Social Innovation

Flickr/Cameron Norman
Flickr/Cameron Norman

Social Innovation is an interesting topic. Many people talk about it in slices and flavors that all seem a little different. I think that it’s one of those things that you “know when you see it.” To me, social innovation is about the approach that you take and the outcomes you seek and achieve. The goal isn’t a pure profit play, but rather a sustainable system which aims to create balanced benefits. It could be as basic as creating decent jobs for those who have none, or it could be a complicated solution that improves outcomes on a wicked social or environmental problem.

Defining Social Innovation

The European Social Innovation Research finds the five core features that are essential to social innovation are:

  1. Novelty: Social innovations are new to the field, sector, region, market or user, or to be applied in a new way
  2. From ideas to implementation: Social innovation describes the implementation and application as new ideas, rather than just the development of new ideas (invention)
  3. Meets a social need: Social innovations are explicitly designed to meet a recognised social need
  4. Effectiveness: Social innovations are more effective than existing solutions – they create a measurable improvement in terms of outcomes
  5. Enhances society’s capacity to act: Social innovations empower beneficiaries by creating new roles and relationships, developing assets and capabilities and/or better use of assets and resources

They also listed common features, but were careful to note that a social innovation might display few or none of the following:

  • Cross sectoral: Occur at the interfaces between sectors and involve actors from across sectors
  • New social relationships and capabilities: Developed ‘with’ and ‘by’ users and not delivered ‘to’ and ‘for’ them. They can be identified by the type of relationships they create with and between their beneficiaries
  • Open, collaborative and experimental: Often involve production by the masses – large numbers of people working independently on collective projects without normal market structures and mechanisms
  • Prosumption and co-production: Frequently include blurred boundary between producers and consumers
  • Grass-roots, bottom-up: Feature distributed systems where innovation and initiative are dispersed to the periphery and connected by networks
  • Mutualism: Based on the idea that individual and collective well-being is obtainable only by mutual dependence
    Better use of assets and resources: Involves the recognition, exploitation and coordination of latent social assets
  • Development of capabilities and assets: Based on a participatory approach that enables beneficiaries to meet their needs over the longer term