Defining social innovation…

One of the challenges facing those interested in social innovation is finding a workable definition. A scan of the literature reveals that social innovation covers a whole range of different meanings and so, while it is popular, it is conceptually difficult to nail down. That is why one particular Stanford Social Innovation article in 2008 was so important.

James Phills, Kriss Deiglmeier and Dale Miller sought to find a way through the multiple definitions and feared that it was becoming indistinguishable from the popular terms of social entrepreneurship and social enterprise. Although they could see much in common they put forward a definition that they hoped would create some boundaries around the term and spark further interest.

They define social innovation as:

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 (Phills et al, 2008)

For those interested in social innovation this raises the importance of four foundational elements:

1. A primary focus on solving social problems.

2. An interest in finding novel solutions to those social problems.

3. The absence of a particular organizing model that would define the source and work of social innovators.

4. The benefits of this organizing would be distributed beyond the innovators.

The definition has some problems – but it’s a great place to start.

[See Page on Definitions for more examples].

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