The primary aim of this blog post is to articulate what I see as the possibilities and potential pitfalls associated with social research and development (R&D) and social innovation in terms of our capacity to address a social problem like homelessness. I also wanted to share a new report: Forging the New Link: New evidence towards building capacity for a robust Social R&D ecosystem, for which I am one of the co-authors. The report findings inspire me to consider how we might differently mobilize experience-research-policy-practice expertise to effectively address homelessness in Canada. 

I’ve been watching the growing enthusiasm for social innovation, social labs and social R&D with cautious interest for a while now. On the one hand, I think it’s clear that we can no longer ethically nor pragmatically continue to respond to social problems using the same reactionary and predominately individual-level strategies and interventions that have dominated our approach to social welfare for the last fifty years. I also recognize a growing desire among community-based social purpose organizations that I have worked with to develop in-house research capacities that can feed into and drive their own program, policy, practice and cultural change goals (rather than the goals and timelines of university researchers). On the other hand, I am always cautious about simply adopting something that has worked the for-profit sector where success is measured in terms of economic growth to a sector where success must be measured in other terms – for example, in terms of individual well-being, community connectivity, and inter-individual care and responsibility. 

This is why I was interested to partner with the Social R&D Fellowship on a study of social research and development (R&D) practices among Canada’s not-for-profit social purpose organizations. I was sincerely curious to find out more about what social R&D is, how people are doing it, and how this work relates to (and might in fact spur) innovation. 

In the aftermath of the project, I am cautiously optimistic about the potential for research, conducted close to the ground (that is, not carried out in the controlled contexts we associate with university research labs), and in collaboration with a range of stakeholders, to contribute to the development of new things (i.e., new practices, programs, discourses, policies and ideas). In the end, while I acknowledge that it is ideologically unpalatable to apply ways of working developed in the interests of capital accumulation to respond to the vast (and growing inequalities) caused by neoliberal global capitalism, I do think there are some basic tools here that might be useful to those of us concerned that the status quo approach to service delivery, wealth and opportunity redistribution is not working. 

Our report highlights four different ways of conceptualizing social R&D and the implications of each approach for practice.

For me, one of the most important things we learned is that there is not a shared understanding of what social R&D is and how it might serve the development of new ways of responding to a social problem like homelessness. Because of this definitional and practical ambiguity, there is a risk that social R&D is everything and nothing – that is, if funders say they will fund it, then everyone will say they are doing it. 

Most of the people we surveyed and spoke with invested the terms, research and development, with their prior knowledge of research and community development activities. In this light, any research-like activity that amounted to any improvements or changes in existing practices, programs or policies was seen as R&D. To be honest, I came to the project thinking much the same thing. But the more I learned about innovation theory, the less this definition seemed to hold and the less useful it appeared if the goal was to stimulate wide-spread and deep-rooted change. Furthermore, if social R&D remained largely undefined by those who claimed to be doing it, then it would remain difficult to assess whether investments (of time, energy and money) in social R&D actually lead to fundamental improvements in our capacity to address homelessness and other intersecting manifestations of inequality (since we would all actually be doing something different!). 

In innovation theory, R&D is about all the intellectual work (question posing, knowledge gathering and synthesis, experimentation and learning) that goes into the creation of new things (a new service, a new intervention model, a new conceptualization of an old problem, a new policy framework, a new economic strategy for redistributing public resources). Early versions of the new thing will be created, tried, and quickly improved – people call this prototyping – until the version of the new thing (i.e., a new strategy or policy) is stabilized, defined and can be systematically implemented and studied to see if it actually does contribute to the realization of (for example) individual wellbeing, community connectivity, and inter-individual care and responsibility. In other words – and contrary to some of what we heard in our research – evaluation is not part of R&D; it happens after the new thing has been developed, and before it gets diffused into the larger system (i.e., innovation). 

Based on what I describe above, and despite its legacy in the for-profit world, an R&D ecosystem could be usefully deployed to imagine and test alternative economic systems or mental health promoting alternatives to policing. There is nothing stopping us from developing an R&D system that takes the root causes of homelessness as its focus and seeks to generate, assess, and share new ways of addressing these root causes. Indeed, this is the reason I am excited to be part of Making the Shift: Youth Homelessness Social Innovation Lab.

To pursue the development of a functioning innovation system that intervenes to address the determinants of homelessness requires shifts in how researchers, practitioners, people with lived experience, policy makers, and funders work together. First, the system requires adequately resourced R&D teams, units, hubs, and/or departments that are comprised of people with deep knowledge of homelessness and a range of flexible social research capacities. The R&D teams must operate close enough to the ground to enable ongoing testing and development cycles, effectively incorporating the insights of stakeholders, including people with lived experience, as new initiatives are developed. Some of these new initiatives will falter or fail, and this must simply be recognized as part of the learning and experimentation process. Failure is not something to avoid, hide, or be punished by funders. Indeed, all of the knowledge generated by the R&D teams (especially knowledge about things that did not work) should be shared widely in an effort to drive learning and innovation across the system, rather than to generate insights and promising returns for a particular agency or community alone. 

Other initiatives will be deemed to show enough potential to warrant codifying – or conceptualizing as a new tactical strategy, model, program, approach. Only once a new initiative has been codified, can it be implemented and evaluated to make sure it really does enable the types of changes we hoped it would. In an innovation system, evaluation is only one type of research that gets done, and it can only happen once a new program or initiative or policy has been clearly defined. The widespread and non-territorial diffusion of new insights and initiatives as a means of fundamentally shifting the way the sector or system works represents the final essential phase. More-so than with technology diffusion, however, local context fundamentally matters, so diffusion in this context is not simply replication. We must anticipate, accept and learn from adaptations as part of a commitment to participating a social ecosystem, rather than a market-place of competing alternatives.  

Networked or systems-level approaches to innovation are most exciting to me when I think about homelessness, as they recognize complexity, dynamism, and a non-proprietary attitude to the diffusion of new and potentially transformative practices or approaches. In this view, if folks in St. John’s start seeing some really promising advances in local economic development in support of youth wellbeing and community health, this early feedback should be shared widely so others in Peterborough or Winnipeg can adapt it to their own context, sharing insights with one another as a means of maximizing a potentially transformative shift. The focus, in this view, is less on fidelity to a particular model than it is on fidelity to changes in status quo inequalities. Finally, an innovation systems approach – in its recognition of dynamism and complexity – lends itself to a measurement framework that is similarly complex and dynamic. In this view, the fact that an education and employment intervention developed and deployed by youth homelessness organizations is likely to create reductions in the costs of programs operated by other systems (e.g., welfare, municipal affairs and housing) would be viewed as an ordinary reality of innovation in complex systems, rather than a barrier to funding and evaluation. 

Finally, as see it, there is no need for any of this work to be presented nor conducted as apolitical, technical, values-free, or ideologically neutral. And, in fact, we should be explicit about the values that underpin our work. The rising costs of housing, growing income and wealth inequality, and increasingly numbers of people experiencing homelessness in Canada are unacceptable to me. I’d like to be part of an innovation system that fundamentally addresses these problems.