Dilemma for Transformative Ambitions in East Asia

Based on a mini-seminar with researchers from Hong Kong and South Korea on September 18th 2017, this reflective report by Chiao-Jou Lin spotlights the ways in which social innovation is framed and reflected upon from an academic perspectives in East Asian contexts.

Social innovation has attracted a great deal of interest worldwide: many claim applications of social innovation will deliver better — at least different— solutions for a more sustainable development. The underlying idea of social innovation seems to be human potential for transformative social changes. However, more and more people are curious about the condition through which human potentials could work. Cross-cultural discussion is one of the best ways to initiate dialogues on the subtle and complex processes of social innovations and understand different concerns and viewpoints. Based on a mini-seminar with researchers from Hong Kong and South Korea on September 18th 2017, this reflective report spotlights the ways in which social innovation is framed and reflected upon from an academic perspectives in East Asian contexts.

The seminar was held at DRIFT and included a presentation by Dr. Luk Tak Chuen, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Social Sciences of the Institute of Higher Education (HKCTT) in Hong Kong and a group of three visiting researchers from the Social Innovation Research Lab in Seoul, South Korea. Common to both their contexts is the remarkable economic growth in short periods of time which coincided with extensive state interventions.

Social Innovation in China
During the first part of the seminar, dr. Tak Chuen Luk started his presentation by sketching the post-socialist context in China: “compressed modernity” is manifested in personhood, family, residential arrangement, labor relations, built environment and so on unfolding in everyday life. During the shift to neoliberal socioeconomic logic, the Chinese party-state has curtailed its resource and encountered difficulties regarding rural poverty, rural-urban migration, environmental protection and disaster relief.  Trained as a social work expert, Dr. Luk turned to the major and significant role played by emergent grassroots NGOs on relieving the deteriorating rural-urban disparity and the vacuum in social service.

Characterized as grassroots organizations, the mushrooming NGOs, have however manifested a love-hate twist for party-state bureaucracy. Successful community development and mobilization of committed volunteers, knowledge, and material resources, as well as active links of international NGOs to their grassroots counterparts (followed possibly by international interventions in domestic issues) bring translocal civilian organizations into conflict with the authoritarian nature of the party-state.

In 2004, stricter regulations and practical barriers for NGOs ignite a widespread censorship, thereby stifling NGOs’ diversity and scale-up. The ongoing question (/discussion) is about how civilian self-help organizations can transform to challenge the social and material relations of the party-state governance.

South Korean perspective
The seminar continued with a presentation by researcher Eun Joung Shim on the visions and strategies to realize social innovation of the Korean Social Innovation Research Lab, housed in Seoul Innovation Park. While South Korea shares similar social problems with its Asian neighbors, most of its solutions in the name of ‘social innovation’ come from policy. This policy has been initiated by the major of Seoul, Wonsoon Park, since he recognized the importance of social innovation during his election campaign.

Taking social innovation and citizen participation as the core principals of municipal administration, civil servants dedicate efforts to online and offline communication platforms (i.e. opening and sharing the policy-making process and information and establishing physical clusters as social innovation center) from problem identification, agenda setting, policy formulation, to approval stage.

Nevertheless, social innovation and civil engagements should have been more systematically and transformatively addressed. Eun Joung Shim identified three limitations in terms of applying ‘social innovation’ in the case of Seoul. First, project and funding scheme can only solve superficial problem, often with technological solutions. Second, existing culture and attitude within civil officers seldom takes citizens’ voice into consideration. Third, elite and expert groups still dominate the city plans. Last but might be the critical one, social innovation concept and model from European and North American cases are directly transplanted with little contextually appropriate adaptions to citizens’ everyday life. Looking to address these issues with other theoretical and empirical frameworks is how the SI Research Lab in Seoul came across the work of DRIFT and the courses of Transition Academy.

Transformative Narratives in Practice
Concerns and little confidence about how social innovation works, often occurs when it comes to policy making. Participants in the mini-seminar therefore exchanged views on (re)framing social innovation and on the role of academics. Flor Avelino, researcher at DRIFT, shared some of her experiences in a 4-year EU project, Transformative Social Innovation Theory (TRANSIT). She encountered a gap between the researchers’ framework and practitioners’ identification: they do not recognize themselves as social innovators even though many of them have contributed to the progress of a more righteous and sustainable operation, exemplifying the soul of social innovation. This example reflects the need to translate the languages used by scholars and people in the field.

Personal Reflection
Embedding a social innovation to its historical and spatial contexts is perhaps helpful to translate theoretical ideas into practical matters. Repositioning and reframing ‘social innovation’ within a specific context makes it possible for those concerned to pinpoint what and how a ‘problem’ is (re)configured. In my opinion, social innovation starts from the mental and physical space where people not only identify a social problem but also see possibilities to deal with it.

To make social innovation transformative, I also suggest taking insights from social movement studies into consideration. Social movements and campaigns in near history serve as a mirror that reflects systematic inequality and conflicts in social relations.

The mobilization of contemporary social movement draws upon collective activity of participants where movement ideas as well as meanings are discussed, elaborated and performed. Individual biography is therefore underlined as an important unit of analysis. Connecting individual experiences and agency with the specific historical context and social structures not only engenders the dynamic of rightful resistance, strategies for mobilization. We can also learn the mechanism of engagement as well as disengagement in collective actions and the processes of empowerment as well as disempowerment when multiple groups of people are involved during transitions.

In summary, dialogues initiated from the contexts in China and South Korea have proposed critical scrutiny and systematic unpacking of the concept of social innovation. They also highlighted how a focus on transformative social innovation offers a much needed perspective when it comes to trying to move social innovation beyond superficial problem solving to addressing deeper social issues.

I believe that passionate, serious and uncomfortable debates, such as took place during this seminar, are indispensable to make sense of the complex shifts towards a more sustainable development.

Chiao-Jou worked as an intern at DRIFT on topics about transformative social innovations and she is also working on her master thesis about ongoing processes of negotiations for social solidarity in a perspective of socio-spatial dynamics. Chiao-Jou was raised in Taiwan but turns to study place-making processes in relation to inclusive civil participation in Rotterdam. Cross-cultural dialogues enter into her study and research to deepen an understanding of challenges and potential solutions for transformative innovations.

november 1, 2017