A space for change makers.

What Is Social Innovation?

Sebastien Wiertz" (CC)

Social innovation is creating a new idea for positive impact. So then ,why, you might be asking, am I writing a whole (multiple part) blog post about the definition of social innovation when I could fit it in a tweet! Like all good bloggers and internet nerds, I want to give you my (unsolicited) opinion on what really makes social innovation tick. To do that I think we need more answers:

1) How do we get these new ideas?

2) What is positive impact?


1) How do you get new ideas?

Good ideas, are often thought of as coming from exceptionally brilliant people with a stroke of creativity. However, we believe that everyone has great ideas, if only the right conditions are met. Here are some of those conditions:

  • You have a goal in mind. You know you want to end world hunger or fight global poverty but then you remember you are supposed to make SMART goals. That is, goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, really good (isn't realistic the same as achievable, I ask?), and timely. So you decide instead you want to help 10 schools in London implement coding for social good into their curriculum by 2015.

  • You have a space for the idea storming or innovation thinking to happen. This could be a nook in the office, an open space hackathon, an online space (hey, check us out!) or in a dark space under the bed. The important thing is that you make mental space to think about the topic. A specific time where you aren't worrying about your twitter account or doing the dishes. Give yourself permission to find a space to think.

  • You find your crew. While getting some mental clarity is essential, great ideas don't usually come about only from you hiding under the bed. You need to find people with the same passions, goals, and outlook as you to discuss and build ideas with. Remember, it's SOCIAL innovation.

  • You're not afraid to pivot. Ideas and situations change and you need to be prepared to move quickly. If you really believe in an idea, it's great to stick with it while remaining open to different ways of doing things. That strange comment from someone you met at a networking event might be the key between seeing results and your idea flopping.

2) What is Positive Impact?

While the above guidelines will help with finding creative and positive ideas, we are most interested in putting the social in social innovation. That is; innovations and creative ideas that have a positive impact in the community and the world. This is where the definition of social innovation gets tricky. I think we can all agree that innovations that help reduce disease, world hunger, and poverty provide a positive social impact, but new innovations are often subjective. Is programming to bring coding into elementary schools really a social innovation? What about an app that promotes local artists, or an innovation like the smart phone? These can certainly have a huge impact, but whether or not smart phones and a new generation of coders is for the benefit of society might change from person to person.

At WE THINQ, we believe that many organisations are out to help societal good. I don’t think we will ever agree on what solutions can be deemed worthy enough to be presented as a social innovations, so I thought I would turn to a few trusted sources to help with my definition of social good and 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

There's a lot of good stuff in this definition of social innovation. For example, I like that they include the solution needs to be efficient and sustainable. I think their opinion on what constitutes a social problem is interesting. The words social and society share the same routes- so it makes sense that in social innovation we would be looking for something that improves society rather than individuals. However, if we improve the lives of individuals (particularly those from a lower socio-economic background) it often results in societal change. So is this really the best definition of social innovation?

Social innovations are new strategies, concepts, ideas and organizations that meet social needs of all kinds — from working conditions and education to community development and health — that extend and strengthen civil society. Social innovation includes the social processes of innovation, such as open source methods and techniques and also the innovations which have a social purpose — like microcredit or distance learning.- Wikipedia

I like that this definition includes the process. For example, if one person comes up with a really good idea and implements it on their own, does that still count as social innovation? Or is that just one person doing something good? The line 'strengthen civil society' is a nice concrete term. Again people will have different definitions on what improves civil society.

Which brings us back to our first point in innovation. In order to create impact you need to start with a goal. Many political organisations, non-profts, and businesses have goals of what they would like to achieve in their communities. Essentially, you need to find your crew (see question 1) and solve these problems together.

Whether your goal is to reduce the carbon footprint of your city, improve the health of a population, or provide education to children in developing countries, the way you create an impact will depend on your goals.

If you want a simple definition of social innovation, see the first line of this blog post. However, I believe the definition is as broad as the innovations we will see. Those trying to create a social impact through innovation don't worry about what defines social innovation (okay, if you're a big innovation nerd you do- but I digress). Social innovators don't need the definition, they already know what they believe will help society, but if you really do need a definition, I think this one sums it up best:

We’re not too hung up about it so we’ve adopted a simple working definition: 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.- Canadian Centre for Social Innovation

What do you think? Do you agree with the current definitions of social innovation? Are there better ways we can definte it? Do we need to define social innovation?

Coming up next week: Measuring social impact.