SI Series 2: The Insides of Social Innovation. A Primer.

What is social innovation? Let’s start at the beginning.

According to the Stanford Social Innovation Review, social innovation: “is a novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable or just, than existing solutions and for which the value created accrues primarily to society as a whole rather than private individuals.”1 This definition speaks to a few things. First, it speaks to innovation. Innovation is “a new idea, device, or method; or, the act or process of introducing new ideas, devices, or methods.”2 Ultimately, innovation is a creative process or product; it is bringing something new into the world. A social innovation, then, can be seen as applying a creative process to a social situation, typically, to a social challenge. For example, finding solution-oriented new ideas that limit or reverse child malnutrition in a developing country.

It is quite common, however, in a North American contemporary cultural lexicon to equate social innovation with social enterprise and social entrepreneurship. While a social enterprise could be argued as a type of social innovation, they are distinct in what they represent. A Social Enterprise is “an organisation or venture that achieves its primary social or environmental mission using business methods.”3 And, tge logoa Social Entrepreneur is “someone who recognizes a social problem and uses entrepreneurial principles to organize, create, and manage a venture to make social change (a social venture)”4 while still making a profit. What’s significant about both social enterprise and social entrepreneurism is that although business methods are used to make some kind of a social change, the primary goal is not (usually) profit, but rather an equal goal of making a financial return as well as making a beneficial social or environmental impact. For example, a bread-making coop might not only make a profit, but distribute ownership within the community, and return surplus to community initiatives such as community gardening while using local, organic ingredients; all working to reduce a carbon imprint.

Social innovation, however, emphasizes an innovative solution to social (or environmental) challenges. It’s the innovating solution that’s the key. That can include a new way of looking at business, such as social impact funds, or crowd sourcing for social change. Or they can be ‘social labs’ or other design processes to tackle complex social problems like poverty, or, a new social work approach to reducing stigma of HIV+ using the arts. Although social innovation has been around for as long as human development has been, social innovation as a researched field is emerging, with research and practical application to some of the world’s greatest challenges; individuals, communities and countries have been changed through its application.

More soon about some of the aspects of social innovation and social enterprise.

– Mike Unrau

  1. It should be noted that some of this blog entry is based on Brian Smith’s course in “Social Innovation, Entrepreneurship & Enterprise.”5
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