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So, what is a social innovation really?

Updated: Jan 16

#Socialinnovation, #QuietValue


This part, the defining, stumps us all. Those who are out of it are clueless and those who are in it, struggle to find a way to define it succinctly! Stanford University's Center for Social Innovation in the United States has come up with one that is rather comprehensive so, for the most part, we all go with that!


“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.

“Social innovation is not the prerogative or privilege of any organizational form or legal structure. Solutions often require the active collaboration of constituents across government, business, and the nonprofit world.”



The key takeaways here being - solutions, systemic, active collaboration, multi-sector effort....And exactly what do each of those mean?


1) Social Innovations are focused on 'solving' pressing social and environmental problems. It looks at eradicating it completely, so we do not have to face it again. Most answers to social problems are what we call programmatic interventions- as in, an immediate response to a problem.


For ex: reading levels are low in a particular school. Solution: let us bring in highly qualified teachers and ask parents to spend more time with their children reading. Then we will 'track' the progress by self-assessment forms. Now, this is a perfectly good intervention. But does it ensure a long-term solution? What if the 'highly qualified teachers' find jobs elsewhere? What if your school is unable to attract highly qualified talent? What if parents are unable to spend time with their kids? How will you ensure they are all doing it? How will you know whether the self-assessment forms are being filled in complete honesty?


So, while some kind of intervention is possible on an immediate basis, really, how effective is it? And how do you ensure it will work long term?


2) Social innovations are systemic in their approach. That means, they consider the entire ecosystem in which the problem exists. It requires taking a few to several steps back to looking at all the players who are part of the problem. And then examine the relationship between them. For ex: poor post-natal health among women a particular county. And there are doctors and clinics in the county, and most services are free....and yet, we have a health problem. So we examine who the players are: the women (of course), their families, the clinics, the doctors and nurses, their availability, cost of medicine and other services, affordability....so far so good. All obvious players.


Then we go deeper.... the distance from the women's houses to the clinics, the condition of the roads, climate and weather conditions, the availability of transport, cost of private transport, where do the women leave their babies and other children when going to the doctor?. Then there are cultural factors- do the women need a male or older family member go with them? Do the women feel comfortable talking to a "medical" professional, who might not be a woman?



So we begin to see, that there are so many obvious and not-so-obvious elements that play a major role in the creation and continued presence of a problem. A socially innovative approach examines and considers all the elements and maps the system, understands the problem first, in its entirety before thinking of a solution.


3) Active collaboration. Oh dear!! Oh dear indeed!! A big one! And a problematic one isn't it? As much as we LOVE the idea of collaborating and working with others and coming up with wonderful answers, reality is quite far from it. Of course, there are times when it has worked beautifully, but for the most part, the idea of collaborating with an outside agent usually ranges from 'meh' to 'ugh'!


But here's the thing- we're talking about solving social and environmental problems. And these are problems we did not create alone. And these are problems for which you as an individual or single organization do not have the skills or resources to solve. Harsh but true!

Collaborating does not mean an entire agreement on everything. You're free to disagree, even on problem definition. But the critical part one must accede to is that solving a social/environmental issue so it is eradicated in its entirety requires a multi-agent approach and collaborating is quite simply the way forward. (Stay tuned to the blog, I promise you there'll be lots more on collaboration, from me and from our guest bloggers!)


4) Social innovations require a multi-sector effort because they impact various parts of society- when we speak fundamental change, we think public policy and we think law abiding. This brings the government into play. Then we think bringing the society in. And no one can do this better than nonprofits. The reach they have, the way they can mobilize people is quite something. And we also want our innovations to scale, succeed and become self sustaining. And here we need the private, for-profit sector to pitch in. And we need youth power! I mean really, who else has that kind of energy??



Now you're totally skeptic and are thinking how is this even possible. But it is!! if we look at socially innovative endeavors that have taken root, turned into social enterprises or even become a way of law, every one of these innovations have all the above said elements. Think charter schools, think carbon emissions trading, think micro-loans...


If you go through the case studies on Quiet Value, peek into the minds of innovators in the Creative Thinker Series....you'll see, every one of them has been solutions-driven, systemic, collaborative and had a multi-sector approach.


Today everyone is talking about being socially innovative, entrepreneurial, impact investing, ESG and triple bottom-line oriented and so on. It is time we all got into these with a little more motivation and less skepticism!!