Renewing Innovation through the Social Innovation Agenda

The challenges are growing in their social dimension across Europe, the United States and a host of other countries, both developed and developing, that are needing new fresh responses. Social demands will inevitably increase as nations are being confronted with budgetary constraints, increased deficits and mounting debts to resolve. Social needs will become more pressing and innovation, social innovation, will increasingly explore opportunities to extract ‘more from less’. Innovation can play an increasing part in resolving social challenges that are increasingly confronting us.

Starting a new movement on social innovation in Europe

Recently I became a member of www.socialinnovationeurope.eu . I certainly  feel this is going to offer something exciting and vibrant. It is a growing community of thinkers, creators and innovators with the knowledge and skills to change the way we face Europe’s most pressing issues. Contributors to the site will take a strong hand in shaping the direction of social innovation across Europe, breaking down silos and raising a unified voice. I need to find my own part in this, as there are multiple ways for contribution, which I’m still presently figuring out.

Social Innovation Europe (SIE)’s online hub present aims are to become an indispensable resource providing the latest information on European social innovation. It will feature interviews with prominent innovators, case studies of successful ventures, the latest research, and in-depth analysis from the leading thinkers in the field.

Why do we want to address social innovation even more now?

Social needs are now more pressing than ever, they will regretfully get worse before they get better. The combinations of the recent global crisis, the economic shifts from the West to the East will increasingly reduce opportunities and increase the social dimensions that will need to be dealt with. We are in social strife with unemployment challenges, ageing and climate change that all have growing stress on declining revenues in the West.

As our financial resources are getting more limited, new solutions must be found. The short term fiscal stimulus packages and bailouts have alleviated the short term but we do need to provide new innovation solutions to pressing social demands that will occur in increasing ‘waves’ over both the short, medium and long term perspective.

Social challenges are actually innovation opportunities

The challenges are tough but should be viewed as potentially new opportunities for economic and social innovations to take place. Providing solutions that are high in quality (or high enough), beneficial and affordable to the needs of the users requiring these, and that can add hope and provide value to improving their daily lives. These can offer different combinations of business, government, and entrepreneurs different avenues to explore, that are both worthwhile and contribute to society but can offer valuable job and yes, profitable enterprises, and returns for investments made.

Social innovation means what?

Social innovation is innovation that is social in approach, in both the end result and the means of getting there. It offers new products, services and business model opportunities that simultaneously meet social need, that deliver more effectively than alternatives,(if there are ones) and most importantly, it create and builds new social relationships, communities and collaborations to achieve these ends. They can make ‘us’ feel good by our direct contribution to enhancing society’s capabilities to act together to resolve part of the challenges we need to confront. Social interactions and vested interests need to be combined and as a direct result it generates a ‘social capital’ that builds in value by its activity and by its increasing movement up the experience curve.

There are barriers that will need to be knocked down to accelerate social innovation.

Like any innovation, social innovation has risks. It offers all the usual ‘suspects’ associated with innocation of good imagination, perseverance, overcoming adversity, shortage of funds and a continued optimism that your idea to create a product or service and its implementation, can and will happen.

There are some important differences for social innovation though.

Social innovation is far more a participative process, partnership forming, constantly identification seeking, that has more ‘scaling-up’ problems than business innovation and that is hard enough! You are confronted by more society barriers, which is often at odds with what you are trying to resolve. Sometimes you meet a totally incompatible barrier that need that extraordinary leap of creative design to navigate around and that is where the model (social against business model) comes into play in analysing and resolving to overcome this. Social innovation does needs its own tools, techniques and models that today are somewhat lacking.

Equally, when you step more into the social innovation space you come up against a more traditional risk-adverse and cautious mindset unless the crisis is dire. The culture of administrators, their wish to stay with closed systems and often fragmented systems are tough to overcome. The skills of many around you, wanting to help, can be more limiting in experience but often can make up this ‘deficit’ through their enthusiasm. There is also the constant battle for funding through the scaling up from pilot or experimentation to larger scale (the social innovation life cycle) which can be demanding and often distracting, often taking you away from your primary task of resolving the social problem.

Scaling up seems a huge obstacle to overcome

In all I read and understand, the scaling up from that perfect local project into a regional than national one, is immensely hard. There are very few examples where the combination of coherence, comprehensiveness and broader outlook come together without significant changing of a workable local model. The art of communicating, of diffusing the skills, knowledge, understanding of the key variables and the local experience are hard to often translate. Much in social innovation is intangible, more than business; as it is in tacit knowledge that often successful social innovation solutions are made.

How do you scale up a highly fragmented set of solutions when we lack more often than not the developed networks and the intermediaries that can assist? Some of our established institutions like the Salvation Army can find major new roles to invent and work within, that provies the structure and need of networks, contacts and established infrastructure well established. Its mission and role emphasis might need to change to capitalise on this.

The three categories of social innovation

In a report, which has certainly helped shape this blog, on “Social innovation in the European Union” they are suggesting that you can schematically classify social innovation into three broad categories:

Firstly, grassroots social innovation that needs to respond to pressing social demands and directed more at the (growing) vulnerable groups in society.

Secondly, a broader one that addresses societal challenges where the boundary blurs between social and economic and directed more towards society as a whole. (My Salvation Army could be a clear example or the Red Cross or even the Open University)

Thirdly, the systemic type:  that relates to fundamental changes in attitudes and values, strategies and policies, organizational structures and process delivery systems and services. These include climate change, recycling as examples.

All three categories play a part in helping to manage and shape society.

Economic & Social Dynamism

There are many social challenges that will need creative and careful strategic framing that require innovation thinking. The pressing social issues will continue to rise to the highest political level and eventually ‘they’ will act, they will be forced too. Social Innovation will then explode in importance when the combination of all our forces: government, non profit, business, communities and entrepreneurs all come together, as they have to, so as to resolve growing social problems through new innovative approaches.

We all need to firstly be aware and then engage in understanding the power and opportunity social innovation can provide and the part we can play. Innovation can be a powerful enabler to many of our social challenges we are in need of facing up too. It should be on everyone’s radar as it is only one ‘touch moment’ away from social issues that are all around us.

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About paul4innovating

I research innovation and provide insights & advice to individuals, teams, and organizations
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