Social innovation is everywhere…

Governments are talking about it. Businesses are encouraged to embrace it. Nonprofits are engaging with it. It’s very cool. But what is “social innovation”? There is no agreed definition.  So it can mean quite different things to people who use it. Some claim it is just a fad. A passing phase at best.  A way to obscure a need for social change at worst. But for others social innovation is seen as a legitimate means to tackle and transform previously intractable social problems. For these people the research and practice of social innovation represents one of the most important pursuits on the planet.

But what is social innovation?

Here’s the rub. There is no commonly accepted definition of social innovation (see a list of some of the definitions in the literature). While many definitions share common elements, they often emphasize very different characteristics. Social innovation can mean, for example:

  • the social side of innovations – a way to highlight the creative changes in social arrangements required to adopt and diffuse new technologies;
  • or a very different class of innovation distinct from, and in some cases a reaction to, technical and market-based approaches;
  • or just a motivation to tackle global social problems.

And then there are differences over who does this work. Some view social innovation as something exclusive to nonprofit organizations or social entrepreneurs whereas others see social innovation as open to all. There are also differences in emphasis – some people focus on the technical aspects of a solution whereas others emphasize the importance of process.

The result? An amazingly diverse collection of examples of social innovation in the literature, from community gardens to initiatives to tackle global climate change. While this keeps the field of social innovation inclusive and reflects the complexity of the issues being explored, it means that exploring social innovation is not without its challenges.

Here’s some leading definitions:

A novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just than existing solutions and for which the value created accrues primarily to society as a whole rather than private individuals (Phills et al., 2008).

We define social innovations as new ideas (products, services and models) that simultaneously meet social needs and create new relationships or collaborations. In other words, they are innovations that are both good for society and enhance society’s capacity to act (Murray et al., 2010).

Social innovation is an initiative, product or process or program that profoundly changes the basic routines, resource and authority flows or beliefs of any social system (Westley, 2008).

For a growing list of definitions head here.