Social Innovation Comes with Trade-offs

Where can a social innovation lab create the most impact?

This article is an excerpt of a research done at OCAD University by Salman Abedin, Hannah Carriere, Samia Hossain, Samhita Misra and Myself. It is produced as a gigamap which you can download here.

What is Social Innovation?

The consensus on defining social innovation is that there is no consensus. Most definitions contain some element of either process or impact. Often, social innovation involves doing something new, or in a new way, to impact some sort of social, societal, or systemic change. While these definitions contain similar ideas, the specifics of each organization’s definition leads the organizational work into widely different directions.

As the definition diagram above shows, there is a wide range of ideas contained within similar elements. For example, doing something “new” might involve a new process, a new solution, or a new approach. Social change might entail systemic change, cultural change, incremental improvements to problems, collaboration, recombination of assets, or meeting a social need. Sometimes social innovation is about innovation emerging from communities, and other times it is about organizations mobilizing communities to create an intended impact. The ambiguity surrounding the definition of social innovation reflects the wide variety of approaches and impacts of social innovation work.

Four Assumptions of Social Innovation Labs

Many definitions of social innovation are rooted in process, taking their cues from the emergence of complex entities that arise in complex adaptive systems. As the theory goes, if you place different people from different disciplines and backgrounds in a room together, ideas circulate and adapt to create social innovation. This theory provides the basis of many social innovation labs, and it is interesting to note how popular social innovation labs have become. However, as Marlieke Kieboom suggests, social innovation labs are problematized when four critical assumptions of their work and structure are revealed (Kieboom, 2014).

1. Solutions

First, social innovation labs operate under the assumption that solutions to complex problems are possible. They work to identify the “root causes” of a complex problem, create a solution that would solve it, and carry out a design process that involves multiple stakeholders prototyping to create a systemic solution (Kieboom, 2014). However, in doing this, social innovation labs forget that complex problems are dynamic rather than static, and entangled within a system of ideas and values rather than existing on their own (Kieboom, 2014). As a result, social innovation labs often run the risk of oversimplifying the problem. By creating incremental changes within the system, social innovation labs advocating for small solutions can stand in the way of transformative change (Kieboom, 2014).

2. Politics

A second assumption that labs operate under is the ability to be neutral, or distanced. The hope is that social innovation labs may act as a changemaker between different parties (Kieboom, 2014). However, the questions always remain: who is the client? Which group is the lab creating solutions for? Social innovation labs have a tendency to act as saviours in a relationship where it is clear who needs help and who does not. In doing so, they distance themselves from the system they operate within (Kieboom, 2014). However, social innovation is not apolitical, and every choice about who to help or who to serve is a political choice. Furthermore, the research funding that labs receive often come with certain constraints that force them to work within the system, rather than effect transformative change (Kieboom, 2014).

3. Scaling

A third assumption is that social innovation must involve scaling out, in order to reach wider populations over broader geographic areas. However, scaling out misses the reality that complex systemic problems are contextual (Kieboom, 2014). As ‘solutions’ are scaled up, there is a need to adapt solutions to the contexts they are in — a need that often goes unmet. Scaling also tends to occur within the existing system, and therefore has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo rather than seeking transformative change (Kieboom, 2014).

4. Lab Culture

A fourth assumption is that social innovation must be happy and positive. With a culture of infectious optimism, social innovation labs claim to use post-its, attractive visuals, and engaging co-creative processes to work towards an endless array of possibilities. Yet, this culture is vastly misaligned with the social reality outside of labs (Kieboom, 2014). Although labs work on some of the most complex social challenges of our time, it is clear that they are detached from external realities because there is no space for behavioural responses found in practice, including “hard-line politics, messy fights, fractured cooperation and decreasing motivation over lengths of time” (Kieboom, 2014, p. 47).

Culture & Language

Buzzwords such as “empowerment” and “participation” neatly frame all kinds of policy interventions and social innovation initiatives today (Cornwall & Brock, 2005). By claiming to create participatory processes in which everyone is able to have their voices heard at decision-making tables, projects that use these buzzwords are difficult to find fault with. However, although citizen participation, resident empowerment, and community mobilization all have roots in politics and power relations, their use has been diluted to serve the “one-size-fits-all” processes of social innovation (Cornwall & Brock, 2005).

Although participation, empowerment, and mobilization are all rooted in politics, their use has been diluted to serve a “one-size-fits-all” model.

When participatory processes and charity frameworks that seek to “empower” are used in every social innovation project as scalable models, they are stripped of their political roots. Serving instead as an apolitical model that everyone can agree with, this kind of language is divorced from the meaning that popularized its use in the first place (Cornwall & Brock, 2005). When this is the case, Andrea Cornwall and Karen Brock suggest, “their use in development policy may offer little hope of the world free of poverty that they are used to evoke” (2005). In working within social innovation spaces, therefore, there is a need to understand where the language of participation and empowerment may be rooted in politics and critical discourse, and where the language is being used as a way to align different ‘priority’ stakeholders.


“If [labs] stand too much inside the system they risk losing their radical edge, if they stand too far outside they risk having little impact.” — Geoff Mulgan

The culture of social innovation group or organization is often a reflection of the position the group holds within the wider ecosystem. The position of social innovation organizations within a sector or community determines the work that they are able to do. Each sector comes with a set of opportunities and constraints, which determine the level of impact an organization is able to make and the trade-offs that come along with it.

Looking at the opportunities and constraints of each sector certain qualities stand out in different sectors. Academia encourages researchers to ask questions and challenge ways of thinking and doing, in order to further knowledge and methods in social innovation. In the government sector, the prominent quality is influence. Due to their proximity to political power and government funding, social innovation labs in government have the ability to be very influential. The private sector, on the other hand, is more agile by nature. Non-profit and for-profit labs within the private sector can adapt and pivot their agenda and operations more easily than government or academic institutions.

