Social Science Is Harder Than Rocket Science

Gareth I. Jones
15 min readJul 4, 2023

One day last March, Steve Wozniak really pissed me off.

Photo by Terence Burke on Unsplash

He was talking about being an entrepreneur, and all of the things he was excited about, and then he started talking about how much money he was investing into space projects.

I love space, I fully feel all of the wonder and recognise the opportunities to transfer some of the technological lessons to other challenges.

My son loves space, he talks endlessly about the dwarf planets and the moons of Jupiter.

But I don’t love space more than I love people.

I can’t help but feel like we have reached the stage where social science is either too hard, or too invisible for those who have the power to change things.

Either these people don’t see the problem, don’t appreciate the problem or don’t think they can solve the problem.

I worry that social innovation is harder than rocket science.

Social innovation is harder to define and solve, but probably also harder for people to get their money back from their investments, which is more telling.

Action

No politician or investor should be able to rest knowing there are foodbanks in their communities, that OAPs are waiting in ambulances outside A&E departments for 24 hours+, that our economy is so unfairly tilted. We need these problems to feel like shared missions in which we all have a role to play.

When Covid hit, one positive was how quickly the call to arms was heard and acted upon. People worked all hours to play their role in creating solutions, whether that was designing and manufacturing ventilators, building software to help small businesses deliver locally, or enabling communities to communicate and stay connected.

Without getting too Camus about it, we could argue about whether those efforts were a justification of the energy invested, but the overall agreement of the group to take action led to boundless innovation and creativity.

The Plague — Albert Camus

The social issues facing us have not had that moment of immediate and pressing crisis.

Like the boiling frog, these issues have developed over an extended period but have seemingly never felt so uncomfortable as to trigger the kind of response that Covid did.

They’re also less visible and their impacts less distributed.

You’re not worrying about the housing crisis if you’re mortgage free and not at risk of being moved on at the whim of a landlord hundreds of miles away.

Chances are if the system has served you well then you don’t agree that there’s much wrong with it.

ESG

I think there was once hope that an ESG investment strategy might start to turn this tanker, but more recently it feels like that was a false dawn.

ESG stands for environmental, social, and governance, and indicates a fund or funder’s interest in investing in projects that have strong qualities in these areas.

In reality, this led to increased investment in green projects that could clearly be identified, but the social and governance objectives were never fully understood.

In the last 12 months ESG has been blended into an idea of woke, or more the narrow-minded perspective of the “anti-woke”.

The idea that we do not need to focus on ensuring investment reaches companies that are creating social value or are practicing good and fair governance seems daft to me, unless seen through a very narrow perspective of introducing unnecessary obstacles.

This is probably fair if your mindset sees the role of investors as solely getting a financial return.

If you can’t see value in different ways then you’re not going to see the responsibility to make your investments work for a better world.

But this is all also symbolic of a larger virus influencing the way that people see giving fair equity as being “woke” and that being “woke” in itself is a negative. Probably a topic for another day.

Social Innovation

There are some quite obvious reasons for why we don’t see social innovation, and why we are now faced with so many expensive social challenges.

I don’t think we can ignore the cost if we want to make it a more credible destination for investment.

There’s a lack of lived experience which is being perpetuated in bad solutions coming through which are doomed from the beginning.

There’s knowing where to start and why to start.

Earlier this year we had the announcement of which towns, cities, and communities will benefit from Levelling Up funding. Some administrations were overjoyed and saw it as a “vote of confidence” while some felt more left behind than ever.

The narrative of the Levelling Up white paper was that it was targeting “left behind” places.

The idea of “left behind” is a tricky one. The language is bad, it implies an acceptance that it has happened almost intentionally.

But this is not a new trend, this is the way of life for centuries and centuries. People leave behind their hometowns in the belief that they can achieve a better quality of life elsewhere. It isn’t even limited to humans, it’s our mammalian instinct.

But there’s a bigger issue at hand here that building some shiny buildings and new cycle paths (so many cycle paths).

