Social Innovation and Peace: The United Nations' Sustainable Development Agenda

The synergy between self-identifying peacebuilders and social innovators is of statistical value, economists Topher McDougal and Jelena Starcevic write.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) represent a global consensus on objectives for addressing the world’s most pressing social and environmental issues. Upon adoption of this ambitious agenda spanning 2015-2030, the United Nations General Assembly called on the governmental, nonprofit, and for-profit sectors to work together and utilise all available resources. In recent years, attention has focused on the potential for social innovation to bring about such profound social changes by working across those sectors.

Given shared values and similar approaches between social innovation and the Sustainable Development agenda, we wondered if we, at the Kroc School of Peace Studies at the University of San Diego, could describe the relationship between them using statistics. We had a particular interest in SDG 16, which aims to promote “peaceful and inclusive societies”. The synergy between self-identifying peacebuilders and social innovators is of great interest. To what extent are these two things empirically related in today’s world?

Through a cross-country regression analysis, we devised estimated progress towards each SDG as a function of the Social Innovation Index. Our initial models saw statistically significant associations between social innovation and just about every SDG. and urbanisation in population percentage terms. The controlled models whittled the list of SDGs with strong relationships to social innovation to just four:

  • SDG 8: Sustainable economic growth;
  • SDG 11: Inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable human settlements;
  • SDG 14: Sustainable use of marine resources; and
  • SDG 16: Peaceful and inclusive societies.

All four associations were positive. That is, countries that tend to support social innovation also tend to exhibit
(a) sustainable economic growth,
(b) sustainable communities,
(c) sustainable use of marine resources, and
(d) more peaceful and just societies. Other areas showing near-significant promise for the social innovation sector include education, gender equity, and industrial innovation.

We can quantify the magnitude of these relationships, too. For example, a one standard deviation (SD) improvement in SII is associated with a five SD improvement in peace and justice (see Figure 1). These relationships are associations, not one-way causal pathways. Social innovations may, and often probably do, lead to societies that are more peaceful. One example might be the first social impact bond famously introduced in Peterborough, England, which aimed to incentivise reductions in recidivism among prisoners. However, causality may run oppositely, too: in more violent societies, social innovation initiatives may fall down on the list of pressing priorities. For instance, just remaining operational was a trick in wartime Liberia; local businesses were not necessarily concerned with moving the needle on social or environmental responsibility.

These relationships are generalisations. Within each SDG, relationship strength between the SII and the SDG targets varies widely. SDGs exhibiting little overall relationship to social innovation may nevertheless contain components that do. Conversely, SDGs exhibiting strong relationships with social innovation may contain aspects that do not. Take the example of SDG 16 on peace and justice, which motivated us to undertake this analysis in the first place. Controlled analyses detect no significant relationship between social innovation and violent crimes (intentional homicides and forced kidnappings). But social innovation is correlated to better functioning justice institutions (as suggested by lower numbers of unsentenced detainees and higher numbers of independent human rights monitors) (see Figure 2).

Hopefully this little exercise, while only a static snapshot, can complement existing resources like NESTA and the GIIN’s Navigating Impact tool to help guide universities, social innovation incubators and challenges, and impact investors, making programmatic and resource allocation decisions to tackle the world’s toughest challenges. For us, it was gratifying to see a  synergy revealed between social innovation and peace – something our faculty and students had already intuited. It suggests, perhaps, that individuals and organisations can contribute meaningfully to a more peaceful world when they are enabled to think and act in creative, intentional, and ethically-responsible ways.