Transformative Social Innovation

For many, the interest in social innovation is motivated by the idea of transformation. The goal isn’t just about creating a novel solution to a social problem, its about transforming the social problem once and for all. This is not about creating ripples, this is about ‘sea change’. That’s what makes it so appealing to those who want to change the world.

The problem is that transforming social problems through a novel solution is incredibly difficult. A dominant strategy is one that tends to focus on diffusion. To transform a social problem is to ‘overwhelm it’ with the solution. The logic of this approach is compelling.

We find a great novel solution to a social problem and then consider ways to mass produce that solution so that it can impact hundreds and thousands of people. Who could criticize the development of reading glasses for millions in poverty or mass immunization programs? It has created an interest, and perhaps an emerging industry, in global solutions to global problems. But it has some inherent challenges.  Here’s five:

  • Products can be overly elevated over process, limiting both the type of social problems that can be tackled as well as their potential impact.
  • Single innovations and their inventors can tend to be privileged over the chains of innovations and collective action associated with systemic change.
  • Social problems may be viewed as acontextual and stable, overlooking how they are constructed out of social interactions with different expressions in particular locations.
  • A focus on global level solutions may make it difficult to include those that directly experience social problems at the local level.
  • Measurement of activity around the adoption of a novel solution may mask the fact that existing ways of thinking and acting towards the social problem remain intact.

I’m interested in sea change too, but a particular type of change.  By transformative social innovation I mean a novel solution that involves a significant shift in the way a social problem is understood and managed in a given community.  Here the interest is in exploring how individuals might work to introduce such a shift within their unique social setting.  The focus is not exclusively on the characteristics of the novel solution but on the effort of those seeking to leverage it to shift beliefs, attitudes and behaviours to a social problem.  Understanding this work might make a world of a difference :)

Evidence of such change, however, is viewed in quite different ways. For some, system change is only apparent when a social innovation is adopted nationally or globally (e.g., Bacon et al., 2008). The transformative aspect of the social innovation is achieved by ‘scaling up’ to reach increasing numbers of beneficiaries to a point that it influences political, cultural and economic arrangements (Westley & Antadze, 2009). But for others, transformation of the ‘rules of the game’ can take place at the local level (Moulaert et al., 2007) where selective targeting of established patterns of behaviour and thought can have transformative impacts without the “volume of adoption” (Wesley, 2008). There are also differences as to how much the social innovation is a direct challenge to societal systems. In the Urban Studies literature, social innovation emerges as a reaction to “market-led territorial development” (Moulaert & Nussbaumer, 2005) and a technological bias in innovation policy, with an agenda to ‘empower’ those that the system has disadvantaged and excluded (e.g., Gerometta, Haussermann & Longo, 2007 ; Moulaert et al., 2007). In contrast, the transformative aspect of social innovation is presented by others as an alternative approach rather than a direct challenge to the system (e.g., Murray et al, 2010). The ‘new social economy’ still has room for all sectors and types of organizations.

There are also questions about how to organize the need to engage with and transform social systems. Murray et al. (2010) argue for an approach that learns “through practice and through demonstration and not through theory”. In contrast, others have drawn on complexity theory with its interest in exploring the dynamics of complex social systems (Westley, 2008) and highlighted the importance of exploring an institutional perspective, the established meanings, rules and practices underpinning social arrangements (Heiscala, 2007;Westley et al, 2006) . Westley (2008) argues that these “taken for granted institutions are often the source of intractable problems. Real innovation without change in these institutions is therefore unlikely”. Of importance are ‘institutional entrepreneurs’: those with the skills to recognize local institutional dynamics and seize “windows of opportunity” (Westley, 2008). How individuals and organizations are able to do this work and how it might shape the transformative impact of the social innovation is unexplored. Where there is agreement is over some of the practical challenges. To attempt to alter social arrangements is likely to result in resistance (Murray et al., 2010), may take many years to achieve (Bornstein, 2007; Mumford, 2002) and require “thinking like a movement”, involving collaboration with multiple actors with different levels of engagement (Osborn, 2009; PLAN, 2008) and drawing on ideas such as framing (Leadbeater, 2008).

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3 responses

  1. I enjoy reading your posts! We released a book The Power of Social Innovation (www.powerofsocialinnovation.com) this spring in which we address many of your bullets above:

    “Products can be overly elevated over process, limiting both the type of social problems that can be tackled as well as their potential impact.”
    We argue that social innovation can take many forms (a new technology or a realignment of existing actors, an infusion of management expertise or new pipelines for volunteer or donor goodwill), but the unifying characteristic is that it catalyzes change in (or transforms as you write) existing social service delivery systems.

    “Single innovations and their inventors can tend to be privileged over the chains of innovations and collective action associated with systemic change.”
    We try to move beyond the recent literature that highlights individual social entrepreneurs or lessons on running an effective organization, and instead view social innovation through a community- and a system-level lens. We think this will help us better understand how social innovations can become transformative.

    “Social problems may be viewed as acontextual and stable, overlooking how they are constructed out of social interactions with different expressions in particular locations.”
    One of the key lessons we took from speaking with some 100 civic entrepreneurs from the nonprofit, government, business and philanthropic sectors was that the most effective innovations consider the networks that surround individuals—both their social networks and the loose networks of government, nonprofit and other other actors trying to help.

    “A focus on global level solutions may make it difficult to include those that directly experience social problems at the local level.”
    A focus on replicating national or international entrepreneurs often shadows support for identifying and growing local efforts, which have the benefit of not only being closer to individuals but are also more likely to include them as co-producers of their own and their community’s progress.

    “Measurement of activity around the adoption of a novel solution may mask the fact that existing ways of thinking and acting towards the social problem remain intact.”
    We emphasize that overcoming the opposition of existing entrenched systems of actors is the true challenge of any social innovation. The momentum of the status quo could be caused by a natural tendency of growing organizations to focus on sustaining themselves rather than solving underlying problems. It’s also often the result of the costs of change—both the fear of failure and of facing down opposition from incumbents—not outweighing the benefits on an individual or organizational level. Because of this political nature of problem solving, we end up missing the potential benefit to the community as whole.

  2. Thanks such much for this Tim – I really appreciate it. I really enjoyed your book and started to prepare a long list of questions and then stopped :) I wondered if you would be willing to write a short post summarizing what you think is the most important contribution of your book and the sort of questions it raises that could form the basis of a virtual conversation that others might join in with? Completely understand if not possible and thanks again for taking the time to leave a comment on this post.

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