It seems that European politicians have reinvented innovation. Now they offer the Innovation Union (2011) as an appropriate response to a dried up and exhausted socioeconomic model. But there are some who claim that governments can do the best for encouraging innovations with removing systemic barriers for creativity and therefore abstain as much as possible from attempts to direct innovation processes.
Governments devote their attention to innovation too selectively favouring hard technological innovation while soft social innovations remain sidelined. Bureaucrats also see innovations as a mean to improve increasingly dysfunctional system. Contrary to this, innovation as a phenomenon is by itself an anti-systemic event.
Joseph Schumpeter has been among the first to realise the importance of innovation as a means of “creative destruction” of inherited habits, accumulated old rules and inert structures. He explicitly derived the term from Marxist thought, but applied it in different ideological frame. As an economist, Schumpeter mostly had in his mind the operation of market forces, where innovation destroys old monopolies that enabled capitalisation of privileges of one social group during the stationary phase of market evolution. Occasionally innovations – as a sort of discontinuity, beside deep crises, wars or revolutions – destroy the framework of inert structures.
Many times this progress is connected to technological innovations. I.e. hundred of years ago, printing device enabled democratisation of knowledge, while steam engine had democratised access to produced goods. Now internet has destroyed the monopolisation of the public sphere by media. Increased global interactivity and exchange of information diverts us from passive consumerism to active citizenship.
Hence, innovation is not against the System as such, this is only side effect of its inflexibility. Innovation is destructive for the inertia that results from habitualisation of previous innovative achievements, when they turn into socially inert structures. One way or the other, technological innovation always depends on social context and its independent reflections.
Social innovation is important as a driver of radical social change which breaks with the old in deep and irreversible way. We have different forms of radical social changes. One well known is revolutionary change. It has not really proven to bring irreversible transformation, as experienced in parts of the Central and Eastern Europe at the beginning of nineties. Revolutions are even not intrinsically radical as they usually only differentiate the path of necessary development such as between socialist to capitalist or nationalist to liberal. Finally, revolution is destructive in a non-creative way when it purges all traces of the immediately preceding past to build everything up anew from entirely reshaped foundations.
Innovation as a destructive force is quite different. It destroys the habituated regime with no further possibility of objection – irreversibility is guaranteed. So it might be that creativity is mightier driver of social change then ideology. Besides, it is not destructive in an irrational way.
Novelty destroys the old and requires social adaptation, so shall be understood as an anti-systemic (Wallerstein) phenomenon. But in parallel, as an act of creativity it also widens human views and capacities beyond the habituated framework. So innovation brings novelty but also offers new tools to cope with it when it widens views and enhances capacities. For example, previously neglected spheres of society are increasingly capable of creating a different type of sociality which is autonomous from the System.
So what is at stake with social innovation is the transformation of the social structure and a radical social change. In its essence, social innovation is not about fixing the failures of an increasingly dysfunctional State. Just the opposite, social innovation is, paraphrasing French political anthropologist Pierre Clastres, a pathway which Society takes to regain its autonomy against the State – without the need to dismantle it applying asocial approaches which abounded so far in modern era.