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 :)