System dynamics and social innovations

The topic of the VTT SSB workshop that was held this week was social innovations. In this blog post, I will not attempt to summarize the entire discussion of the workshop but rather point out two ways in which system dynamics is relevant for research in this area.

1) Content

Social innovations address issues of environmental and social sustainability, and typically involve a broad system consisting of multiple organizations and other actors. Methodologically, researchers studying organizations have in many cases used qualitative techniques to understand the simultaneous on-going processes of a particular case in detail. With qualitative techniques it is possible to identify key factors, their relationships and even individual feedback loops within a system. In other words, explain how and why the system has behaved in a certain way.

However, what can be said about the future behaviour of a complex system under different policy scenarios? Situations involving time delays, accumulations, and feedbacks are difficult to understand only using verbal reasoning and present an opportunity for system dynamics modelling. In my view, qualitative case studies and formal system dynamics simulations can be seen as highly complementary. Any simulation model is only as good as the data upon which it is built and qualitative data collection techniques are needed for a model to represent the real world in a suitable way.

2) Process

Regarding social innovations, the term ’social’ also refers to the participatory way in which innovations are carried out. System dynamics group model building (Vennix 1999) is a methodology in which various stakeholders are brought together in workshops to tackle a problematic situation.  The strength of this approach is that it combines facilitation techniques (that improve communication and stakeholder engagement) with system dynamics modelling (that increases understanding of the behaviour of complex social systems). This opens up a possibility for effective implementation of social innovations.

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