Removing Social Innovation Barriers: Open Innovation

Screen Shot 2013-04-12 at 1.35.45 PMMany governments around the world are exploring ways of shifting the locus of social innovation from a centralized state-led approach to local communities. It makes a lot of sense: It can empower people, utilize local knowledge, create customized solutions and reduce costs. But Dominic Chalmers*, from the University of Strathclyde, argues that this shift would require recognizing some significant barriers.

Social Innovation Barriers

Chalmers’ review of the literature identifies three main barriers to individuals and organizations engaged in social innovation:

  1.  Protectionism and risk aversion – Chalmers states that a prevailing popular assumption that all people share a common homogenous desire to develop optimal solutions to social problems is a naïve one. His review of the literature highlights competing organizational objectives/logics and how privatization policies can reinforce and extend existing silos/domains rather than bridge them. He also believes that the commissioning agents – governments and philanthropists – are predisposed to conservative decision-making and avoid risks so that they favour incremental rather than disruptive innovation.
  2. Problem complexity – the work to tackle complex social problems involves cooperation across multi-stakeholder environments. The literature reveals how difficult this work is in practice as existing organizational structures and cultures are just too rigid. The end result is partial solutions that deal with symptoms and not the systemic root causes.
  3. Networks and collaboration – the literature also highlights the problems for social innovators to make connections to established networks as their issues don’t fit neatly with existing categories.

The net effect, Chalmers warns, may “hasten the ‘fizzling out’” of interest in social innovation and it never realizing its potential.

An Open Innovation Lens

Chalmers argues that these barriers might be overcome by drawing on an “open” paradigm and in particular the study of open innovation (citing writers such as Chesbrough). Researchers have demonstrated how some businesses have benefited from dramatically rethinking their approach to developing new ideas/products. Instead of generating all knowledge in-house, companies that adopt an open innovative approach invest in looking outward, beyond their organizational boundaries, and develop learning networks.  Open innovation is also associated with privileging user involvement – directly involving consumers/customers in new solution development. The overall result for some has been radical innovation. Chalmers recognizes that this literature has been largely focused on multinationals and technology companies but believes that it could help to unlock some of the barriers facing social innovation.

In particular an “open” approach could have the following benefits to those engaged in social innovation:

  •  It could mitigate some of the risks associated with innovation – the work to engage and build diverse networks could reduce social innovators’ isolation and increase their access to new ideas and resources. Chalmers argues against building networks solely for social innovators as he believes that the priority should be on building ties with more diverse and distributed groups. He argues that “if social innovators identify too strongly as social innovators, and develop strong ties to other social innovators at the expense of more diverse and distributed groups, the innovation process may be starved of new knowledge and capabilities”.
  • It could reduce the risk of new innovations failing – drawing on solutions from other domains enables piggybacking off successful solutions in other fields and gaining crucial legitimacy.
  • It could incorporate user knowledge into the innovation process for greater success – co-producing highly customized solutions that genuinely meet the unique needs of the user.
  • It could ensure focus on the root causes of the social problems – the sharing of knowledge across distributed networks offers the potential for a more holistic understanding of the problem.
  • It could enable collective action that is able to challenge vested interests – Chalmers cites the example of Linux.

Chalmers argues that for the interest in social innovation to be realized it will require organizations at the front line to adopt a more “open” approach otherwise they may fail to develop transformative solutions and be less effective than centralized models.

 “Fragmentation of general welfare and social provision to a patchwork of civil society organizations and private providers can be argued in some ways to be more efficient and malleable to highly localized needs, yet there remains a significant risk that it may falter should the traditional closed innovation paradigm remain the dominant logic amongst socially innovative organizations. If the new wave of socially innovative organizations operate as discrete entities, failing in turn to comprehend the complexity and systemic nature of the problems they are attempting to address, then meaningful social progress is less likely than either otherwise under [sic] a more centralized welfare system that has greater oversight and coordinating powers or under a truly open system of collaborating organizations.”


This is a really interesting paper on a number of levels. It engages with a very real problem of policy – i.e. how to develop a social innovation policy for a country or region that doesn’t just create instances of innovation but instead facilitates systemic changes. The paper also highlights how established ways of thinking about innovation can shape how social innovation is interpreted and developed. Chalmers argues that incremental innovation is likely because commissioners (governments and philanthropists) are risk averse and those commissioned to do social innovation are also operating on a traditional closed model. The solution to embrace an open innovation model is a powerful one.

This insight, however, – the combination of social and open innovation – is not a new one to the world of practice and many practitioners and policy makers are exploring how open models of sharing knowledge can create the conditions for more radical innovation.  Chalmers could have made reference to a range of writings/initiatives on this topic (writers such as Charles Leadbeater and initiatives such as the Collective Impact model and the growth of “Change Labs”).

Chalmers may have benefited from distinguishing between open innovation and open source and delving a little more deeply into the literature and exploring ideas around the “commons” which I think is a more fertile ground than the business literature (i.e. writers like Lawrence Lessig and Elinor Ostrom).

I also think that, interestingly, governments and philanthropists, often associated with conservative approaches to innovation, are frequently driving/initiating disruptive ideas. Chalmers could have referenced the growing interest in impact investing and systemic innovation and explored what is driving this interest, e.g. economic constraints, growing expectations/demands, technology, globalization. I think the question may be less about convincing people of the idea of embracing an “open” paradigm and more about understanding its dynamics (strengths and limitations) and how to create the structures and practices that might enable radical social innovation.

Finally, it’s ironic that an article appealing to social innovators to embrace an open paradigm is in a closed journal :). To build a knowledge commons around the field of social innovation will require the academe to embrace an open mindset…and I can’t think of a better topic/subject on which to freely share.

* Chalmers, D. (2013). Social innovation: An exploration of the barriers faced by innovating organizations in the social economy, Local Economy, 28(1), 17-34

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