Social Innovation and Transformation

For many, what distinguishes social innovation from other types of innovation is in its commitment to transform (e.g., Mumford, 2002; Goldsmith et al., 2010;Westley et al., 2006).

While there is no consensus on a universal definition, there is agreement that social innovation can bring about transformative change (Goldenberg et al., 2009, p. iv).

The idea of transformation is used differentiate social innovation from those that only result in “incremental gains” (New Zealand Social Innovation Centre, 2010).

For some, the current context is ripe for such innovation.

We are all heading into the unknown. We are all improvising. Nobody has the answers; we are co-creating them in service of a shared vision…It’s a transformative time of creative ferment, of blasting away encrusted ideologies and organization walls. It’s a time to cross boundaries, summon the leadership in everyone, bust silos, and build unlikely coalitions (Osborn, 2009, p. 29).

The combination of new network technologies and the interest in engaging users in co-creation of products and services is said to make this a “time of transformative innovation” (Murray, Mulgan, Caulier-Grice, n.d., p. 2).

But there are differences as to what is being transformed.  In some cases the focus is organizational or field-level change.  For example, the social innovation could potentially transform the “social sector” as “its current form fails to foster innovation” (Christensen, Kirsch & Syman, 2009).

The majority of cases in the literature, however, associate social innovation with transformation in two ways: having an impact on society and on the social problem. For example, the cumulative effect of producing social innovations is said to lead to an increase in a society’s innovative capacity (Pearson, 2007) and the focus is not on “band-aid solutions” but on solutions that tackle the underlying causes and not just address the immediate symptoms of social problems (Westley, 2008).

To make a difference necessitates ‘system-change’, to substantially alter social arrangements.  That’s what fascinates me.

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