GETIDOS Blog

4 May 2020 | by Rafael Ziegler


The distant spring: philosophy and social innovation

Eight variations on enough for thinking about social innovation and sustainability transitions during the coronavirus crisis

In response to the harm done to birds by widespread use of pesticides, Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring (1962). Her account of the ‘silencing of the birds’ helped motivate a flock of social innovation via the emerging environmental movement. Spring 2020 has arrived with a virus pushing us behind windows and glued to screens. It is too early to tell what this ‘distant’ spring will bring for later seasons and years to come. However, distance invites reflection. Drawing on a forthcoming book, here are eight philosophical ideas for reflection on social innovation – a term that in its more recent configuration expresses a discontent with innovation as we know it, i.e. the technical innovations for commercial use (such as the pesticides studied by Carson), and a search for alternatives.

There is enough here. Spring 2020 puts into question routines and apparent certainties. Rather than flying somewhere, we are at home.  Most international flights have stopped. It is therefore noteworthy that philosophical phenomenology points out that attention to anomaly is at the heart of genuine innovation, the disclosure of new practices and meaning. This starts with everyday practices. Consider a folktale (as retold by Phoebe Gilman): a grandfather makes a wonderful blanket for his grandson. As the grandson grows bigger and the blanket gets older, and his parent wants to throw it away. The grandson refuses, and instead brings it to his grandfather – a tinkerer. ‘Hmm, there is enough here to make a jacket!’ Not much later, the grandson grows out of his jacket, his parent would like to throw it away again, but instead the tinkerer creates a vest, then a tie, a handkerchief, a button. So far, so good – a familiar yet important story of limitation causing creativity (who would not like to have a tinkerer at home during the distant spring). The story continues. The boy loses the button, and even grandpa cannot make ‘something from nothing’. The grandson takes a pen: ‘Hmm, there is just enough material here to write a story.’ In the end, genuine innovation is about sense-making. What does the ‘empty’ sky tell us?

Fair enough, you might think. However, there is also something cynical about talk of sense-making and innovation in times of crisis. There is genuine loss and tragedy. In fact, the hardships and injustice caused by the coronavirus point to a still largely neglected aspect of social innovation policy. Beyond a focus on seed money for projects, there is a need to focus on social preconditions, the basic liberties and material pre-conditions securing and enabling innovation, i.e. the domain of the theory of justice. There is renewed interest in basic income, public health, and housing due to the corona crises. What if you live next to the highway, in a cramped apartment block, where everyone is at home, perhaps even with a violent parent or partner, with the playground closed and only a glimpse on what Oscar Wilde called that ‘little tent of blue that prisoners call the sky’? The theory of justice supports the case for a comprehensive social innovation policy that addresses preconditions rather than just projects, and that fosters and secures central human capabilities for living in dignity.

Enough time. As far as innovation is concerned, the justice consideration, however, is at risk of quickly being reduced again to money and participation in markets. The experience of the pandemic shows the problematic nature of this. Family and community have become important and again. There is renewed interest in gardening at home, and in this distant spring we seem to hear the birds again! Solidarity in community is re-appreciated (and care work has been a significant even if underappreciated domain of industrialized economies all along). The crisis shows the importance of thinking about innovation as emerging and developing in mixed economies with a plurality of spheres. Creativity in public, market, and communal modes are all needed to respond to the crisis. This points to the importance of time for these others spheres – a time suddenly there (for some) during the crisis, but also an important long-term consideration, i.e. wage labour time reduction, for a comprehensive innovation policy.  

Enough for whom? Pesticides along with road and city construction silence the birds and the buzz on the fields. While it is too early to tell how the coronavirus first spread, it is known that markets trading living animals were involved in prior coronavirus outbreaks, that swine flu and bird flu evolved from livestock breeding and that antibiotic resistance, as dangerous as any new disease, is fostered by widespread use of antibiotics in livestock farms. In response, environmental philosophy asks simple yet potentially transformative questions: What if enough for us is really enough? What if pursuing wants beyond a threshold of meeting needs has to be synergetic and prove its value to other species and ecosystems? Environmental philosophy provides justifications for such a view, and there is much space for social innovation here. Intriguingly, the pandemic has demonstrated how quickly it is possible to practically focus on ‘essential services’. It can provide valuable lessons for improved living within planetary limits.

