The transformative power of social innovation
The results of social innovation are all around us. Self-help health groups and self-build housing; telephone help lines and telethon fundraising; neighbourhood nurseries and neighbourhood wardens; Wikipedia and the Open University; complementary medicine, holistic health and hospices; micro-credit and consumer cooperatives; charity shops and the fair trade movement; zero carbon housing schemes and community windfarms; restorative justice and community courts. All are examples of social innovation — new ideas that work to meet pressing unmet needs and improve people’s lives.
Geoff Mulgan (2007: 7)
One of the most promising areas of transformative innovation for a regenerative culture is the widespread emergence of social innovation in its diverse expressions all over the world. It is hard to offer just one definition of social innovation that works for all who are involved in this powerful impulse of cultural transformation.
The examples of successful social innovations are as diverse as the different change agents who have created them. Social innovation is a cross-sector phenomenon, including ‘collaborative consumption’ business models, novel approaches to helping people help themselves through micro- loans pioneered by Muhammad Yunus, peer-to-peer lending or crowd-funding websites like Zopa or Kickstarter, and the co-production of social services in a collaboration between local government, service-providers and service-users. Such diverse applications drive transformative innovation in business, civil society and government, and even more excitingly in the fertile space between these sectors.
The Open Book of Social Innovation (Murray et al., 2010) offers an excellent introduction to the broad field of social innovation along with numerous examples that illustrate the different strategies and methodologies social innovators employ to create effective initiatives and businesses.
‘Social enterprise’ is a subset of ‘social innovation’. Not all social innovation has to be business driven. In general, ‘social innovation’ can be understood as any initiative that employs innovative and experimental methods to tackle one or many of the problems we face (social, ecological, economic, cultural) to improve people’s lives, community resilience and the health of ecosystems. ‘Social enterprise’ does the same but uses innovative business models, for example the provision of goods or services that help in linking unmet needs with spare capacity through win-win-win problem-solving.
A social enterprise or social business’s primary objective is to have a positive social and/or environmental impact and to contribute to the wellbeing of society and local communities. Rather than aiming to generate profits for owners and shareholders beyond reasonable salaries for those running the business, surpluses in social enterprises are primarily reinvested in improving the business’s ability to achieve its social impact effectively. Let me illustrate this distinction by two brief examples: Avaaz and Zopa.
Avaaz describes itself as a “global web movement to bring people-powered politics to decision-making everywhere”. Launched in 2007, by early June 2015 Avaaz had already connected 41.5 million people in 194 countries around the world. Run by a small decentralized team spread over six continents and campaigning in 15 languages, Avaaz empowers a vast diversity of concerned global citizens to take action on pressing local, regional and global issues.
Avaaz enables people to sign global petitions on a broad range of social, economic and environmental issues. These are then presented to the politicians responsible for taking related decisions or ratifying related policies. The crowd-sourced campaigns are supported through local volunteers who engage in direct action and demonstrations that highlight the global support of the campaign to local and global media.
From campaigning to stop deforestation, keep the Internet free of censorship, support the land-rights of indigenous communities and protect biodiversity initiatives, to advocating an end to violence against women, peace activism, and campaigns in response to climate change or the destructive practices of multinationals in the agro-industrial, pharmaceutical and petro-chemical industries, Avaaz has fought and won many campaigns of considerable impact at a global, regional and local scale.
Avaaz is entirely member-funded via online donations. This helps to maintain its absolute independence from the lobbying interest of large corporations and government politics. Avaaz is an example of social innovation that is not a social enterprise, but finances its activities through a global network of supporters who value its work for the benefit of people and planet.
An example of a social innovation based on a for-benefit social enterprise business model is the UK peer-to-peer social lending service, Zopa. Since its launch in 2005, Zopa has enabled more than £900 million in peer-to-peer loans by connecting savers and borrowers directly through its website. Its lean business model means it can offer higher interest rates to savers and lower rate loans to borrowers. By June 2015, Zopa had connected over 59,000 lenders with over 110,000 borrowers and had been voted the ‘most trusted personal loan provider’ by the Moneywise Customer Awards for 6 years in a row.
Zopa by-passes the large banks with their huge overheads and service charges by connecting lenders and borrowers directly and creating a basis of trust through the ‘Zopa Safeguard’, which covers savers should a borrower be unable to pay. A low and transparent fee enables the social enterprise to offer the service, pay its 97 staff and invest in developing its services. Savers pay a 1% annual lender fee and borrowers pay a small borrowing fee once their loan is approved. Many of the loans are used by social innovators to set up as self- employed or start small businesses with a social, environmental or local community benefit.
The potential for social innovation and social entrepreneurship as drivers of transformative innovation and culture change is not to be underestimated. These pathways offer a participatory, locally responsive and globally collaborative way to address some of the most pressing issues. The field of social innovation is in constant flux. Its very nature as a type of transformative innovation is to break with established ways of doing things and to question established patterns and outdated assumptions in order to find new and more appropriate ways to solve social problems (Buckland & Murillo, 2013: 158).
Good places to learn more about social innovation and social entrepreneurship are the ‘Centre for Social Innovation’ at Stanford Business School, the ‘Social Enterprise Initiative’ at Harvard Business School, ‘Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship’ at Oxford’s Said Business School, Nesta’s ‘Centre for Social Action Innovation Fund’, the New Economics Foundation, the Young Foundation, and the ‘Institute for Social Innovation’ at ESADE Business School in Barcelona. The European Commission funded ‘Social Innovation Europe’ was set up to link private and public sector initiatives, with civil society organizations and academic research in the broad field of social innovation and social entrepreneurship across Europe.
Before taking a look at some more examples of social innovation, I need to point out that I cannot offer a comprehensive review of this fast growing field and its rapidly increasing number of inspirational case studies and best practice and process examples in only a few pages. [This is an excerpt of a subchapter from Designing Regenerative Cultures, published by Triarchy Press, 2016.] The world over we can find inspiring examples of culturally transformative social innovation in action!
The social problems of the world are so complex and diverse that there will never be a single valid model for all types of social innovation. The very nature of social innovation as a new and better way to resolve social problem means it wouldn’t even be in the interest of its proponents to create adequate definitions and frameworks, much rather to create environments for the process of creative destruction with a social intention to prosper. […] social innovation is constantly crating new paradigms, breaking barriers, annihilating the old ideas and assumptions.
– Heloise Buckland & David Murillo (2013: 153 & 158, author’s translation
[This is an excerpt of a subchapter from Designing Regenerative Cultures, published by Triarchy Press, 2016.]