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What is the future of social innovation in urban Asia?

By Massimo Ingegno

YUBN - What is the future of social innovation in urban Asia?

Key shifts we need to see in design and social innovation education and practice.

Recently the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) declared war on thousands of street vendors and announced its goal to clear the capital’s streets by the end of the year in the interest of order and hygiene. This, of course, threatens the very soul of the city and people’s livelihoods by erasing decades of street food culture and taking jobs and affordable options away from working Thais. Despite the socio-economic value of street food, this is common practice in many Asian cities, which see informal entrepreneurship as a fading historical remnant. However, as Robert Neuwirth in his recent book Stealth of Nations1 has argued, far from being transient, the informal enterprise not only is going to stay, it represents a large part of future global economic growth. These contrasting worldviews, further complicated by social problems in Asia, deepening inequalities, oppressed civic freedom and political instability, suggest that novel approaches should be strived for. But, is there a third way for Asia? If so, can it be found in the social innovation debate?

Simply put, social innovation refers to novel ways of achieving new forms of organization, new regulations, new lifestyles, which are then adopted by citizens in order to solve social challenges. Originating from western societies, social innovation stresses the importance of innovative ways of collaboration across public, private and citizen sectors. Its ultimate goal is to bring about social change by diffusing and institutionalizing new social practices. Urban or civic social innovation has become a growing field of practice across Europe and North America from which more civic entrepreneurs have emerged. As B. Cohen and P. Muñoz explain in The Emergence of the Urban Entrepreneur, civic entrepreneurs differ from the more generic social entrepreneurs in that they do not seek to overcome the failure of the welfare state by replacing public services, but rather, attempt to drive business innovation to produce products, services, and jobs that improve the quality of life in urban communities in collaboration with the government and other actors.

Social innovation requires some precursors to flourish, such as a growing tech scene and dissemination of design thinking. Asia has seen a proliferation of tech startups facilitated by the service economy and growth of the ICT-sector and social enterprises. Design thinking is now being integrated into education. However, despite such progress, social innovation has not received much attention and support in Asia, especially in the urban domain. Why is this the case? For one, some Asian countries suffer from weak governance, a democratic deficit and a lack of transparency, which are all obstacles for civic innovation to emerge and thrive. Connectivity between tech talent and the leaders facing problems with civic institutions, drive the landscape in civic innovation markets in the west and community engagement initiated by the city has proven vital for nurturing a culture of entrepreneurship. This might be a major challenge in some Asian contexts. Moreover, importing models and practices from the west that ignore cultural nuances might be rendered ineffective in the Asian context.

How can urban entrepreneurship be effectively channelled towards solving the urban challenges and social issues in Asian cities?

First, at a strategic level, Asian cities need to resist the temptation to replicate the Silicon Valley model. In order to emerge, social innovations will need to see a shift away from treating startups as primarily focused on venture capital and global expansion. This requires a shift from scaling out (organizational growth) to scaling up – that is – nurturing “system entrepreneurs” – individuals that are committed to change broader systems, locally and regionally.

Secondly, the Asian market offers an enormous opportunity to harness the power of digital platforms and technologies to bring social and economic change. The “sharing economy” is radically transforming transportation, accommodations, personal services, and an array of other sectors in Europe and North America, and the market is promising in Asia as well – where a high level of trust and willingness to share has been recently recorded. This dynamic is evident in the growing popularity of taxi mobile applications across the region. However research suggests that some platforms (e.g Airbnb) might even exacerbate social inequalities as they target people with well-paying full-time jobs which use the platform to increase their income. Therefore a second shift that we need to see is towards an inclusive sharing economy (e.g local peer-to-peer (P2P) services which promote sustainable lifestyles*) and the broader concept of Digital Social Innovation (DSI)1, which goes beyond collaborative consumption.

By connecting citizens with their cities, DSI has the potential to shift from the sharing economy to sharing cities and move the conversation and practice from “smart cities” to “smart citizens” – with empowerment at the center of conversations and action. Crowdfunding platforms and location-based reporting applications have emerged across Asian cities and helped increase transparency and government accountability. However, the potential of urban entrepreneurship might go even beyond these initiatives. Questions that drive conversations about the future of urban entrepreneurship should be asked: How can tech startups and social enterprises directly take part of the city-making process and promote local and informal economies? How can we shift tech entrepreneurs’ goal from making cities more digitally responsive to using digital tools to increase engagement with the city? To evolve, cities must be viewed as platforms, with populations encouraged to utilize technology to support local culture and economies and redefine their core functionalities. Could, for example, digital technologies help formal enterprises and local authorities to support and benefit from the informal sector? What is the role of innovative approaches (e.g behavioral design, gamification) widely used by tech startups to engage citizens and create sustained social and economic value in the Asian context? Is there a cultural dimension that needs to be taken into account?

Higher education will play a crucial role to answer these questions and promote purpose-driven urban entrepreneurs. There is an emerging awareness on the need to “de-colonize” design education and embrace cultural differences, social norms and opposing world views instead of replicating best-practices, mindsets, processes (e.g D.School Design thinking process) from the west. In addition to this, when discussing the future of social urban innovation, the interplay between building great places (placemaking) and creating sustainable and vibrant local economies cannot be ignored.

There are two main challenges. One is to think of ways to design and manage cities so that social innovation and local economies can emerge and thrive. Tech entrepreneurs have a preference for dense, diverse urban areas with excellent public transit, cultural amenities, food, and vibrant urban life. The sharing economy itself is an urban phenomenon, which relies on urban density and proximity.

The second challenge is to make the practice of urban design and management collide with the tools and mind-set of social innovators and entrepreneurs. The rise of trans-disciplinary governmental and academic labs and university programs for social innovation in cities is well documented across Europe and North America.

A shift towards blurring the boundaries of urban design and social innovation would have a major role in Asia where urban development is private-led and largely unregulated. Examples include mapping and providing open data of “places of opportunity”, or changing regulations to create more flexible and temporary spaces in certain buildings and public spaces for entrepreneurial and social activities.

Sustainable food production and consumption, temporary spaces and adaptive re-use of buildings and public spaces, the informal economy, are areas in which those involved in the city-design process can encourage young entrepreneurs to think differently about what a city can offer, and be.

With all of the obstacles and challenges discussed above, does it mean that Asia is not ready for urban social innovation? On the contrary, Asia is more than ready. It simply means finding the appropriate Asian model and embedding the cultural dimension into the design, business and technology education, will be key.

1. Robert Neuwirth (2012) Stealth of Nations: The Global Rise of the Informal Economy
2. ‘a type of social and collaborative innovation in which innovators, users and communities collaborate using digital technologies to co-create knowledge and solutions for a wide range of social needs and at a scale and speed that was unimaginable before the rise of the Internet’. Nesta, 2015.

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