Exploring Social Innovation

September 28, 2016

Over the past decade the concept of innovation and social innovation have increased dramatically in usage and popularity. Google ‘innovation’ and over 500 million results come up; social innovation and one gets over 20 million results. I am often a bit skeptical of currently popular approaches or solutions to complex and long-term challenges. In our ‘quick-fix’ society where attention spans are short, focusing on innovation can indirectly lead to masking the long-term effort that is needed to bring about significant change (see What’s the Recipe? ).

Fortunately one of the leading publications that helped publicize social innovation, the Stanford Social Innovation Review, also publishes the periodic article that addresses its limitations. In “Innovation is not the holy grail” Christina Seelos and Johanna Mair write: “First, innovation is often perceived as a development shortcut; thus innovation becomes overrated. The tremendous value that is created by incremental improvements of the core, routine activities of social sector organizations gets sidelined. Therefore pushing innovation at the expense of strengthening more routine activities may actually destroy rather than create value.”

The above is not to say there isn’t value in social innovation. If we look at the concept of innovation more critically and manage our expectations, there is certainly value in the approaches and methodologies that have come from the increased focused on social innovation. I like this definition of innovation: ‘any solution that addresses a problem more effectively than existing approaches’. It doesn’t mean we need to necessarily ‘create something new’, it may be that we want to innovate how we work. And always it is about vesting our own leadership and stakeholders and customizing ideas to our own situation.

Here are some questions to ask to get started as we seek to make our organizations more innovative:
• What are we trying to change/accomplish for the organization and our stakeholders?
• What is our own working definition of change and innovation? Where do we need a new approach or process(es)?
• What can we learn from what is working well for us?
• Who else is trying similar things /exploring similar ideas that we can learn from?
• If the change is a significant one for our operations are we prepared to invest the time and resources needed to stay with it over time?

And here are some of the techniques gaining attention under the popular definition of social innovation that might be worth exploring in your work:

1. Using design thinking or ‘start-up’ approaches rather than (or together with) more traditional nonprofit strategic planning. This may include testing initial concepts with select users, learning from their feedback and making necessary adjustments until the product or service meets your needs. Some observations on a design oriented workshop

2. Social Labs can be a useful way of exploring new ideas, and organizing core groups to take these ideas forward. Using the experimental framework of a laboratory, and applying it to other environments can open up to new ways of looking at old challenges. More about Social Labs 

Additional resources
Rediscovering social innovation
12 Lessons Learned
What is Social Innovation (video)
Defining Social Innovation
Social Innovation for NGOs
Scaling Innovation is a Marathon not a Sprint