Social innovation addresses societal problems by renewing from the bottom up. Alongside citizens’ and business initiatives, scientists and educators are also increasingly playing a role. Wageningen University & Research (WUR) sees social innovation as an opportunity to bring science and society closer together and is developing ways of including this in scientific education and research.
The relationship between science and society is changing. The need for science to contribute innovative solutions to key societal issues is urgent. Businesses, governments and citizens want this, as do researchers themselves. National and European science agendas are demanding change. Moreover, research is increasingly being measured in terms of its contribution to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
In social innovation all parties must be heard and connect with each other. For this to happen, the starting point has to be a collaborative attitude. Scientists are traditionally taught to defend their own point of view. Rather than science being a theatre of conflict, however, a social-innovation perspective recognises that, while a particular study may have some shortcomings, it is nevertheless valuable and other research might complement it, and thus increase our overall knowledge of a particular issue. It can be helpful to acknowledge that there is often not one absolute truth, but that several truths may co-exist alongside each other. One connective WUR project brings users and producers of bio-based materials together.
Social innovation requires an attitude of openness about which questions and expertise are relevant to the problem at hand. People’s reasoning is often based on unconscious ideas and convictions they hold, and these determine what is perceived as relevant to a problem. For example, someone who believes in the free market will pose different questions from someone who believes in a strong central government. It is therefore important that scientists are explicit about their ideological assumptions. Researchers who make claims about the independence and unassailability of science are doing the opposite: they are retreating into their ivory tower. An example of how researchers can adopt an open attitude to others’ visions is the biologists who invited artists to help them broaden their vision of synthetic biology.
Adopting these principles can lead to tensions when set against conventional ways of working. After all, it’s about innovation. The pursuit of social value may clash with a customer-oriented approach that is focused purely on adding value for the client who is funding the research. Being up front about ideology may take some researchers out of their comfort zone.
Competences for social innovation
Researchers and teachers need specific competences for doing social innovation research. For example, on how to conduct a constructive dialogue with non-scientists about what they value and what knowledge is needed. Reflection and self-reflection are required. A certain amount of self-awareness is needed before someone starts to open up to different perspectives and is able to concede that others may be right. Researchers need to be able to work integrally: linking up with other disciplines and stakeholders outside academia. Taking emotions seriously is also part and parcel of social innovation. Developing knowledge with citizens and businesses means that researchers have to move out of centre stage and be prepared to share the research results.
The way forward
Within WUR lie many seeds of a social innovation approach. They have been documented in workshops and are presented on this website. These seeds will soon be growing, and WUR’s mission and domains make it the ideal organisation to focus on and promote a social innovation approach. As the process of refinement continues, diverse interpretations and approaches will no doubt emerge. Yet differences are to be embraced, for they allow space for experimentation and creating a repertoire of practices. The hope is that this approach will appeal to WUR staff and students. Developing a Wageningen approach to social innovation is a collaborative effort involving WUR researchers and its social partners.
This text is based on an essay by Roel Deze and Hans Dagevos: WAGENINGEN SOCIAL INNOVATION APPROACH: AN INVITATION TO PARTICIPATE