The bees and trees description has long been used to explain how social innovation flourishes. This is unfortunate because I’m terrified of bees (though they only stung me when I was pre-pubescent, for some reason). It refers to a symbiosis between highly resourced, stable institutions and mobile, flexible entrepreneurs. On the one hand, institutions benefit from the accumulation of local knowledge, human capital, and financial assets. On the other, they are slow to respond to new challenges or opportunities, hamstrung by bureaucracy, and averse to risk. Entrepreneurs, by contrast, are plugged into social change, able to seize new opportunities, are mobile and flexible with considerable scope to adopt new working practices. They are risk takers who prize gains above potential losses.
The bees and trees analogy has been made concrete in our recent analysis of faith-based social innovation. In particular, it is highly relevant in helping to explain how Christian groups have devolved their “faith-in-action” operations to faciliate social innovation (especially in mid-sized UK cities). We started out trying to explore whether there were instances of interfaith social action, but found that there really were no examples (at least not in the city we were researching). What we did find is that Christian groups were highly organised and composed of networks of what has been termed ‘solid’ and ‘liquid’ churches: those which are rooted ‘anchor’ institutions and those which are responsive, ranging anything from long running projects to short-lived, ad hoc initiatives to meet an immediate need. The relationship between these two has been described as symbiotic since the liquid church is dependent upon the solid church for resources and capital, whereas the solid church uses the liquid church to plug into current social currents and effect social change.
This is an impressive model for faith-based social innovation but it does beg a few questions. What we found is that the relationship between solid and liquid churches is enabled by city-wide networks which are mandated to co-ordinate social action. There is no interfaith equivalent of this. We also found that these networks tend to reinforce the exclusions of minority faith groups from collaboration and partnership, since such networks consolidate shared values, norms and trust. It tells us that the emphasis on forums for interfaith dialogue which sprung up post-Cantle might need to expand their mandate. Instead of focussing entirely on providing channels for dialogue, they should also be geared towards co-ordinating interfaith social action. We know that Christian groups have an operational and resource headstart on other faith groups, but many of their social action projects, such as the debt counselling services provided by Christians Against Poverty, already operate through franchise models which suggests that other faith groups could adopt their organisational blueprints. Interfaith forums orientated toward action rather than dialogue could serve three useful functions: identifying areas of social need, identifying areas of the city where need is most acute, and co-ordinating effective responses depending on faith group presence. If faith groups are to step up to the Big Society plate – which the majority say they do – interfaith forums need to evolve. Could universities play a role here?