The Human Dimension in Social Innovation: How to Design Empowering Services?

Kaie Koppel, EBS PhD student and Junior Research Fellow in Innovation & Entrepreneurship, wrote in the February edition of Postimees' "Tähenduse Teejuhid" about social innovation and her research, which explores the design and management of social services in co-creation with those in need, service networks, and communities.

Gregory Bateson, one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century and a guiding figure in many disciplines, wrote in his last book, "Angels Fear" (1987), that his entire scientific endeavour was primarily an attempt to answer the Sphinx's riddle, namely, the question: what does it mean to be human? How do other systems we encounter operate? How are they interconnected?
"It is exceptionally important that our answer to the Sphinx's riddle aligns with how we function as a civilization, which in turn must be in harmony with how living systems operate," he wrote.


Why is this significant? Our understanding of what it means to be human and our relationship with the living whole has a tendency to prove itself and become entrenched in institutions, infrastructures, and forms of communication – in all the visible and invisible networks of rules and agreements that underpin our social life. Examples of such irreversible traces in technological development include the "path dependencies" described by Joseph Schumpeter, and at the societal level, institutional and collective habits.


As early as the 1970s, Bateson paid significant attention to the ecological crisis and its root causes, identifying modernism's epistemological arrogance as a key factor. Most of the assumptions and beliefs he highlighted remain viable today, more than 50 years later, shaping not only the impact of human activity on the environment but also amplifying social marginalisation both in Estonia and around the world. Addressing the assumptions of our thinking is as crucial today as it was then, not merely a philosophical question but also a key prerequisite and enabler of social innovation.


I have been engaged in empowering social innovation for nearly 10 years. Much of my work has focused on the design of social services and related welfare issues. This is a field where the answer to the Sphinx's riddle matters a lot. I believe that the way and the kind of social welfare we are willing to provide as a society speaks volumes about our default understanding of what it fundamentally means to be human. It reflects what we, as human beings, are willing to accept and what we cannot accept.


Our welfare is the fruit of a philosophical legacy that distinguishes culture and nature, mind and body, self and other, subject and object. Among the many definitions of social innovation, one key criterion is the empowerment and increased agency of marginalised individuals and social groups, overcoming the visible and invisible boundaries established in society.


Paradoxically, perfectly designed social services may not necessarily meet this criterion. An empowering service begins with an empowering and co-creative service design process. In my doctoral thesis, I explore the prerequisites for this and develop a framework for designing and managing social services in co-creation with those in need, service networks, and communities.