Social innovation is hard. Really bloody hard.

We need R&D funding and infrastructure in the same way we do for the sciences and technology. This is funding, but also access to expertise to capture best practice and better research how to make good solutions travel better.

Local Leadership

When you work with local authorities and governments you see the full range of engagement with this topic. There are whole regeneration departments these days, it’s a profession and a career path. That’s such a weird thing.

When it works well, you see people who are in the right place with the right amount of passion, commitment, and conviction to do something about the locally present issues.

What happens too often in reality is that a couple of scenarios play out:

Officers do a great job and get a better offer to go elsewhere, losing continuity

Funding bids are written with the right language but delivered by officers who don’t really believe in the mission but know the right language needed to secure the funding

Everyone is looking at a different idea of success and nobody has the language needed to define and articulate what everyone wants to get

Nobody learns anything, or maybe more accurately: nobody learns enough. Learning doesn’t have its own KPI.

Projects sit in this weird limbo between capitalism and socialism.

We have local authorities who are having to take on this burden, but it’s the same logo on your bins and recycling as on the business support service.

We want social value, but we don’t know how to value it.

This all plays out in a culture which rewards inertia. It takes a lot of bravery for an officer to commit to a project for a decade, sacrifice personal gain when attractive offers come their way, and miss out on opportunities for promotions, all the while knowing they will be the one in the firing line if anything goes wrong.

Is building a basecamp on Mars more important than rebuilding communities closer to home?

Shared Missions

I really didn’t want to go to Saudi Arabia.

In March 2022 I was invited for a conference and to say I was apprehensive would be an understatement. I was so apprehensive that I was hoping I tested positive for Covid so as to have a decent excuse not to go.

I spoke to members of the team who wouldn’t feel they could legally visit and be themselves, I did research, I wanted to be prepared for what would come, and go with my eyes fully open.

I was ready to be angry.

In the end, I was so glad to have gone ahead with the trip to see things for myself.

What was clear from my experience (albeit, a very curated one) was that there was a clear nation-building mindset. This didn’t feel like petty nationalism, everyone I spoke to had a sense of a role in creating a green and inclusive economy and society.

Every Saudi national that I chatted with created the impression that they were fully bought into this mission, everyone saw they had a role.

Everybody recognised there was a big opportunity, that it would take hard work, and that there would be uncomfortable moments as old skin was shed for the new.

The extreme here was that everything I had expected going into the trip was dispelled. I’ve never seen any British leaders or politicians create such a platform for female talent as the Princes did in Saudi.

It was a deeply intoxicating thing seeing this shared mission that had been taken to heart by all residents.

This was the old story of the janitor at NASA in 1962 who, when asked what he did by JFK, stated “I’m helping put a man on the moon”.

I didn’t leave angry, but inspired.

We don’t have a shared cause in the UK right now, we don’t all agree on our national mission or our moonshot.

We don’t agree on anything anymore.

Our Shared Cause

Right now, the fabricated “culture wars” create a very difficult environment for a shared cause to emerge.

Without being too crass, this is why I think environmentalism should be such an opportunity for us as human beings.

Solving the environmental crisis doesn’t need to be divisive. It doesn’t matter whether you believe in climate change or not, it is rational for us to focus on energy security through renewable sources, and reducing use.

It gives economic potential through power generation, while giving sovereignty over the security of our power sources.

The only reason why any group would be fighting against environmental causes is to seed chaos and distract through dispute, or vested interest.

Revolutionising our energy system has been blocked by talk of our restrictions due to the cost of living but this is a flawed argument. There is no care there for that, this is an opportunity to make a buck.

Every household and business should have access to interest-free loans to implement specific energy efficiency technologies. The interest and return we would receive as a commonwealth would be worth it.

We need a social mission that unites us and creates on-ramps for more people to be able to benefit from it.

On-ramps

On-ramps are simple concepts, they’re the entry points for people to engage with a service or system.

