Civil Society and the emergence of an innovation society

By Dr. Sam Amadi

Let me thank God for the lives of our comrade and brother, Reverend David Ugolor, who is celebrating 48 years of Gods blessings and mercy. David has been a strong and compelling voice in civil society advocacy, especially in public finance accountability. Through his ANEEJ, he has raised the profile and credibility of environment rights and justice advocacy. I met him first more than 15 years as a young human rights activist engaged in community mobilize for sustainable development. He has come a long way. But he has not abandoned the passion and commitment that caught my attention and admiration those many years.

I have taken the liberty to reframe the topic of this lecture because I think that the celebrant will not mind that much. Additionally, I think this topic will allow me to properly present the ideas and insights I will like to share.

Why Innovation Matters:

Before we discuss about an innovation society we need to understand what is innovation and why is it important to have an innovation society. Human society exists to help human beings flourish. Our ideas of human flourishing may differ but every one of us can agree that society exist to enable human being live fulfilling lives. Modern right theorists would argue that human flourishing in this context means enabling human beings fulfill their individual projects. The benchmarks of a good society would be one that provides support for citizens to live a life of dignity, freedom and justice. In the classical natural law philosophy dating from Aristotle, the idea of the community is committed to fostering a virtuous life for its members. Aristotle believed that the purpose of a community is promote a virtuous life, which is a life of excellence.

For Aristotle, man is a social animal. If we live together we will confront problems that militate against a fulfilling life for members of the society. As social animals the success of our individual pursuit of prosperity, liberty and happiness depends on the quality of social life we build. This is where institutions become important. Human beings as social animal means that we cannot realize the good of human happiness and dignity alone. We realize these goods in community with other persons. Once we enter into community to realize the good of human happiness and dignity we enter into social organization and management for the common good. We therefore much solve problems that confront this common enterprise- the enterprise of producing in sustainable measure human happiness and dignity. Please note that when I use happiness I include everything we today classify as material prosperity, good health and general social wellbeing.

Solving problems that militate against human happiness and dignity is the defining task of human communities, be they cities or countries. The social contract theorists, approaching the issue from divergent definitions of the state of nature, agree that the purpose of government is the promotion of property, freedom and dignity of human beings who live in communities. Government exists to make sure the pursuit of happiness and dignity is not undermined by problems. In the hunter and gatherer society, when humans were still in the state of nature, threats to prosperity can easily be overcome by exercise of physical strength.

But as society exits the state of nature it begins to encounter threats that can no longer be overcome through exercise of physical strength. These problems now require the application of intelligence to create machines and tools that enhance the capabilities of human beings. So, through instrumentation, human beings began to punch beyond their physical strength. More advanced society also begin to design advanced solutions in the form of social institutions to deal with social and economic problems that threaten sustainable development. A prime example of such advancement will be the development of economic management theories that allowed societies to overcome the law of diminishing returns as discovered by Ricardo, just as we overcome the law of gravity through the principles of aerodynamics.

Human society enters the innovation when it uses intelligence to solve problems that otherwise defy ordinary human capacities. Human societies innovate solutions to existential problem through designing high quality institutions to manage the threats they face. We can now measure the innovation quotient of various societies by reviewing the quality of the institutions they design to solve problems.
But what are institutions? The Nobel Laurate in Economic and a leading proponent of the New Institutional Economics, Professor Douglas North, has offered what could be the best definition of institution. He defined institution as humanly devised constraints that enable or disenable action. These includes rules, norms, procedures and processes. So, when we speak about the institution of criminal justice in Nigeria we dont mean such formal organizations like the Courts, the police stations and ministries of justice. We mean also the operating manuals in the police stations, the organizational culture of policing in Nigeria and the cultural norms of criminal justice in the country. So, when scholars and practitioners of development claim that the quality of institutions determines economic growth and development in the country, we should not understand them to be referring to just buildings and formal organizations.

