2014 should be a year of social innovation

Great possibilities lie ahead this year. We need this to be a year of social innovation – overcoming the ill effects of the corporate world’s focus on technological innovation over the last two centuries.

Certainly it must be said that new technologies have brought great prosperity to much of the world. But pushing technology has been degrading our Earth and its environment, not to mention its people, while creating a huge gap between those who have the wealth and those who don’t.

Corporations now control government, our political parties, and the media. These tools were originally designed to help “we the people” govern ourselves. Big Business has reduced our earning power and plunged us into crippling debt, while billionaires call the shots on elections and foreign and domestic policy. Similarly, Big Finance has taken license to ignore the rules of prudence, while grabbing our homes and pensions for additional wealth.

Through practices that extract resources and power from the many to benefit the few, much of the legitimacy of the business community has been badly eroded. But historical analysis tells us this is a path to despotism, not democracy. Equality, diversity and pluralism are far more effective in reinforcing national sustainability than oligarchy.

So let’s get serious about social innovation: repairing or creating the institutions, norms and policies that support social well-being. And, as the economists tell us, along with innovation must come “creative destruction:” in this case the replacement of old corporatist norms and practices with those that improve our families and communities.

We’re going to have to liberate ourselves, however. No one will do it for us. As investigative journalist Christ Hedges writes, “We will have to transform our communities, cities and states into places where the consent of the governed is no longer a joke.”

How can we put the peoples’ hands back on the levers of government? This is a challenge for the nonprofit sector. We need its more humane and morally consistent values to guide our return to the path of democracy.

There are four ways nonprofit organizations can bring about social innovation. First, they can be instruments for informing people.

Experiments with nonprofit journalism, such as Reader Supported News, for example, are finding new ways to bring news of current events to our people without distortion. This would give us a much-improved forum for public discourse about the issues we face.

Second, nonprofits need to bring social innovation into their various fields of endeavor: human services, health care, education, environment, culture and arts, civic and public issues. We need to disrupt the established market-oriented norms, then we need sustainable and effective experiments, such as health care clinics and hospitals that are truly not-for-profit.

Third, we need new models to empower people. For example, many communities have been setting up public banks that keep the peoples’ money out of the hands of predatory financiers, allowing the depositors and neighborhoods to gather wealth for themselves.
Finally, we need voluntary organizations to initiate and sustain popular grassroots movements in local communities, so the people have an active voice first in protest, then in advocacy of new ways of living.

For example, if nonprofits could help us replace our racial caste system of incarceration with an effective justice system. Wouldn’t this be more helpful than just locking up anybody who exhibits the symptoms of poverty? (That’s a subject for another column!).

By using the nonprofit sector in our quest for social innovation, we can start shifting economic and political power away from the corporatocracy and into the hands of the people. We can do this by getting together, pursuing shared values and common purpose. It won’t be easy, but by taking it one step at a time we can renew our democracy. That’s my hope for 2014, and beyond.

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