What is Social Innovation?

Social innovation is working towards a sustainable society with greater wellbeing. It can be anything, a project, enterprise, or movement.

Social innovation is a concept that has many definitions. I want to provide you with some simple definitions so you can quickly grasp what it’s all about.

Social innovation is working towards a more sustainable society with greater wellbeing. It can be anything, an idea, action, project, enterprise, or movement that works for the public good, that sets out to make the world a better place.

An example of a social innovation that is manifest as an idea, as actions, projects, enterprises and a movement – is urban community gardening.

If I had to recommend one tool to inspire and support you becoming a social innovator, it would be this: DIY Toolkit

Key concepts underpinning the idea of social innovation are that:

- it’s social, that is, its main purpose is to create social value. Value for society and for the public, rather than value for individuals. Some people believe that it must lead to systemic change if it is to really be regarded as social in the broadest sense.

- it’s innovative, that is, it’s new or novel in some way. Whether it’s a completely new idea, a combination of old ideas, or simply an old idea in a new context.

To me, the essence of social innovation is in both the approach (the purpose, motivation and process) and the impact (the outputs and outcomes). A social innovation to me must have a social purpose, the motivation must be to create value for society and improve the wellbeing of society, or a subsection of society, which may just be a local community (I’m not hung up on the idea that social innovation needs to be systemic social innovation to be considered really ‘social’). The process of delivering that social value must also consider it’s externalities and social impacts. By this I mean, there is never a case of ‘the ends justify the means’, the means are the ends as much as the ends are the means. You cannot sell environmentally sustainable clothing using sweatshop labour. That is not a social innovation, that is hypocrisy.

Social innovation must also lead to positive social impact, more than it leads to economic impact. This means the outputs and outcomes of the social innovation must have more social value benefiting the public than economic value benefiting individuals.

Of course, this can get a bit confusing as you can argue for example that Facebook or Google are social innovations as they create a lot of value for society, they create jobs, provide free services to a billion or more people, they are platforms that can be used as tools for social good, but at the end of the day, Facebook and Google are corporations that have fiduciary duties to their shareholders. Profits and share value must come before social impact. Therefore, in my book, they are not social innovations. They are companies that have a lot of positive and negative impacts and that put profit before social or environmental issues. A social innovation to me, puts social and environmental concerns first, and then thinks about how to scale and grow impact through a viable economic model. This model may be highly commercial, but it will always be developed to serve the social purpose.

Here are a few definitions by various organisations:

Social Innovation assumes a world where ultimate good in society can be not only imagined, but also created. It is an initiative, product or process that profoundly changes beliefs, basic routines, resource and authority flows of any social system in the direction of greater resilience. Successful social innovations have durability, impact and scale. — Social Innovation Generation

‘Social innovation refers to the creation, development, adoption, and integration of new concepts and practices that put people and the planet first. Social Innovations resolve existing social, cultural, economic, and environmental challenges. Some social innovations are systems-changing – they permanently alter the perceptions, behaviours, and structures that previously gave rise to these challenges.’ — Centre for Social Innovation

‘Social innovations are new ideas (products, services and models) that simultaneously meet social needs and create new social relationships or collaborations. In other words, they are innovations that are both good for society and enhance society’s capacity to act.’ — Open Book on Social Innovation

‘A social innovation is a novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just than present solutions and for which the value created accrues primarily to society as a whole rather than private individuals.’ — Stanford Business, Centre for Social Innovation. They go on to say ‘Social Innovation focuses attention on the ideas and solutions that create social value — as well as the processes through which they are generated, not just the individuals and organisations.’

Here are a couple videos introducing Social Innovation:

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