.

In the recent past, however, millions of people have started exercising a similar muscle to the aristocrats and princes of the past: adapting, changing and recreating their homes and their decorations. This army of amateur architects and designers and DIY enthusiasts know when to use professionals – for the electricity or plumbing. But they see it as entirely natural that they should constantly adjust and improve the environment they live in.

This would have surprised the forward-looking architects of a century ago, who imagined future citizens living happily in the neat boxes and blocks they had designed, but never guessed how actively they would want to shape their spaces.

I see a precise analogy with societies at every level. We are slowly coming to see our own social world as a home which we are entitled and able to remake and reshape to suit us. This requires some skills, sometimes professional help, and some experience. But a hot, activist society with a similar spirit to DIY in homes is likely to be a better one. And it will be one in which we are less likely to feel alienated and more likely to feel at home.


Social Innovation: How Societies Find Power to Change by Geoff Mulgan is available on the Bristol University Press website. Order here for £11.99.

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Image Credit: Eugen Str on Unsplash