User-driven Social Innovation: Involving young criminals and disadvantaged mothers

Innovation generated by users has in recent years been the subject of considerable interest.  For the most part this has focused on commercial solutions, from mountain-biking to medical equipment. Businesses are encouraged to find ways to develop and integrate the insights of these “creative users” into their products and services.

The advantage of such innovation is that users are so close to the action.  They experience the product at first hand, understand how it works in practice and are the first to experience any problems. This ‘real-life’ knowledge is said to make them particularly well suited to develop new ideas.

In a recent article in the Journal of Social Entrepreneurship*, Peter Svensson and Lars Bengtsson (2010) draw on the idea of user driven innovation in the commercial sector and apply it to explore the organizing of social innovations.

Instead of users who have with issues with products, users are “people with social problems”.  Through this lens they explore two innovations in Stockholm, one shaped by “young criminals”, and the other by “disadvantaged mothers”.

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Social Innovation Inc: Seeking to transform the way businesses approach social change

How businesses should engage with social issues has long been a subject of debate. At one end of the spectrum are those who think businesses have a duty to engage in social issues.  At the other end are those who think that businesses should just worry about making money.  Jason Saul in his new book “Social Innovation Inc: 5 Strategies for driving business growth through social change” argues that both are possible.  But it will require transforming the way most businesses think about social change.

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Complex social problems

For the most part, the reasons why social problems exist are either considered self-evident or left unexplored. But there is one major exception.

The most significant body of work to identify the reasons for social problems draws on complexity theory (Tapsell & Woods, 2008;Westley, 2008; Westley, Zimmerman & Patton, 2006). Through this lens, social problems emerge out of complex interactions between increasingly interconnected systems (Westley, 2008). Social problems are seen as situated in contexts that they shape and by which they themselves are shaped.

The implication is that social problems cannot be falsely extracted from the dynamic network of relationships that influence their causes, effects and how they are understood (Moore & Westley, 2009).  Rather than treating problems as ‘complicated’ challenges amenable to being broken down into fixable components, social problems are complex ones that are

“messier and more ambiguous in nature; they are more connected to other problems; more likely to react in unpredictable non-linear ways; and more likely to produce unintended consequences” (Burns, Cottam, Vanstone & Winhall, 2006, p. 8).

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