The Intersection between Social Innovation, Museums and Digital

Reflections on the MCN 2015 keynote speech by Haitham EidAssistant Professor/Interim Director, Master of Arts in Museum Studies Program, Southern University at New Orleans.

I have just returned from Minneapolis after attending the MCN conference for the first time. It was a very rewarding experience and I had the chance to meet with some wonderful and intelligent people. What excited me the most was the topic of the keynote speech by Liz Ogbu. Liz spoke about social innovation and her work to provide more effective and sustainable solutions to social problems hereLiz Ogbu Portrait in the United States and abroad. The term social innovation is not very familiar (but not totally alien, as will be explained) to the museum sector. However, I must say that the decision made by the conference organizers to address the concept of social innovation in the keynote speech is brave and visionary on many different levels. I was particularly thrilled about the speech because it added another layer of confidence and assurance to my three years of research, in which, as part of my Ph.D. research at the School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester, UK, I have studied the concept of social innovation along with two other concepts (social enterprise and open innovation). The research provides conceptual and practical evidences that the three concepts together can form a model for innovation in museums. Since the keynote speech of the MCN2015 addressed social innovation, this blog will try to contribute to what I hope is the start of a fruitful discussion about the intersection between social innovation, museums and digital.

Liz is an amazing speaker, and, like all social innovators, is passionate about her work. But what is social innovation in the first place? The Center for Social Innovation at Stanford University defines social innovation as “a novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just than present solutions and for which the value created accrues primarily to society as a whole rather than private individuals.” Social innovation, as we can see from the definition, is about improving and empowering communities through creativity and ingenuity. It goes beyond disciplinary boundaries to create sustainable social value. Social innovators include architects, engineers, health care professionals, artists, entrepreneurs and many others looking at social innovation and trying to discover ways within their professions to advance the social innovation agenda. When Liz spoke at the MCN2015 on November 5th, she gave her perspective as an architect and designer. She showed in her presentation how she designed innovative and affordable cook stoves in Tanzania. The new design improves the lives of millions of Tanzanians by adopting a cooking style that is both healthier and better for the environment. She also uncovered how her talent as an architect and social innovator led her to turn an empty tract of land in the poor neighborhood of Hunters Point in San Francisco into a community center and recording studio for the community to come together and share their stories. It was a small and inexpensive piece of architecture but created a new and positive energy in the community.

Museums recognize themselves as social and cultural organizations and the notion of creating social value is a core objective for any museum. Therefore, for me, museums and social innovation seem to be a perfect match. Museologists like Bob Janes (Editor-in-Chief Emeritus, Museum Management and Curatorship Journal), Richard Sandell (Professor of Museum Studies at University of Leicester), the late Stephen Weil and many others have devoted a huge amount of their intellectual work advocating for the museum as enhappabler of social justice and environmental awareness. Janes calls it the “mindful museum,” a museum that is aware of its surrounding and consciously works to improve society and the environment. But how can museums approach social innovation? The quest for answers to this question needs contributions from everyone in the sector: museum directors, curators, conservators, researchers, technologists, etc. It is, however, exciting that some museums have already started exploring the concept of social innova
tion. For example, in the UK context, the work of Tony Butler at the Happy Museum project
, Derby Museums, and previously at the Museum of Anglian Life, revolves around social innovation and social enterprise. Here in the US, The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, CA, established a special program (The Tech Awards) to recognize:

10 international innovators who are applying technology to confront humanity’s most urgent challenges. The Tech Awards honors individuals, non-profit organizations and for-profit companies who are using technology to significantly improve human conditions in five award categories. The technology used can be either a new invention or an innovative use of an existing technology (The Tech Museum of Innovation website).

The Tech Award Gala (2014), and the Social Innovation Workshop at the Tech Museum of Innovation, lead to my final point, which is identifying the intersection between social innovation and digital innovation. Many of the social problems facing humanity right now can be fought and probably defeated through digital innovation. Jeremy Millard and Gwendolyn Carpenter from the Danish Technological Institute state:

Digital technology can also be transformational and open new perspectives on social innovation, such as the use of so-called ‘big data’ to collect and analyse data of what social needs are being experienced by which people in different places at different times. Using new digital technologies can also open new perspectives for locally manufactured and very cheap products for people who otherwise have no chance of being helped.

Using digital can maximize impact, cut costs, and make social innovation more effective. Museums are full of talented and passionate individuals who are very eager to improve their communities and contribute to resolving social issues. No one expects museums alone to find solutions to all the social challenges that face humanity, or to approach them the same way other sectors tend to do, but I believe museums are positioned to make a great contribution. Can social innovation be a framework that inspires museums to take progressive steps on social and environmental issues? Can digital teams in museums around the world push the social innovation agenda in the museum sector? Please share your thoughts and let me know what you think.


Haitham Eid

Assistant Professor/Interim Director, 

Master of Arts in Museum Studies Program, 

Southern University at New Orleans.

Twitter: @HaithamEid | Email: [email protected]