This is a fundamental factor in creating accessible services for different user groups and profiles.

I’ll write more about these in the future, but I want to make sure that jargon isn’t just sailed past.

How We Do Things Around Here

There is another risk which could turn opportunity — and that’s tradition. The way we’ve always done things.

But that doesn’t stack up. Ask anyone over the age of 50 and they’ll tell you about Corona pop, and homemade stock, and turning off the lights, and only having meat on Sundays.

Circa 1932 Crossley by Alan Farrow is marked with Public Domain Mark 1.0

Just because some people are afraid of the world changing, it doesn’t mean the rest of us should hold back.

But it also doesn’t mean we can push on an ignore the needs of an influential audience.

Being more vegetarian became a fashionable trend which a meat alternative manufacturer tried to promote and capitalise on in the last decade.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a vegan or vegetarian if you enjoy what you eat and it comes from sustainable sources. People buy into the idea of shopping locally and the value of doing so, when they can afford to.

But if vegetarianism is perceived as a lack of something then this is never going to work.

We fear loss more than we appreciate gain, which Kahneman and Tversky identified in 1979 when they coined the term “loss aversion”.

This theory makes the pain of loss feel much greater than the joy of gaining.

Understanding it better makes game shows like Deal or No Deal or the Weakest Link a bit less interesting, so I’d suggest skipping to the next section if enjoyment of these shows makes up a large part of your life’s joy.

The simplest way to understand the idea is that we, on average, need to gain 2.5x as much to justify the risk of a loss. Basically, losing £1,000 feels far worse than gaining £1,000 feels good.

Same in football, a point gained feels much better than the same point if it comes from letting a winning position slip.

If we talk about people losing meat as a privilege from their diet then vegetables need to feel more than an equal replacement.

And never cauliflower steaks. Ever.

Never, ever. Photo by Karolina Kołodziejczak on Unsplash

It’s not just meat, this applies the same to trying to encourage people to ditch their cars for public transport.

That certainly won’t work if the service is worse and more expensive than running a car, and the answer isn’t making that twice as costly and cumbersome. A mistake which is being made right now in my own country.

Yuval Noah Harari talks a lot about tradition in Sapiens, as does Jonathan Haidt in the Happiness Hypothesis. Sharing our culture between generations is important, and these relationships form a significant proportion of our happiness in life.

That doesn’t mean we don’t create new traditions but there are a lot of people who are going to be feeling quite upset that we’re not appreciating and valuing theirs.

If we want change, we need to bring people along on the journey and make them feel welcome, not force them to embrace it without giving them any options.

Ditching their traditions like they’re worthless is the quickest way to ensure you will not succeed.

Homeless Founders

To be a social entrepreneur is to be homeless twice.

Photo by Will Francis on Unsplash

The charities and social causes are sceptical of the entrepreneurship, and the entrepreneurial community think the socials are too soft and fluffy.

You feel a bit like you have to be a shape shifter able to blend in amongst the squares and the circles, paranoid that you’ll never quite be fully one or the other.

I think growing up in my corner of Wales was a good training exercise for this. You’re not British, but you’re never truly Welsh. And these days you’re not even European as a catch-all.

This is post three in a three-part series on social entrepreneurship and it’s relationship with rocket science and Saudi Arabia. You can read part one here, and part two here.

Social entrepreneurship is on the rise, and that’s good for society and hopefully for the founders too.

A recent Gartner Employee Value Proposition report claimed that someone doing a job that realises their personal values is said to feel 52% more connected to their employer.

Doing work that is aligned to what you care about is a good plan for a fulfilling life.

You need to be able to sleep at night, and being a social entrepreneur can give you a purpose that makes those 8+ hours in the middle of the day more bearable too.

There’s a lot of research on the impact that bad sleep has on your work, but its a cycle — bad work also creates bad sleep.

That said, there are lots of restless nights for anyone battling broken systems.

It’s better than most jobs, but you need to know what you care about.