Innovation is not merely a matter of academic pastime. Innovation is the secret of survival on planet earth. The fruit of innovation range from the many products that enable us to contain the scourge of disease and prolong the longevity and quality of life, to the breakthrough in physical sciences that enable us to counter the threat of climate change. Innovation is also evident in the social and political sectors. Many of the less corrupt countries in the Nordic region are less corrupt because they have developed social and political institutions that better manage the reality of human nature and pathologies of social relationship. Their accountability mechanisms reflect higher intelligence and creative application of economic and social insights. Whilst other resources rich countries in Africa are suffering from resources curse these countries are investing oil resources in building better human capital and stronger society.

So, innovation matters because it is the secret of sustainable development. Sooner or later all resources will run out. Sooner or later societies that cannot innovate will run out solution and they would be left helpless in the face of daunting challenges. Today, we are witnessing a major divide between the axis of poverty and the axis of wealth. The society of the future may be divided between those can innovate and those that cannot.

An Innovative Society: The Highest Stage of Transformation:
Countries in the world could be group according to their income bases. Some of the poorest countries in the world are producers of primary products, especially agricultural products. These countries are still agrarian. They are subject to the law of diminishing returns. As the population increases the land yields less and less. The pressure mounts to migrate toward more land to maintain the same yield or to apply technology and better land use system to increase the productivity of the land. Agrarian societies today are very poor, often subject to bubble and burst of a commodity market. Next to a manufacturing society, otherwise called an industrial society. All the countries in the first and second world are industrial economies hence their per capita income is much higher than agrarian societies. But still the highest per capita income belongs to service-based economies. These are countries that have gone beyond manufacturing and have developed the service sector. They are still industrial but have added high level innovation to their manufacturing. US, UK, the Scandinavian countries have entered the innovation society.

Some of the East Asian countries are also innovation societies. In his book, How Asia Works, Joe Stub points out how East Asia developed economically by moving from agrarian to industrial to innovation society. The critical fact is that those Asian countries that become rich used intelligent policies to move from agrarian economies to industrial societies and later now becomes knowledge economies. Innovation societies are defined by the critical role that knowledge and knowledge production play in their economic development. Such societies increase productivity by increasing stock of knowledge, not just any sort of knowledge. But knowledge that is creative and innovative. The hallmark of innovation society is the employment of creativity to solve problems. An innovative society has developed both the hardware and the software of innovation to produce higher quality goods and services.

In this paper we will be more concerned with social innovation in relation to civil society. The Stanford Social Innovation Review defines Social innovation as a novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable or just than existing solutions and for which the value created accrues primarily to society as a whole rather than private individuals. Social innovations include strategies, ideas, processes and organizations. They are processes for elevating social problem solving through creative employment insights and ideas.

The Hardware and Software of social Innovation:
What makes a society an innovation society? What features accounts for the ability of some societies to innovate and others cannot? I identify what I call the hardware and software of innovation- technological and social. Things like the political regimes and economic systems we can call hardware. Innovation will be more likely in societies that promote entrepreneurship by reward private initiatives.

Such a society will recognize trade and private property. It will be difficult to have sustainable innovation in societies where people are not rewarded for efforts. The great political economist, Joseph Schumpeter thought that it is a free market society that can promote entrepreneurship which he believed was the sources of innovation. He called it creative destruction. He associated monopolies with the capacity to undertake long term research that will lead to innovation. Although the latter point is contestable as monopolies can manipulate price and block competition; thereby destroying incentive to innovate, his view that entrepreneurship is key to innovation is unassailable. But the general idea of Such society must also protect in some degrees intellectual property.We can all debate whether the present regime of intellectual property protection does not value profit over life. The fight over generic drugs suggests that perhaps the regime of intellectual property protection may have gone too far in protecting enterprise at the detriment of human life and community sustainable development. But what is never debatable is that protection for intellectual work is fundamental to sustaining investment of human capital in solving social problems.

