This time is different? Think again.

posted in: Social innovation | 0

Why history is still the greatest teacher when it comes to tackling social transformations.

Infinity time spiral.
Christian Hampel
Christian Hampel, PhD student, Cambridge Judge Business School

Apparently this time is different. Changes in technology or society are marshalled to explain why our generation faces uniquely testing times. Be it the digital economy, the weakening of the nation-state, or the redefinition of the family – all are apparently game-changing developments that are unlike anything seen before. The implication is that any social innovator worth their salt needs to be nothing but forward-looking in their efforts.

We have been here before

The truth is that despite all this rhetoric we have been here before. The old adage that history repeats itself still holds. However, this is not a reason for despair. In “The History Manifesto”, historians Dr Jo Guldi and Professor David Armitage diagnose a crisis of short-termism in present-day society and call for a return to taking the long view1.

We have become too used to seeing each challenge as unprecedented and only looking back a few years at most when seeking solutions. Instead, we could extract valuable lessons by finding parallels in long gone, far-reaching transformations. If these transformations have been significant and withstood the test of time, they are better suited as guides for action than following the latest fad. The latter is most likely to leave more heat than light. This particularly applies to social innovations. Contestation and resistance are part and parcel of their emergence.

History is still the greatest teacher

History is still the greatest teacher when it comes to approaching such innovations in a robust way. Life insurers and travel agents are a case in point. From the vantage point of today, the two might seem as uncontroversial as it gets. However, these social innovations were vilified when they entered the scene, making it dangerous for anyone to take them up.

The religious establishment of nineteenth century America attacked life insurers for putting a price on life2. Because of their seeming violation of the sanctity of human life, life insurers initially became pariahs. Similarly, the elite of Victorian England was outraged that travel agents turned the noble individual achievement of travel into a packaged product. Suddenly anyone could buy travel, even “barbarian hordes”3. Large swathes of the Victorian population would not touch the travel agency with a ten-foot pole because of its immorality. These initial vilifications jeopardised the financial sustainability of the two social innovations, nearly nipping them in the bud.

Nevertheless, the two succeeded and persisted in a dominant role – be it on the high street or online – for over a century. So much so, that it is hard to imagine societal life without them. In contrast, their tumultuous beginnings are all but forgotten. However, these beginnings offer important lessons for social innovators today. To give just three examples:

Lessons for todays social innovators

  • First, both only overcame the seemingly insurmountable opposition to them after an extended period of time. For example, the early travel agency faced over a decade of vilification from the Victorian establishment.
  • Second, both, the early life insurers and travel agents proactively approached their critics and appeased them. The former did so by integrating life insurance into the religious ritual of death. The latter did so by using their networks of tour guides to bring sought-after foreign news to the press.
  • Third, both new organisations benefitted from proposing a social innovation that people could join in a concealed fashion. This allowed potential followers to experiment with the innovation without having to publicly commit to it. If the innovation suited them, they could increase their commitment.

How can this look at the longue durée inform present social innovators? The recent ascent of online dating sites suggests that taking a leaf out of these profound social transformations can reap large dividends. Despite having started over two decades ago, online dating sites have only recently managed to shake off the widespread view that their customers are losers, mirroring developments seen among the early travel agents and life insurers4. Similarly, by offering large-scale information about their services to everyone, including their critics, and by giving people the opportunity to join secretly, an erstwhile outcast has entered the mainstream. Online dating is here to stay. Similarly, today’s social innovators can tackle tomorrow’s social issues by engaging with yesterday. They can look at history for the tried and tested processes that have caused the profound transformations, which define societal life today.

To misquote the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard: Innovation must be lived forwards, but it can best be understood backwards.


1 Guldi, J. and Armitage, D. (2014) The history manifesto. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
2 Zelizer, Viviana A. (1978) Human values and the market: the case of life insurance and death in 19th-Century America. American Journal of Sociology, 84(3): 591-610
3 Daily News. 1866, May 1. Venetia, 6
4 Read “Love on the run: the next revolution in online dating”, Jeff Bercovici, Forbes, 14 Feb 2014

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