Using data to inspire innovation and inclusion
The Urban Innovation Exchange (UIX) initiative and Data Driven Detroit (D3) together have created a survey to better understand social innovation and its impact in Detroit. Here D3 Communications Manager & Analyst Kat Hartman explains what exactly we mean when we say "social innovation" as well as the ways in which we quantify it.
There are certain statistics that are little more than educated guesses – informed, detailed, and highly articulate, but guesses nonetheless. A margin of error could be described as the numeric representation of the quality of a statistician’s guess. Data regularly released by the Census Bureau has a high margin of error; the Federal government acknowledges that their estimates may not be accurate and that their understanding of what is happening in a specific neighborhood is likely limited. The Census Bureau currently lacks the resources to study every neighborhood in every city every year at the level of detail the residents in those cities may require.
For this reason, it is essential that Detroiters are willing to invest our own local resources in gathering data on our own neighborhoods as well as those populations not regularly captured by traditional surveys. The development of new data sets can be powerful; it can also be a significant challenge. The Urban Innovation Exchange (UIX) initiative stepped up to that challenge and invited Data Driven Detroit (D3) to be a part of the adventure. Together we created a survey to better understand social innovation and its impact in Detroit.
How should we measure innovation?
When I started working as an analyst with UIX, the editorial team had a list of roughly 50 individuals that they knew
were innovators. Still, articulating what innovation was in measureable terms was difficult because of the varied pool of projects. UIX is specifically interested in social innovation or innovation that benefits society. The word “innovation” is often used in conversations about entrepreneurs, but UIX is interested in all
innovative projects and individuals, whether in the form of an established non-profit, a traditional business model, or a grassroots effort being run out of someone’s garage. Initially, we operated with the mantra “new and different, above and beyond,” within the realm of social impact. We would ask several yes/no questions of each potential project; enough “yeses” meant the project would be profiled and the innovator surveyed.
Our definition of “innovation” expanded after the initial 50 innovators were scheduled for their interviews and it was time to do some outreach work to connect with more. We spent time in multiple Detroit neighborhoods to further inform our work. Some neighborhoods were committed to meeting basic human needs; others were more focused on developing cultural experiences; others still were finding ways and resources to do both. Innovative actions and approaches were happening in every neighborhood, but their visible impact was not always overtly “new” or “different,” “above” or “beyond.” Context became an important factor to consider; the conversation shifted away from visible products and hinged more on the intentional process.
How should we measure impact?
As a community, we strive to do things right. We want our actions to have a positive impact on our environment. One motivation behind the UIX project was a desire to document the positive impact of social innovation in Detroit, not just in stories but also in numbers. This is difficult for several reasons. UIX and D3 are in the process of building a new data set; for that reason we are unable to compare it to last year’s data set to see impact in the form of change. Additionally, many of the projects profiled are start-ups, school projects, or hobbies; the innovator is busy innovating, not documenting more traditional, trackable metrics such as their number of volunteers, number of people served, assets, liabilities, revenue, profits, and so on. Many projects do not even have sign-in sheets, much less business plans or balance sheets.
So what is there left to count? The impact of social innovation hinges on the benefit it provides to people. It is inherently social. Not only are innovators socially-minded; they also tend to be socially connected. Limited financial resources require creativity; many utilize their social circle to accomplish more. Understanding the strength of the network of social innovation in Detroit will help us describe its potential for impact. Social network analysis counts the number and type of social connections within in a network. Knowing the average number of connections required by each type of project to be successful helps us articulate what it takes to have an impact in Detroit. Additionally it can help us describe impact itself. Who is included in the network of innovation says a lot about how well we are working together in Detroit. Do our innovation networks include low-income innovators or do they sit at the periphery? Are people of color actively engaged in resource and knowledge exchange? Are women and youth inspired to start new things? Answering these questions is part of assessing whether or not we have built a strong community.
Our best estimate
UIX has two important goals. The first is to document and understand social innovation; the second is to promote and strengthen it. In this scenario, knowledge is situated within an innovator’s network. Both knowledge and networks equal power. Innovators do not necessarily start their project knowing how to succeed. When an innovator begins, they usually ask their friends and mentors for advice or technical assistance. In order to strengthen social innovation efforts citywide, it will be essential to connect all social innovation networks to each other. Together as a community we must encourage the sharing of knowledge rather than competing for knowledge. Innovators should be essential nodes, the social glue holding diverse communities together. This will be an important part of turning hundreds of small projects into a coordinated but multifaceted social innovation movement in the city of Detroit. The end game would include a functioning triple bottom line economy in Detroit – social, environmental and economic – one that responsibly employs, inspires and sustains a diverse citywide population and its natural environment.
The Urban Innovation Exchange intends to build bridges between innovators as it builds its dataset. Networks are powerful. Exciting things can happen when we identify with something larger than ourselves. How can established organizations assist the smaller start-ups? How can we develop a network mindset where we put the city first, not just our own ideas or organizations? The work of D3 in partnership with UIX attempts to answer the question everyone is asking: How do we bring our city back in a way that benefits all of its residents? UIX and D3 are taking an innovative approach just like the people and projects being profiled.
Like any new research project, we don’t yet know the complete answer, but we invite you to be part of our best estimate. Share your knowledge, expand your network and, if you are a UIX innovator, fill out your survey to help us calculate qualified results that give weight to the claim that Detroit innovates.