Imagine you’re having a chat with a biodiversity specialist. You’re trying to convince him that social innovation is the best thing ever. He’s yawning already. What argument will you use to close the discussion and make him a socinn convert?
This question, which I was asked during one interview, was a question about usability, functionality. And rightly so. To me, however, at that very moment it was a question about definitions and beliefs. And that’s how I approached it (not the smartest choice of all for an interview). That is also how I want to approach it now, making my case for social innovation.
The more I study social innovation and the more innovative projects, theories and approaches I get to know, the more convinced I am that the definition of social innovation is a simple one:
SOCIAL INNOVATION refers to strategies, projects, ideas, and methods that solve social problems or address social needs by using reason throughout the entire process; contrary to strategies, projects, ideas, and methods employed in most of the grand development projects.
She’s being dramatic again, you say? Let me give you a few examples.
ANALYZING THE PROBLEM:
Standard approach: We have a bunch of experts who know more than enough about “the situation on the ground,” based on a predetermined and pretty much unchangeable set of indices. They will write a comprehensive report, based on which we will start looking for solutions.
Innovation: Let’s take micro-narratives or crowdsourcing. Now, instead of checking only with our experts, let’s ask people, who are directly affected by the problem we want to tackle. Let’s ask them to tell us their stories, not to tell us what they need (nobody knows that…). We still need our experts – one should never throw the baby out together with the bath water – but their role is more about interpreting the results rather than foretelling them.
Reason reapplied: We are all experts with regards to our own lives. We should be the ones asked about our own situation.
FINDING THE SOLUTION
Standard approach: We choose a solution to the problem from a wide range of well-known and broadly used (no to confuse with “effective”) solutions; sometimes the solution we choose will be slightly modified (it increases the chances for funding).
For example, in order to bring the long-term unemployed back to the labor market, we would provide them with vocational training and/or give them a subsidy to create their enterprise. Why wouldn’t it work?
Innovation: Let’s take design thinking. Here the reasoning is different: don’t choose from the solutions you already know, look for new ones first.
Reason reapplied: If the solutions we’ve seen so far haven’t produced the outcomes we wanted, then why not look for something totally new? Many standard projects are based on the premise that tenacity in using the same tool over and over again will one day bring about the desired results. It’s a matter of perseverance, we think. It is not.
Standard approach: So we found the solution! Let’s do it then! Full capacity!
Innovation: Why not build a small version of the solution (at low cost, if any), test it, modify based on the results and only then scale up? Or kill it at this stage, before all the money is washed down the drain…
Reason reapplied: Even for small ngos, the cost of one project is usually counted in tens of thousands of USD; not to mention national, regional or global projects, which cost tens of millions of USD. And all this money is pretty much being gambled, unless we test our solution first.
Standard approach: Development/Sustainability/Education/… is a pain and it should remain this way. People should understand that if something is beneficial for their community (ipso facto for themselves), but is a burden for them, they should overcome their laziness and do the right thing. For example, we want people to throw their trash where they should (aka. where we want them to), so we decide to put educational posters about the consequences of braking the rules.
Innovation: Let’s encourage people to do the right thing by making it fun and engaging.
Reason reapplied: By making something fun (often at a very low cost), we are more likely to get people on board and gain some traction with our activities. Fun is not forbidden. Fun doesn’t hurt “the cause” (when used wisely).
I could go on and on, but I think I made my point.
Social innovation is not a magical shubu-dubu, abracadabra kind of thing. Social innovation is simply not giving in to the same old. It’s questioning, testing, breaking silos, and rejecting what’s broken and corrupt. Social innovation is starting from small, only to scale up later. Social innovation is using the best tools available (often new technologies) in order to achieve our goal. And most importantly, social innovation is being continuously in touch with people for whom we are working (not to be confused with our bosses – that’s a different story).
Sounds obvious? Well, that’s because social innovation at it’s core is about being reasonable and open-minded. That is why texts explaining what is really different about social innovation are so important.
This is my case for social innovation.