How do we address larger complex social problems such as poverty, homelessness, or mental illness? To further our discussion on what social innovation is, and how we can look at it as a tool for solving these complex challenges, let us look deeper into what social innovation can offer us. First, let’s look at how we as a culture arrive at social innovation. According to Frances Westley at SIG (Social Innovation Generation),1 there is a scale of Intention to Innovation (Intention > Involvement > Invention > Innovation).
First is the Intention towards a social change. This is rooted not only in the management of a problem, but, as Jeff Snell suggests, focuses on the root of the problem to build models to address them.2 This intentionality is not easily acquired; indeed, understanding the problem well can be half the problem. It is easy to say that poverty is a complex social problem, but as we look closer, poverty arises due to a series of systemic challenges that involve governmental policy, addiction, education, and perhaps most importantly social design (the way that leaders design social structures to support citizens).
Next is Involvement. To involve oneself in a social challenge is to prioritize something larger than us; in other words, that we make it a significant interest to address systemic poverty, for example, above the larger self-interests of ourselves or our group. These self-interests don’t disclude taking care of one’s own needs, however, when we are truly involved in social change it fulfills a higher sense of purpose.
The world abounds with Inventive ideas that help social situations become better. Perhaps, for example, if there is limited pedestrian access to a traffic intersection, it can be looked at as a social invention for a creative redesign to be implemented as a solution. This inventive idea clearly helps local pedestrians in a significant way, although only as a small impact to the broader society. There are, however, some social inventions that scale larger, impacting whole cities and larger regions; some even challenge and change social structures through an almost revolutionary impact. Although more rare, these impacts can be called social innovations.
Social Innovation then is about transformational change, particularly on a systems level. According to Westley, it is disruptive and catalytic, and has long lasting impact. This means it challenges the systemic structures and beliefs that create social inequities and that define the system that governs a social sector, and redistributes power and resources to new allocations for more equitable impact. Thus, social innovations need to cross sectors and involve more people from a diverse organisational and institutional background to link social networks.
An example of this is Energy Futures Lab, which is a “multi-interest collaboration designed to accelerate the development of a ‘fit for the future’ energy system.”3 The program brings diverse leaders together in a ‘lab’ setting to generate new potential futures of the energy sector that scale innovative initiatives and collaborations. This affects one of the biggest industries in Alberta, and addresses the growing concerns about climate change and our economic future as a province that has traditionally been primarily focused on one main industry.
Through social innovation ‘spaces’ such as this Lab, we can tackle complex social problems and hopefully make important changes in our intention and involvement to make inventions and the innovations that are so importantly needed.
– Mike Unrau