How important is novelty to social innovations?

In October 2009 the Lien Centre for Social Innovation at the University of Singapore announced the winners of its $1 million (Singapore dollars) social innovation competition. The winning entries included rats able to sniff out landmines, a social enterprise that recycles unwanted clothes for the rural poor in India, an online platform to fund scholarships for Cambodian and Vietnamese children and interlocking bricks to reduce the cost of assembling basic housing (‘A world of winning ideas to lift up Asia’, 2009). But are these ideas particularly new and does it matter if they’re not?

Novelty in social innovation is often in the mix of ideas.  For example, diagnostic healthlines, the homeless selling magazines, gay rights linked to marriage.  But novelty isn’t the central driving force of most social innovations.  The focus is often less on the originality of a novel solution and more on finding  ideas “that work” (Mulgan et al., 2007; Pearson, 2007).  Novel solutions are not so much valued for the creativity of their invention but in how they can be implemented and shared (Cooperrider and Pasmore, 1991).

In some ways the novelty of social innovation lies in providing a simple proposition in a complex world.  Christensen et al. (2006) argue that, much like the success of the ‘no-frills’ South West Airlines, novel solutions to social problems just need to be ‘good enough’ – easy to replicate, more convenient and less expensive than rival services attracting the underserved, and a simpler service to those overserved by the market – such as walk-in clinics, affordable insurance, online classes and micro-lending.

While that makes some sense for the diffusion of a product or service, how does this approach work when the goal is to introduce a new way of thinking?  Here novelty may be a double-edged sword.  On the one hand it represents a way to attract attention to how any costs associated with existing ways of thinking might be overcome.  ‘Good enough’ ideas are like English food – bland and uninspiring :)  But on the other hand, to stress the novelty of a solution is to make it vulnerable to the liabilities of newness – disturbing relationships, roles and networks that are well established and potentially resistant to change – much like a habanero chilli pepper – exotic until tasted and then largely avoided.

In a crowded web of social problems and solutions, social innovators introducing new ways of thinking may have to navigate this dance – to maximize the attention grabbing quality of novelty while trying to lie low from those who could thwack them.

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