Social Innovation

As I’ve introduced friends and colleagues to idealect, I’ve settled on the shorthand phrase, “Social Innovation,” to explain what we do. Sometimes, that phrase elicits a reaction along the lines of, “That’s awesome! What is it?”

At other times, my conversational partners are way ahead of me and introduce me to firms like mine in other places outside Kansas City. As these conversations multiply and my own understanding of this work deepens, I find myself, again, in a field that feels both new and important. Although the phrase has evidently been in use for at least 60 years, the practice of using modern innovation methods and principles to tackle tough, systemic social problems feels new. It’s certainly new as the foundation for a business model.

If you search for definitions of social innovation, you’ll quickly find this one. It captures the essence of social innovation succinctly.

“Social innovation is the process of developing and deploying effective solutions to challenging and often systemic social and environmental issues in support of social progress.” — Stanford University; Soule, Malhotra, Clavier

But while a definition helps provide some clarity, social innovation is something better captured in practice than prose. So, here’s a quick round-up of five social innovation firms that I’ve encountered in my explorations so far. They’re good exemplars of what idealect might grow up to be someday.

Greater Good Studio

George Aye and Sara Cantor Aye, founders of Greater Good Studio, refer to themselves as “pissed off optimists,” people who are aware of the injustices of the world but hopeful and confident about their ability to change things. They have every reason to be confident. They’ve built an impressive body of change work since 2011, including this recent eHealth project in Rwanda.

Greater Good Studio’s The Inhangane Project

I spoke to George early on during my process of planning idealect, and one of the pieces of advice that he imparted that sticks with me is that this kind of work moves “at the speed of trust.” In my brief tenure as a social innovator, I can tell that George’s words are true.

Creative Reaction Lab

I’ve written before about Antionette D. Carroll, just across the state in St. Louis. Although we haven’t met yet (but will this month!), her work in Equity Design has had a big influence on me and the direction for idealect. She is the founder, CEO, and President of Creative Reaction Lab, which focuses on developing young Equity Designers to tackle issues of systemic racism.

Antionette Carroll — Founder, CEO and President of Creative Reaction Lab

The Social Impact Studio

Based in Boston, The Social Impact Studio has amassed a client list that is equal parts impressive and fun, including organizations like the World Bank, the Lego Foundation, Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, and Sesame Workshop. Their Twitter feed exemplifies one of the things I love about this community of companies — the abundant sharing of methods and ideas.

Behavioral Science ideation cards from The Social Impact Studio


Civilla, based in Detroit, is a recent addition to my social innovation watchlist. I’m deeply enamored of the clarity of their point of view and philosophy, and also their kick-ass collection of photographs.

Civilla tackled seriously excessive paperwork to radically improve access to services from Michigan’s Dept. of Health and Human Services

Designing the We

Designing the We, based in New York, is another group I’ve only just discovered. Their portfolio is diverse — community labor centers, libraries, small town economies, environmental activism, and even interactive exhibit design. Their “Undesign The Redline” project falls into the latter category and explores the enduring impact of redline maps and what we can do to undesign these racist systems today.

This list is obviously incomplete, and I don’t mean to imply that social innovation design firms are the only ones doing social innovation work. There are a number of people in all sorts of organizations doing social innovation work. But I am intrigued and inspired by the human-centered, design-oriented, small-team, social innovation studios. That’s the model that feels most exciting and possibly most effective.

Looking through their collective body of work, there are a few themes that emerge:

Design — First and foremost, these companies are all design practices. Note, that doesn’t mean visual design, but all of them are led by design-oriented thinkers.

Humanity — Every one of these firms practices some variant of human-centered or community-centered design as the foundation of their work.

Systems Orientation — The social innovation firms all tend to tackle complex, systemic issues and an awareness of that complexity informs their approach and commitment.

Co-Creation — The idea that people must be not merely consumers or research subjects, but active collaborators in designing solutions is another common tenet.

Common Good — This may be obvious, but because it’s a concept that seems to be somewhat lost in much of our civil discourse today, I’ll call it out. All of these organizations are formed around the idea that there is such a thing as “common good,” and that it can be advanced through intentional, positive action. Obvious, but important.

This is the tribe I want to connect with and become part of as I build idealect. For me, these are the people and the companies who are giving meaning and substance to the phrase “Social Innovation.”

But Wait! There’s More!

As I was writing this, Greater Good tweeted an update to their Design and Social Impact Pinterest board. There are lots more examples to explore here.

I’ve also started a Twitter list of Social Innovation design firms. If you know anyone who should be on it, leave me a comment or message on Twitter.