What is the software of innovation? The American sociologist, Robert Putnam viewed civil society from the point of view of social capital and social trust. These are part of the software of innovation. Innovation is a collaborative enterprise. Innovators build on the work of other researchers and thinkers. They solve problems in a community defined by mutual trust and respect. If the social capital or the trust quotient in a society is low it may be difficult to have the degree of social cooperation required for sustainable innovation. Robert Putnam considered the deficiencies of a low trust society in his classic, Bowling Alone. These social capitals include volunteerism, membership in association and unions and religious beliefs and practices. Drawing from Alexis Tocquevilles magisterial Democracy in America, Putnam argued for more civic engagement.

Another important software for innovation is ethical universalism, the notion that human beings share common moral qualities that mandate non-discriminatory treatment. As a matter of fact, innovative societies are characterized by ethical universalism and, to a large extent, the principle of individualism. Such societies treat people without regard to their particularities of birth or status. Such societies contrasts from honorific societies that treat people differently according to their social or cultural status. Max Weber, the theorist of modernity argued that modern development is only possible in a bureaucratic society, a society where rules and laws replace traditional norms and privileges. This is the underlying structure of liberal and human rights-oriented societies.

An innovation obviously thrives in knowledge. The Nobel Laureate in Economics, Kenneth Arrow argues the importance of learning and doing. People learn by doing. Therefore, innovation society also have innovative industries. This is also why innovative societies are usually post-industrial societies. Innovation comes from doing and big corporation provide the learning environment for innovation. Two important points arise from this insight. First, without good education it is difficult to have innovation. Quality education is a software for innovation. When Japan began its transition from agrarian to industrial society it had more 80-90% literacy level. It also has public norms that valued quality education. This means that it must be a meritocracy which encourages learning and doing. If you measure in terms of the quality of higher institute of learning and the number of patents posted by schools and institutes in these innovative societies you will appreciate the high quality of education in these societies. This contrasts with our society that despises knowledge and has no social reward for excellence. A society that is not merit-based, that introduce privilege and prerogatives to undercut merit is no where close to an innovative society

Civil Society and Innovation:
It is difficult to remember when there were no civil societies. That will tell you how old and venerable civil societies have been. Legend has it that the oldest civil society was the Birch Society dedicated to the preservation of some bird species. Today, civil society straddle different segments of social life. Some civil society organization are located in the business sector while others are in the social sector. The concept of civil society is so problematic that some person hold their breath when the National Rifle Association (NRA) in the USA or the Organized Petroleum Trade Section (OPTS) of the Lagos Chamber of Commerce are listed as civil society organizations. Just as we have civil societies that promote positive changes in the world there are those that promotes negative results. So, even as the concept of civil society is controversial, the realities of civil society is also controversial.

Aristotle defined civil society as community. When he said man is a political animal he was referring to the primacy of civil society. So, civil society for Aristotle is sphere of the political life. Many modern scholars of civil society like Putnam and Habermas have picked upon this to enunciate different dimensions of civil society. For Putnam, out of civil society flows social capital and social trust that are the heart of social economy. Habermas focused on the will-formation and intersubjectivity of a communicative society.
From a definitional point of view, the German Philosopher, Hegel, has provided the most popular definition of civil society as a system of economic relationship that defines the separate stage between government and the family. So, for Hegel, every economic and social activity that is not government and the family is civil society. This locates civil society within the realm of capitalist economy.
This definition appealed to Karl Marx and Frederic Engel in their attack the bourgeoise state.
In Nigeria, civil society movement became a phenomenon under the military dictatorship. The Civil Liberties Organization (CLO) was the forerunner of the prodemocracy and human rights civil society movement in Nigeria. Formed by a few impressionable young men (and no woman) the CLO focused on protecting the human rights of people at the receiving end of state brutalities. It is noteworthy that the CLO emerged at the same time with the growth of democracy in East Europe. Neoliberal reforms based on the so-called Washington Consensus therefore promoted the development of civil society organizations in one-party and military states as a staging post for democratization. Today, as Nigerian has become a democratic society, there hundreds of well established civil society organizations that promoting various conceptions of democracy and human development.

