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I was struck the other day by this sentence in an as yet unpublished paper by a group of very accomplished social policy researchers:

‘ Our efforts to find a suitable research-based analytical framework for studying diffusion processes of social innovations have not been very fruitful, the field seems to be under-researched’

A footnote reads:

 ‘Everett Roger’s (1962) classic book Diffusion of Innovations discusses such an analytical framework but subsequent work seems focused on case studies rather than theory building’    

Is this really true? If so, I am tempted to ask what my old friend, and world's greatest expert on social innovation, Geoff Mulgan, has being doing all these years. If it is true then it's an omission which needs to be addressed. The RSA would, I suspect, be a keen partner in such a research project.

To get the conversation going, two initial sets of thoughts:

An assessment of diffusion should look at three dimensions: scale, success and legacy. The first is obvious; how widely has the innovation spread? The second, relying as it does on some form of impact assessment, is more tricky. The third relates to the degree to which an innovation is not simply a one-off improvement but provides the foundation for further experimentation and advance.

It might also be interesting to explore different ideal type models of diffusion and here – surprise surprise – we might start with the modes of cultural theory.

The hierarchical paradigm for diffusion is ‘best practice’. Here, a central authority observes and records the innovation before summarising it and providing incentives for others to take it up. There may be advantages here in terms of speed and extent of diffusion but there are also problems associated with inflexibility of implementation, resistance to central imposition and ‘lost in translation’ problems created by distance the ideas has to travel (up to the centre then out to the front line).

The egalitarian paradigm is peer-to-peer networks. Here new ideas spread largely informally through interactions among professionals. The advantages include greater buy-in from ideas voluntarily adopted and flexibility as a result of more granular communication and understanding of the innovation. Disadvantages may include hit and miss awareness and take-up, and the scope for innovations which challenge professional interests simply to be ignored.

The individualist paradigm is market competition. Here ideas spread by creating an open market place of service providers and innovation sellers in which the former have strong incentives to buy what the latter have strong incentives to sell. The advantages may lie in the hidden hand effect sorting good from bad without mediation, incentives for continuous refinement of the original model, and more professional marketing of good ideas. The primary disadvantage is there are also incentives to sell bad answers and buy cheap solutions.

If I had more time I would offer examples of each model and maybe even speculate which works best and in which kinds of contexts. Being a cultural theory nut I would of course assume we need 'clumsy solutions 'which mobilise all three models.

But football beckons (for a bit of vicarious excitement I'm thinking of watching the match in a Portuguese tapas bar on the South Lambeth Road), and I know I can rely on my readers have your own thoughts.


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