Not more than enough? Our thinking about innovation is wedded to progress. More and faster innovation is always good. However, what if we have to unbuild part of the building of progress? A philosophical perspective of innovation considers innovation and exnovation equally. The latter refers to the deliberate phasing out and divestment of an innovation, a change of practices and policies. While there is a growing and dynamic culture of social innovation – in evidence by awards, events and books – a better appreciation of social exnovation is called for. Imagine a Rachel Carson award for social exnovation, for phasing out harmful chemicals, practices and policies, and celebrating such difficult achievements. 

Sustaining and restoring enough. The challenges of exnovation are hard to underestimate. Technological path-dependency along with vested interest of incumbents makes change difficult, and so does our differentiated, complex system of legislation and norms. It is noteworthy therefore that the state historically played an important role in funding and enabling the technological innovations that we now take for granted. The recent renaissance of the ‘entrepreneurial state’ (M. Mazzucato) is therefore noteworthy. Can the distant spring help us think about this development in a way that will yield long-term, comprehensive support for a change in land use, and more regional, circular and carbon-neutral economies? Consider the example of paludiculture. Many European peatlands were drained to gain land for agriculture, and to extract peat for energy and horticulture and so forth. Now drained peatlands contribute an estimated 5 percent of global, anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. This makes for a strong case for rewetting these peatlands for nature conservation, as well as for new forms of wet agriculture (paludiculture). In the light of powerful path-dependencies, paludiculture is, however, unlikely to move beyond a small niche without long-term and sustained public support for such nature-based solutions.

Am I enough? Trust in public projects or even a genuinely new deal is limited after decades of neo-liberal thinking. There is, Thatcher claimed, no society, only individuals – no social innovation but only the cult of the individual entrepreneur coming up with ‘disruptive’ ideas out of ‘his garage’ (even if it’s an IT-innovator - showing that in addition we are also still living in patriarchal, petrol cultures). At home and at the computer, the effect of this thinking reinforces the experience of the self as a thing, as measurable, comparable and substitutable human capital; an often unconscious contributor to ‘surveillance capitalism’ (S. Zuboff). This ongoing reification of the self, a longstanding topic in social philosophy, requires us to inquire behind the reality of calls for individual changemaking.  

Enough! Still, none of this means that change-making does not matter or is impossible. But it does mean that it has to be collaborative and collective. In Fall 2019, I participated with my family in one of the Fridays for Future demonstrations in Montreal. It was a festive and sunny day, a day of communion. The old generation was reminded of 68, the kids could reclaim the street and my generation X had the impression that generation Z and the school strikes – let’s call them a democratic innovation – had some effect in getting indifferent or sometimes even intransigent elites to listen to the facts of climate change. It seemed to demonstrate the power of collective action, the value of civic vigilance and protest given that climate emission and biodiversity trends globally still point in the wrong direction even after 30 years of sustainability discussions. Canadian premier minister Trudeau, who supports a controversial pipeline project, was forced to meet with Greta. A change in public discourse, demonstrating the power of collective action?

Just a few months later, during the ‘distant’ spring, I cycled along the same roads. An almost surreal experience. Hardly any cars, some cyclists, many pedestrians. The city had blocked parking around the Mont Royal area where the demonstration started. All of a sudden more and bigger bike roads are on the agenda in big cities around the globe, and many changes are suddenly possible that before seemed impossible. Yet, the pandemic has also removed the strikes from the street (and in some jurisdictions enabled a move to criminalize protest and civil disobedience). In short: fragility everywhere. Impossible to tell therefore if the ‘distant’ spring will trigger a genuine spring of ideas or if sustained attempts to quickly return to the prior status quo will prevail, with the change in practices in between appearing only as a daydream whose reality is quickly forgotten.

During this uncertain period, the contribution of social innovation is to show the collaborative nature of innovation across various social spheres, enabled by shared stories that focus on practices that matter for people and the planet.

About the author

Rafael Ziegler is a GETIDOS Fellow and an incoming professor at HEC Montréal. In summer 2020 he was supposed to be a fellow of the Rachel Carson Center, Munich, in the 2019/20 cohort – then came the virus . . . 

For an extended discussion of these ideas see Rafael’s new book Ethics, Innovation and Our Common Futures.

Reprinted on Seeing the Woods, 8 June 2020.