Mapping Processes to Sectors

Who Fuels Social Innovation?

Two interconnected factors may account for social innovation’s recent popularity: 1) a decrease in funding for non-profits and public services is leading to their deterioration (Goldenberg et al., 2009), and 2) the boundaries between government, non-profit, and for-profit sectors have been steadily eroding, allowing for more cross-fertilization of ideas, resources, and objectives (Goldenberg et al., 2009). As businesses take up the cause of social innovation, however, they begin to take resources from the public sector.

In disrupting public services, SI organizations take up valuable resources without being able to “see” the value and potential of the services they take funding away from.

These factors are not unrelated; consider here, the metaphor of an ecosystem. All organisms of the ecosystem get their nutrients from the same place, the soil, just as all organizations working towards social purposes get their funding and ideas from similar agencies (often the government). In a flourishing ecosystem, nonprofits and public services might have existed in a supportive relationship with businesses looking to innovate. As we see, however, the social innovation ecosystem exists more like a cube. Social innovation organizations and social enterprises often work to disrupt the public services sector, and as a result, take up valuable resources without being able to “see” the value and potential of the services they take funding away from.

Outsourcing Risk

Seen widely as the “guardians” of public good (Jacobs, 1992), governments fund social innovation across a wide array of sectors, including SSRHC-funded knowledge mobilization initiatives (Goldenberg et al., 2009). While SSHRC funds university social innovation projects, governments also provide significant funding to non-profits, co-operatives, and their own innovation labs (seen in the diagram).

There’s a good reason for government funding. While social enterprises provide market value, governments are responsible for complex social problems that do not present market opportunities. However, with a limited tolerance for risk, governments themselves are only able to create incremental changes in their existing structures. Charged with maintaining stability, governments outsource risk by funding social innovation labs to engage stakeholders and respond to complex problems.


Much of the inspiration for social innovation fell outside of structured institutions. The impulse to do things differently, in ways that would create systemic impact for the people affected, is often rooted in emergent, grassroots efforts of different communities and social movements. Many of the examples that we have of these emergent efforts come from outside of institutions, where communities mobilized to create systemic change for their very survival. However, we also acknowledge that emergent efforts can arise anywhere. Institutions do not exist outside of communities and social movements, and so the fluid formation of “emergence” moves within, through, and beyond the structures of institutions.

Iranian 2009 Protests

In 2009, protests against the election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad led the police to suppress protestors with various forms of violence (Evans, 2010). Looking for a way to be heard, protesters took to writing on banknotes. This escalated so widely and quickly that there were too many banknotes for the Central Bank of Iran to take out of circulation (Evans, 2010). Activists in Iran, therefore, found a way to be heard within the system, outside of the power structures that tried to suppress them.

Mushti Chal

The Bengali tradition of “mushti chal” involved Bengali housewives saving a handful of rice every day to build up a significant amount of rice that they could then trade with or pool into a community fund. In recent years, this tradition has served as inspiration for various forms of savings accounts or group funds (Yunus, 1999).

Bread and Puppet Theatre

Since 1963, the Bread and Puppet Theatre company has been involved with radical political theatre protests in America, as part of the anti-war and anti-nuclear movements of the twentieth century (Kalish, 2013). Using massive, 10–15 feet puppets to enact various characters in each struggle, the company made a spectacle out of some of the pressing challenges of the day (Kalish, 2013).


An analysis of drivers in the social uplifting of human experience shows that these three major themes: healthcare, volunteering and welfare, are key to the evolution of social innovation in today’s society and will continue to impact future issues that humanity will have to wrestle with. A Google N-gram analysis also reveals the long-term impact of health, volunteering, and welfare, as compared to the short-term impact of entrepreneurship, and relatively small impact of social innovation.

Every intervention comes with its dynamic and interconnected consequences and effects. Since we cannot predict the effects that our interventions will have in the future, we re-emphasize the need to think about social innovation as positioned within a greater timeline for social. This reminds us that it is unlikely that social innovation is a solution, or a perfect model, in itself. We acknowledge that efforts to make human existence more meaningful will continue through time, and we propose here that moving humbly away from problem “solving” helps social innovation spaces position themselves within a wider ecosystem of support and social change work.

How to respond without solving

Social innovation is limited in its capacity to solve problems, and solutions inherently simplify problems that are situated in complex and dynamic systems. Where can a social innovation lab create the most impact, then? We reach a bit of a paradox, here. How might we respond to problems without solving them?

When we adopt a position of iteration, we seek not to solve. In iterating, we adopt a dynamic approach to dynamic problems situated within dynamic systems. That said, even in its dynamic and constantly adjusting nature, we should be careful not to make iteration the “one-size-fits-all” approach to all problems. Iteration is not a solution or a perfect method, it’s an approach that we are familiar with now. In different spaces and different time periods, iteration itself may need to be iterated.

Iterative Ecosystems

In the distribution of resources, we see a greater need to “flatten out” the ecosystem cube, so that different social innovation, social services, and social change organizations might “see” each other. In a flourishing “flattened out” ecosystem, we propose that different stakeholders would be able to position themselves within the ecosystem to understand where they fit in. This will enable them to see the value created, value missed, value opportunities, as well as the value destroyed (Brocken, 2015).

To meet the needs of an increasingly complex world, it is in our best interests to consider where we might position ourselves to have the impact we would like to have, and to keep shifting our position as the world changes, and we change alongside it.

This article is an excerpt of a research done at OCAD University by Salman Abedin, Hannah Carriere, Samia Hossain, Samhita Misra and Myself. It is produced as a gigamap which you can download here.

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