Paradoxes of social innovation: Economic Value vs. Social Value and Technology vs. Empathy

Does technology remain important to the human element?

Paradoxes of social innovation: Economic Value vs. Social Value and Technology vs. Empathy Paradoxes of social innovation: Economic Value vs. Social Value and Technology vs. Empathy

The paradox theory, popularized by Cameron and Quinn in the book Paradox and Transformation: Toward a Theory of Change in Organization and Management, establishes that when faced with two objectives that are both desirable and related, yet apparently contradictory, while it may be more efficient in the short term to choose one and discard the other, more sustainable long term results are achieved by those who opt to go for both objectives simultaneously. In the long term, embracing the paradox instead of avoiding it has its compensations. Since then, this theory has been applied as a conceptual framework to various different areas of knowledge and quite naturally has come to be used to understand the challenges faced by social innovators. In day-to-day practice I see two obvious paradoxes that confront social innovators and, as the theory tells us, those who face up to them without resigning themselves to taking the easy route are the ones who end up changing the world.

On the one hand, there is the paradox between generating social value and the legitimate (and necessary) requirement to generate economic value. Social innovators, especially those that start companies, are faced with decisions about both of these objectives on a daily basis which seem contradictory but still need to be reconciled. Do I get some of the team involved in fundraising, and in doing so prevent them from providing service to our beneficiaries? Do I charge a little something for my services in order to finance myself? And if I do that, just how little is a little? The best projects are those that design a scheme for generating income which is 100% aligned with the generation of social value. In other words, the more impact I make the more income I receive. But this is neither easy nor obvious. In fact, the main innovation of the many social innovation projects I know about is precisely their model for generating income.

On the other hand is the paradox between the use of technology to make processes more efficient and the need to empathize when working with the communities that receive or participate in services. Is technology downplaying the importance of basic human traits? Are we losing the empathetic side of our nature in the pursuit of efficiency and the reliability of algorithms? The objective of reaching the highest number of people with the limited resources at our disposal is critical and it would be irresponsible to discard the potential of technology for achieving it. Once again, managing to design products/services with the adequate combination of technological and human elements so that technology boosts the human side of the project rather than cutting it off is, in itself, an exercise in innovation.

Readers will no doubt ask themselves, as my students usually do, what is the solution? And therein lies the paradox. There is no solution. There are many different solutions that need to be designed to respond to each scenario. This is the reality of innovation for those who navigate their way through some of the most complex situations in the world.