You can look at the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, you can use tools like the BBC R&D well-being toolkit, or you can just get out there in the world to see what you love and find your place.

I’ll share some life design tools in the not too distant future to help with other ways to map these things out.

No matter what you commit to, you will never be able to do it all alone, hence the need for bridges.

Well, which is it?

Social Innovation

We have a lot of long-established norms that need to be challenged but it feels like we’re a long way from even getting started.

In the last month there has been a lot of public discourse about the need to revamp the inheritance tax rules.

One staggering fact from Britannia Unchained was that 80% of Britain’s €6.7trillion wealth is owned by those born between 1946 and 1964.

The wealthiest 10% of the population hold 43% of all the wealth in Great Britain compared to the bottom 50% who have only 9%.

22% have a household wealth of over $1,000,000, predominantly in the south-east of England.

Statista describes that, “The UK has a healthy and growing population of millionaires,” but I think that word healthy might be slightly dependent on whether you’re one of them, or have a chance to be.

Between 1995 and 2005, those aged between 25 and 34 saw their wealth fall, while those between 55 and 66 saw it triple.

It isn’t a surprise that those who’ve lived longer have accumulated more wealth, but home-ownership has long been the easiest route to passively build wealth and this is becoming impossible.

One in five boomers owns a second home, by contrast, just 15 per cent of owner-occupied housing is owned by those under 44.

You can not honestly say to younger generations anymore that they have a chance to be better off than their parents or grandparents.

When I found out what proportion of people were outright home owners I was astonished. The majority of home-owners are now mortgage free, 8.8million, compared to 6.8million residencies mortgaged, and 4.1million in social rent (numbers are for England only).

When house values are doubling every decade, things like inheritance tax laws increasingly play a role in whether we’re resetting the advantage or giving a generation of people access to New Game+.

The book the Tyranny of Merit makes an excellent case for the impact of the failure of the level playing field.

We’re romantically attracted to the idea of merit determining the likelihood of success in life, but it’s been a long time since this was true.

If we look to the United States, our closest cultural comparison, everything that was the American dream has come under attack.

The American dream of the smoking, drinking, gun owning, manly man, driving a gas guzzler and going from zero to hero has been abolished, admonished, and adjusted.

For many this will be hard to take. The alternative path includes a lot of loss and no perceived upside.

We haven’t decided if we want our shared vision to be a society of fairness, equality, levelling the playing field, or giving a boost.

The argument about inheritance tax needs some pre-agreed points which we don’t all have. Should everyone have the same chance regardless of the family they’re born into or should the hard work of previous generations give future generations a better platform to start with?

What is fair for the child born into an adverse childhood experience vs the child born into advantage? What differences does it make to each group if the other group is helped or hindered?

I recently heard from a social entrepreneur who was refused access to significant funding because nobody in the team had “lived experience” of the challenge. They work in the justice sector, and are creating significant value, but their degrees and upbringing, along with never having slept in a prison cell, prevented them from being able to scale up — reducing the opportunity they have to serve a neglected audience.

Who wins and who loses in this scenario?

Social Entrepreneur Wanted, Salary £1

This was genuinely the ad I responded to when I first met my co-founders at ICE.

The world needs more social entrepreneurs. Social entrepreneurs who can tell these stories, invite others in to the challenge, and engage more to be change makers without alienating the very important established people who can create better conditions.

Being a social entrepreneur is a lonely journey. That’s why I wanted to pull this content together. You might feel like an island, but with the right bridges and rafts you can take on any challenge.

If we had a few more high profile investors and entrepreneurs take an interest in the world of social impact then maybe we wouldn’t all be in such a rush to leave this planet and colonise others.

Patient investors who appreciate that there will be fascinating lessons and stories along with their traditional ROI.

To bring it back to Wozniak and Musk: let’s fix what happens on our own planet before worrying about ruining the others.

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Gareth I. Jones

Founder of TownSq, focused on building communities of entrepreneurs, supporting startups and B Corps - businesses that are better for the planet.