The Means of Social Innovation

In this article I describe what is social innovation, some key/defining characteristics of social innovations and at the end, the LRA Crisis Tracker an example of a social innovation.

Social innovations are adopted and diffused ideas (products, services practices or management models) that serve to improve people’s lives and create value or financial distribution to primarily benefit the society as a whole rather than private individuals.

Social innovation starts from the awareness of human needs not being met, as a reaction to the pressures resulting from significant unsatisfied needs or “condition of necessities”. For instance, some of the major social innovations have taken place in contexts of great social and economic crises, in a context of crises there is a bigger potential for social innovation — 19th century industrialisation and urbanisation made pop-up trade unions, cooperatives and reading clubs.

Social innovation requires participation of various social actors and the transformation of social structures both in order to be adopted and diffused.

“Social innovation has new ideas that simultaneously meet social needs and create new social relationships or collaborations. They are innovations that are both good for society and enhance society’s capacity to act

There are some characteristics of social innovation outcomes:

1. Novelty doesn’t mean necessarily original, but rather something new to the user, their context or application.

Novelty can be:

  • new product or a new quality of product;
  • production method;
  • opening of a new market;
  • acquisition of a new source of raw materials;
  • reorganization of a sector of activity;
  • improving a process or outcome must be either more effective or more efficient than pre-existent alternatives.

2. Address a core social need

As said before, the starting point for innovation is the awareness of a need that is not being met. Social innovation addresses a satisfaction of unsatisfied or alienated human needs. Innovation in the social relations between individuals and groups in neighbourhoods. Address unsatisfactory social situation. Social innovation works as an answer to a social ideal or aspiration for a different society — these are the drivers — the starting point of social innovation.

3. powered by an organization driven primarily by a social mission and social value creation.

Value created and financial distribution should benefit primarily the society as a whole rather than private individuals. For instance, although new medicines may benefit millions of people all over the world, does not constitute a social innovation cause the pharmaceutical primary mission is to sell this drug and maximize its earnings which will benefit pharmaceutical shareholders and managers in forms of high dividends and salaries.

The social innovation process generally involves a complex network of formal and informal partnerships between various stakeholders. For social innovation, beneficiaries play a crucial role and they should be involved in different stages of the process of social innovation.

Social innovation process can be described as a learning process supposed to give to the beneficiaries the tools for them to take care of themselves.

  1. Define a need that is not being met and couple it with the idea how it could be met
  2. Tied to new possibilities (technological or organizational)
  3. Take a promising idea and testing it in practise (prototypes), once prototype seems to be working it needs to be scaled up. Scale is suppose to distinguish social innovations from mere inventions and isolated experiments.
  4. Learning and continuous adaptation as the context needs and evolve.

Defining the drivers is also crucial elements of social innovation. Drivers refers to what the initiative is all about, what kind of problems will it tackle and what kind of values it promotes. They inform the rationale behind a given social innovation: necessities and aspirations.

Targets of social innovation refer to who the initiative is targeted to, they are the beneficiaries of the social innovation. Targets can be individuals (abused woman, alcoholics, young offenders), organizations (firms, nonprofits, schools, government agencies) and territories (neighbourhoods, cities, regions).

There are two ways for social innovation diffusion, it can be top-down, where the change starts from experts, decision makers, political activists or bottom-up when the initiative comes (mainly) from the people and communities directly involved.

After my research on social innovation ideas to state as example, I end up choosing the LRA Crisis Tracker powered by Invisible Children.

I think it is a great example of social innovation cause it has born from the unmet need of the Communities in eastern Central African Republic (CAR) and northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). As some of the most isolated and neglected on the planet these communities lack the basic communication infrastructure to report violence or receive warning when armed groups are active nearby.

Historically, violent poachers and other armed groups like the LRA have been able to move freely throughout the region, attacking remote villages, as they exploit the region’s wildlife and other natural resources. These atrocities go largely undetected and undeterred.

In December 2009, the LRA attacked ten villages spanning a distance of 105 km in northeastern DRC, killing more than 320 people in four days during what became known as the Makombo Massacre. The lack of communication systems, combined with the limited capacity of local security forces, meant that communities along this route received no advance warning that the LRA was approaching.

The LRA Crisis Tracker is a crisis-mapping social web platform that broadcasts the attacks and other activities perpetrated by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) as well as that of other armed groups operating in the same region, in near real time.


  • 74 HF radios in the Early Warning Network
  • 78 communities protected by HF radios or satellite phones
  • 300,000 + people directly benefiting from the Early Warning Network

Bottom-down social innovation

The need for an Early Warning Radio Network was initially identified by a local organization in DRC called Commission Diocésaine pour Justice et Paix (CDJP). Its implementation was further recommended after Human Rights Watch, UN DDR/RR, and Invisible Children assessments in the region. Communities participating in the project do so voluntarily. They have been identified by their susceptibility to armed violence, location along known illicit poaching routes, and their lack of communication infrastructure necessary to report and receive security information.

The LRA Crisis Tracker compiles reports of attacks, sent via Invisible Children’s Early Warning Network with data sourced from the UN, local NGOs, and first-hand research conducted by Invisible Children and peer organisations. The reports are vetted and immediately transcribed into our database, where the information is delivered to the mapping system and directly to humanitarian and security actors operating in affected communities. The information is then made publicly available through a digital map, a breaking news feed, regular data analysis reports, and media documenting LRA atrocities first-hand.

About Invisible Children, the organization behind the LRA Crisis Tracker

Invisible Children is an organisation founded in 2004 to increase awareness of the activities of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Central Africa, and its leader, Joseph Kony. Specifically, the group seeks to put an end to the practices of the LRA, which include abductions and abuse of children, and forcing them to serve as soldiers.

Invisible Children also operates as a charitable organization, soliciting donations and selling merchandise to raise money for its cause. The organization promotes its cause by dispensing films on the internet and presenting in high schools and colleges around the United States.

References and sources:
Making Things Happen: Social Innovation and Design from Ezio Manzini
The Nature of Social Innovation from Alex Nicholls and Alex Murdock
Definition and Theory in Social Innovation by Tara Anderson, Andrew Curtis and Claudia Wittig
Invisible Children —
LRA Crisis Tracker —

Design Practise and Team Lead at OutSystems Finland

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store