As civil society movement grow across the world it has been heavily criticized as embodying the ideological pretensions and policy preferences of the liberal capitalist western society. The civil society has also been harshly lampooned as part of the process of re-socializing the developing countries away from real transformation into a pseudo-democracy, which in the words of Professor Claude Ake is merely the correlates the free market. But notwithstanding the critique of civil society as a vanguard of democracy globally, in Nigeria we can say that without the civil society we would not be celebrating democracy, not matter how nominal and unstable the practice of democracy is in Nigeria. We cannot forget that the civil society, especially the prodemocracy and human rights version, worked hard to mobilize various groups against military dictators. Even after the end of military rule civil society has continued to deep the practice of democracy in Nigeria. We have the civil society to thank for the reform of electoral system. In the 2015 elections Nigeria crossed a major milestone in consolidating electoral democracy. With the work of the civil society and their international partner we would not have had a independent electoral management body like the INEC. We cannot also forget the titanic battle the civil society groups waged for over a decade to ensure the enactment of a freedom of information law in Nigeria. These are some of legacies of the civil society movement in Nigeria.

Nigerian civil society has had a respectable profile in the struggle for a democratic and progressive society in Nigeria. It has been a champion of human rights and accountable governance in Nigeria. It has also played key roles to deepen commitment to sustainable development based on improving human capital. We see many of them delivering public health, quality education and poverty reduction. Without the civil society groups working in the Northeast of Nigeria we may be able to contain and manage the scourges of Boko Haram militancy. The Nigerian state is notoriously weak and ineffective, even in executing simple task. So, without civil society group delivering services in the Northeast on behalf of international development agencies, things would have been very messy. Therefore, the talk about regulating the civil society as proposed in the discredited NGO Bill is plain nonsense. It does not respect the great work civil society has played in promoting democracy.

Civil Society and the Burden of Innovation:
Although civil society in Nigeria has played key role to usher Nigeria into sustainable democracy and development, it still has a lot of work to do to promote the ideals of the public good. The knowledge and skill gap in the civil society movement in Nigeria is too huge that it does not encourage social innovation. Again, the Nigerian civil society needs to reinvent itself to reinvent society. The stagnating norm of ethical particularism and its consequent regime of prerogative fosters a corrupt and uncompetitive society. Such a society cannot be innovating. Civil society groups in Nigeria should recognize that they have responsibility to foster the cultural reform necessary to build a sustainable foundation for social innovation.

It is the responsibility of civil society group to move Nigerian away from a rent-seeking to an innovation economy. This requires transformation of the collective action norms that define social cooperation in Nigeria. For one, civil society groups should be at the vanguard of efforts to institutionalize meritocracy in the public service of Nigeria. If Nigerian ruling elites continue to value particularistic ethics rather than ethical universalism; if the Nigerian ruling elites continue to reward privilege and prerogatives rather than performance, then we will remain poor and unproductive. Poverty breeds violence and violence reinforce poverty. As long as we dont transition into a meritocratic society that value productivity over ethnic identity and social status we cannot enter into an innovative society. In the context of resource curse and the growing poverty of commodities-based economies, Nigerias survival depends on how quickly it can transition into an innovative society. Civil society is based on ethical universalism. It is rooted in universal human rights which is the ethics that is agnostic of peoples particularistic attributes in social and economic allocation. The opposite of that is ethical particularism, which is basis of patrimonial models of political leadership.

If we want to open the social space we have to affirm the principles of ethnical universalism. This principle makes it possible to effectively enforce the rule of law and social justice. Nigerias halfhearted embrace of ethical universalism and its emphasis on merit rather than ethnic identity and social status in allocation of social goods is the gateway to ultimately becoming an innovation society. The civil society should naturally be the champion of such a social reorientation.

Dr. Amadi, former Chairman and Chief Executive of the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC), is a Senior Lecturer at the Base University and Visiting Fellow at the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies (NIALS). He delivered this lecture at the Reverend David Ugolor inaugural Public Lecture Series on Monday, February 5, 2018 at the Constantial Hotel, Benin, Edo State, Nigeria